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29 June 2012

Good news for the Russian language

In Russia a new world is being created, no matter how much
some prominent people want to relive the safer glories of the past
On 16 May the BBC website carried a story entitled “Italian University Switches to English” in which the Polytechnic of Milan, one of the country’s leading educational institutionsuniversities, was reported as having announced that from 2014 most of its degree courses, including all graduate courses, were going to be conducted in English.
     “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the university believes that if it remains Italian-speaking it risks isolation and will be unable to compete as an international institution,” said the Rector, Giovanni Azzone.
     The university wants to be in the midst of the international “market for ideas” and those ideas are being traded in English today. “I would have preferred if Italian were the common language. It would have been easier for me. But we have to accept real life,” the Rector said.
     What is interesting in this regard is the fact that in 2000 a large group of Italian members of parliament met to protest about the fact that in the latest edition of the authoritative Italian dictionary, Devoto-Oli, there were 4,000 words for which Italian equivalents had not been found. It is not surprising that politicians take the line of patriotic impracticability, while academics take the line of practical utility. Universities have to survive. In corrupt political systems like the Italian, survival depends on mouthing the right platitudes rather than doing the right things. That may be at least part of the reason why Russian politicians, in an even more corrupt system, talk the way they do. Sadly such attitudes are not confined to politics, which is one of the reasons why there is not a single Russian university ranked in the international top 100. They are run by polticians.
     Russian business, however, is quite different, at least at the independent non-oligarchic end of the commercial spectrum. I recently went to a small-business seminar in Moscow at which I heard an enormous number of neologisms (as they would be called in English: newly created words). I list below some of them that are not in my big Russian dictionary, edited by A.M. Taube and R.C. Daglish, published by Russky Yazik Media in 2004 (which means they must be very new). I reproduce them phonetically. Maybe I heard them wrongly, and maybe others would spell the words differently. But there can be no “correct” spelling for entirely new words. These are some of them:

Релевaнтный роль  –  relevant role
Карир фраймуорк  –  career framework
Кост-эффишент практики  –  cost-efficient practice
Саймтайм  –  sametime (simultaneous?)
Флексибл мэнэджмент  –  flexible management
Текнолоджи-байсд  –  technology-based
Куалити тайм  –  quality time
Нетуорк  –  network
Модератор  –  moderator
Фасилитатор  –  facilitator
Пипл каультюр  –  people culture
Интродауктори коурсэз  –  introductory courses
Ултра супер плюс  –  ultra super plus

     The message I take from this and other similar experiences is that, despite all the deadening efforts of Russia’s politicians and university administrations, the language spoken by the ordinary Russian is alive, and is developing and adapting itself to the modern world. This is the way English developed, without any plan, borrowing words and phrases from anywhere the users felt like. It is the only way for any language to survive in a world of constant change. Russian, I am glad to say, looks as if it has that instinct too.
     Paradoxically, when MGU follows the example of the Milan Polytechnic and switches to English, it will show that Russia is getting serious about meeting the modern world on its own terms. That will be when the country discovers a genuine future. Strange to say, tht will be when the Russian language will start to make an international comeback.


  1. The word роль (role) can be found in any dictionary, and it is feminine, so it should be релевантная роль.

    Also, модератор (as a technical term) was adopted long time ago.

  2. Ian,

    I would definitely argue with the statement that there cannot be a correct spelling for new words. Words adopted from English are transliterated according to well established rules (and must be declined accordingly too).

    For instance, "релевантный" (relevant), "релевантность" (relevance) are widely used and have entries in modern dictionaries. So "релевантнАЯ роль" sounds quite appropriate. Модератор is another common word in internet forums.

    As for the rest of your examples, they sound dumb and didn't really need to be transliterated/adopted. People making use of such words usually have some flaws in their knowledge of Russian. I cannot justify saying "флексибл" instead of "гибкий" otherwise. I suspect they do it to seem smarter, but in fact sound silly instead.

  3. There are plenty of words in Russian that came from other languages; most of them of French origin, some of Tatarian or Turkish, some of German origin.
    Indeed, there are plenty of them that were borrowed from English. Yong Russian people like to use english words, though there are simple Russian equivalents, just to sound more important, modern and serious, but all the same they just sound more pompous to me.

    1. You missed the whole point of the post

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