Russian Language: Debunking Myth

Top 10 Countries with Russian-Speaking Population

Why learn the Russian language? Why not Spanish, Chinese, or Hindi? I find it increasingly more difficult to present convincing arguments for learning Russian as a second language today.

It's true that Russian remains one of the main world languages. In addition, it is a language of international communication on the post-Soviet territory and an official or working language of many international and intergovernmental organizations in which Russia has membership.

However, if we look at the situation with the Russian language in the world, we'll see some disturbing tendencies. First of all, in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and Baltic countries, where Russian is a native language for a considerable proportion of the population, there is limitation of the use of Russian and a decrease in opportunities to receive schooling in Russian. A considerable decrease in the Russian language studies is characteristic of the countries outside of the CIS too.

Besides the Russian Federation, the Russian language has the state language status only in one country, Belarus, where, according to the Belarusian Constitution, there are two state languages – Belarusian and Russian. In Kyrgyzstan, Russian has the status of an official language. In the south-eastern regions of Ukraine, it has been approved as regional language.

The number of Russians and Russian speakers in the CIS, Baltic countries, Georgia and countries of Central Asia has been gradually decreasing recently. However, the Russian-speaking population increases in Germany, Israel and the USA, mainly due to a wave of immigration that hit the post-Soviet territory in the 1990s.

In 2002, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation prepared The Russian Language in the World Report (in Russian) that covered the Russian language situation in 140 countries of the world. According to this Report, the largest number of people who speak Russian lives in the following countries:

Ukraine – 37 mln (80% of population)

Uzbekistan – 17 mln (70%)

Kazakhstan – 12.6 mln (85%)

Belarus – 8 mln (80%)

Germany – 6 mln (6%)

Azerbaijan – 5.5 mln (70%)

Bulgaria – 5 mln (70%)

Moldova – 3.5 mln (100%)

Armenia – 2.7 mln (70%)

Turkmenistan – 2.5 mln (70%)

Interactive map of Russia - languages, regions, photos, and descriptions.

Great and Powerful?

Ivan Turgenev, a well-known Russian writer of the 19th century, once wrote:

"In days of doubt, in days of painful thought on the destiny of my native land, thou alone are my comfort and support, O great, powerful Russian tongue, truthful and free!” (“Во дни сомнений, во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины — ты один мне поддержка и опора, о великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный русский язык!")

A language is a system of marking the reality, a tool of naming facts, properties and processes that take place in the reality.The more aspects of the reality a language can mark, the better for people speaking this language. Therefore, to remain great and powerful, a language must be able to respond to all phenomena of life and constantly broaden the vocabulary with new notions. How does the Russian language cope with this task?

It is evident that different languages, depending on peculiarities of life of peoples speaking these languages, reflect different sides of life either in detail or scarcely. A textbook example is dozens of names for snow in languages of peoples whose main business is deer-raising. After all, the quality of snow has the paramount importance for this business because it is the snow quality that determines the possibility or impossibility of moving, getting food, arranging dwelling units and even preserving life of both people and animals.

Here is another example. When Russia was a socialist country and did not have market relations in the economy, the Russian languages almost did not have notions/words describing the market economy.

According to very rough estimates, modern dictionaries of the literary English language contain about 400 thousand words, German - 250 thousand, while Russian - 150 thousand. It becomes clear that Russian lags behind other world languages by the quantity of words and, what is more important, by the rate of broadening of its vocabulary in recent decades.

The idea that Russian was almost an ideal language for communication was subconsciously knocked into heads of many generations of Soviet schoolchildren. For example, many Soviet schoolchildren had to learn by heart the following quotation:

"Charles V, the Roman emperor, used to say that one ought to talk Spanish with God, French with one’s friends, German with one’s enemies, and Italian with women. But if he had known Russian, he would certainly have added that one could speak it appropriately to all of them. For he would have found in it the majesty of Spanish, the vivacity of French, the strength of German, the tenderness of Italian, and, besides these, the richness and the concision, so vigorous in its imagery, of the Greek and Latin tongues."

"Карл Пятый, римский император, говаривал, что ишпанским языком с Богом, французским — с друзьями, немецким — с неприятельми, италианским — с женским полом говорить прилично. Но если бы он российскому языку был искусен, то, конечно, к тому присовокупил бы, что им со всеми оными говорить пристойно, ибо нашёл бы в нём великолепие ишпанского, живость французского, крепость немецкого, нежность италианского, сверх того богатство и сильную в изображениях краткость греческого и латинского языков."

(M. Lomonosov)

Today, the Russian language, with all its evident and incontestable merits, by no means is an ideal instrument for representing the reality. It does not produce enough aboriginal Russian words to adapt to the ever-changing world.

As is well known, many phenomena, which are new to Russia, are named with the help of loan words or loan roots. It is a sore point especially in the field of the newest natural science terminology and in the banking/financial sector too. Russian scientists and economists either just write English words with Russian letters or translate them literally.

In this connection one can't help recalling words of a Russian poet who has said that the Russian language is like a rich man who stores bars of gold in his vault, but often doesn’t have a few kopecks to pay a cabman…so he has to borrow from the first comer even against his will.

The Russian Language in the World Report, which is mentioned above, shows that Russian authorities make a point of the quantitative dissemination of the Russian language in the world. And it is right and understandable. The more people in the world use Russian, the better for the Russian economy, policy and culture.

However, for the Russian language to remain as great and powerful in the 21st century as it has been in the 19th century, Russian authorities and people should pay more attention to the quality of the modern literary Russian language.

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_____________________________________________________________________ Website owner: Irina Lychak, self-employed freelance linguist, Russian translator, Ukrainian translator, Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine

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