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Russia: Is The Writing On The Wall For Russian Media's Bad Grammar?

Russian officials are considering imposing penalties for the improper use of the Russian language. If adopted as law, members of Russia's mass media could be fined for mangling the language. Is such a system necessary, and could it work?

Prague, 9 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- If Russian government officials have their way, overuse of certain borrowed words -- and improper use of the Russian language -- could soon spell trouble for the Russian media.

Russia's linguistic experts are worried about falling standards and the overuse of foreign words where Russian equivalents would be more appropriate. In late March, the Council on Russian Language, set up by Russian President Vladimir Putin, proposed introducing a system of "punitive measures" for language violations. These have yet to be unveiled, but Education Minister Vladimir Filippov said they could include fines.

In the meantime, Filippov told Interfax, the Council has asked a group of Russian experts to appeal to newspaper editors to pay more attention to proper language use and to hire more proofreaders.

The news has provoked some mirth among the profession they are targeting. "If TV stars are fined for their mistakes, it will ruin them," said one article in "Komsomolskaya Pravda." "But at least correspondents might learn to call an incident an 'intsident' and not an 'intsindent.' And it would be useful to learn the correct stress on 'nachalsya' [he/it began]. Depending on the imagination of the television star, viewers are getting the impression that it's either on the first or second syllable, but not where it should be -- on the last syllable."

A "Noviye Izvestia" article said that if politicians were fined for mangling their mother tongue, many of them would have been ruined a long time ago.

Yuri Arpishkin, from the culture desk of the Moscow daily "Vremya MN," said: "I just don't think they should bother with this at all, in general. It's a strange kind of activity. I don't understand what they can achieve by doing this."

Arpishkin dismisses Filippov's claims that language standards are falling partly because proofreaders have been laid off at many media companies to save costs. And he says fines are not the right way to improve the situation. "It's really difficult to combat it this way. It's obvious that fines will not help. Grammar and literacy have to be learned. You can't [improve it] through imposing fines."

One newspaper headline even described the proposals as a way for authorities to apply more pressure on the media. Arpishkin says talk of fines does arouse some suspicion, given what he calls the "peculiar" state of press freedom in Russia.

Proponents of Russian language standards -- including Filippov -- say they're basing their system on France's efforts to promote and protect the French language. But those attempts have had mixed success. France's 1994 "Toubon" law had imposed sanctions on those who abused the language, but was watered down after some of its key elements were ruled unconstitutional.

French must be used in social, commercial, and intellectual life, and a specially formed commission is tasked with finding equivalents for frequently used non-French terms like "weekend" -- five words in French, "la fin de la semaine."

The Academie Francaise also periodically updates its language "code" with public pronouncements about safeguarding the purity of the French language in various areas. But no one has been fined for language violations, and the campaign has not notably reduced the use of foreign-language phrases in French.

Sergei Goncharenko, a professor and top official at Moscow's State Linguistics University, said there are some occasions when it makes sense to use borrowed words, especially when they can aid understanding. But he says some foreign words are simply absurd to anyone with a feeling for the Russian language, such as when members of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, are referred to as "senators."

"This is just confusing because in those countries where this exists, it's understood to be an elected position. Here it's not. They [used to be] just governors, heads of regional governments, who automatically became members of the upper chamber. And they were called senators. [Now] it's just representatives appointed by [top] local officials. They are not elected. So to give them the name 'senator' is absurd."

But there might be good news for the nation's embattled hacks. Goncharenko says he believes the fines, if approved, are likely to be only symbolic. "The point is more to have a kind of moral public reprimand for a person who is in a high position in the country, and at the same time is too lazy to look at a dictionary. Russian is one of those languages where even the most refined writer or poet should from time to time glance at a pronunciation dictionary. Rules change and sometimes the stress on a word jumps and even pronunciation changes sometimes, but nonetheless."

The idea is to include the measure as part of a bill on the status of Russian as the country's state language, which is coming up for discussion in the State Duma sometime in May.

Presumably, it will be the "spiker" (speaker) who announces the exact date -- or perhaps, as the language purists would prefer, we should say the "chairman of the State Duma."

(RFE/RL correspondent Joel Blocker contributed to this report.)