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Russia: A 'Yofikator' Campaigns To Save A Forgotten Letter

A graphic from Chumakov's book on the history of the Russian alphabet (RFE/RL) MOSCOW, February 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In a corner of his tiny flat in the north of Moscow, Viktor Chumakov has set up a shrine to a forgotten letter.

There he proudly exhibits bottles of Zhigulyovskoye beer, a menu from the Yoksel Moksel restaurant in St. Petersburg, and a label from a bottle of Tyoma milk -- all of which bear the 'ё' (pronounced "yo").

Odd Character

Since he retired as an engineer, Chumakov has made it his mission in life to save the humble seventh letter of the Russian alphabet from extinction.

"My job is to resurrect the letter 'ё' in all written works -- in every newspaper, every magazine, every book," he says. "It's high time we did this. There's nothing stopping us."

According to Chumakov, a great-grandfather with twinkling eyes and a broad grin, the letter 'ё' came late to the Russian alphabet, appearing in 1795. After that, Russian children were well aware of the difference between "nebo" [the sky] and "nyobo" [the roof of one's mouth], and "soliter" [diamond] and "solityor" [tapeworm].

After Josef Stalin came to power, he introduced an informal decree that made it compulsory to use the letter 'ё'.

Chumakov has coined the phrase 'yofikator', or champion of the letter 'ё', to describe himself.

"The war came and everything had to be absolutely accurate," Chumakov explains. "For example, if you were sent to a village called 'Beryozova', then it was 'Beryozova'. 'Berezova' would be somewhere completely different. If you needed to see a General Ognev, then he would be an entirely different person from General Ognyov. So in a whole host of places the letter 'ё' was indispensable."

But after Stalin's death, the 'ё' largely dropped out of use, partly because printers, using the old presses, were keen to cut costs by leaving off the two dots. Today, lead presses have made way for computers, which let you print a 'ё' at the touch of a button.

All the same, very few newspapers have bothered to reinstate the 'ё'. Svetlana Lyuboshets, the letters editor at "Moskovsky komsomolets," says there is no need for the two dots above the letter 'e', because everyone knows the difference.

"Anyone who reads Russian won't read the word as 'yelka', but 'yolka' [Christmas tree]," Lyuboshets says. "No one will read it as 'yezhik', they'll read it as 'yozhik' [hedgehog], and they'll know that the article they're reading is about hedgehogs."

Colorful Language

Part of the reason for the demise of the letter 'ё' could be because of its unsavory associations with Russian 'mat' -- the colorful language within a language that constitutes Russian swear words. Very few words begin with 'ё' in Russian, and most of the ones that do would make a sailor blush.

Chumakov, says: "Printing 'e' instead of 'ё' is a mistake!"

But Chumakov says he is not deterred by the letter's reputation -- he has written three books on the history of the 'ё' and a dictionary of words that contain the letter. To date, there are 12,500 ordinary words and 2,500 surnames. And he didn't include a single curse. He says the letter 'ё' is expressive and emotive, and others have agreed with him.

"[Vladimir] Nabokov, in his autobiography 'Drugiye Berega' ['Other Shores'], gave colors to all the different letters of the alphabet," Chumakov notes. "And he said that he imagined the letter 'ё' was orange. So, for example, the expression 'yolki palki!' [Russian expression similar to fiddlesticks] has an orange tinge to it! Do you see what I mean?!"

Yolki Palki is also the name of one of Moscow's most popular fast-food outlets, and a rare example of a 'ё' appearing on a sign.

Persistent To The Letter

Every week, Chumakov writes dozens of letters to newspaper editors, and in some cases, his persistence has paid off. The newspapers "Sovetskaya Rossia," "Literaturnaya gazeta," and "Argumenty i fakty" have all now reintroduced the letter 'ё'.

The cities of Ulyanovsk and Perm have erected monuments to the letter 'ё', and the president's speech writers made sure to dot their 'e's in President Vladimir Putin's Christmas speech after Chumakov contacted them.

Chumakov has even coined the phrase 'yofikator', or champion of the letter 'ё', to describe himself.

Back at his flat, Chumakov is leafing through a newspaper which recently ran an article suggesting that the 'ё' was surplus to requirements. He shakes his head. No other country would treat its alphabet so badly, he says sadly; which is why he intends to keep badgering publishers and politicians until every 'ё' is given its dots back.

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