Plus ça change …

‘Who would have thought’, asked Admiral Aleksandr Shishkov in his 1803 book Discussion of the Old and New Style of the Russian Language, ‘that, abandoning the firm foundation of our own language established over many centuries, we would begin to recreate it on the meagre basis of the French language? Who would have imagined that we would transfer our well-built house from fertile soil onto barren, swampy land?’

One of the founding fathers of modern Russian nationalism, Shishkov disliked the Russian aristocracy’s habit of using French expressions. Believing that Russia lacked a great literature of its own, he maintained that it would never manage to create one if all it did was imitate foreigners. It needed, he said, to draw on its own native roots. Complaining of the ‘slavish imitation of the French’, Shishkov wrote:

It is very good to follow the path of the great writers, but one must try with all one’s strength to express oneself in one’s own language … Without a knowledge of our own language, we will imitate them in the same manner as parrots imitate humans. … Every people has its own set of discourses and has accumulated its own ideas, and it should express them in its own words, not foreign ones.

Well, as they say, ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, though no doubt Shishkov would have hated that expression, and told me not to use it when I could just as well say in plain English, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ And so they do. In an interview with Komsomolskaia Pravda this week, Roman Doshchinskii, president of the executive committee of the Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature, proposed the creation of a sort of ‘language police’ to protect Russian from a rising tide of foreign words. ‘Not altogether a police, but a competent organ responsible for the norms of the Russian language in the Russian Federation’, he said, adding that he had in mind something similar to the institutions which enforce the use of the national language in France, Estonia, and Latvia.

Like Shishkov, Doshchinskii seems particularly perturbed by his compatriots’ habit of using foreign words, although nowadays the main source is English not French. Recognizing that Russian has borrowed foreign words for centuries, Doshchinskii claims that he doesn’t want to get rid of all of them, merely what he calls ‘barbarisms’: words like ‘Okei, super, respekt, sel’fi’. ‘Super’, he says, could perfectly well be replaced by Russian words like ‘zamechatel’no, prekrasno, udivitel’no’. To deal with cases where obvious replacements don’t exist (for instance, in the realm of technology), Doshchinskii thinks that the Russians should have an official committee, like the one in France, which thinks up native equivalents of English words and expressions.

Not everybody likes this proposal. Vladimir Pakhomov, editor of the Russian grammar website, ‘’, complains that, ‘In general, I am surprised, pained, disturbed even, that whenever we talk about language, or some actions are proposed to do with language, they somehow always have a punitive character – linguistic police, some sort of prohibitions, fines, restrictions, etc. For some reason nobody proposes better education. In other words, don’t forbid or restrict, but educate’.

Shishkov fought a long battle against proponents of the ‘new style’, most notably the historian Nikolai Karamzin. In the end, he lost, and the influx of foreign words continued. The nineteenth century version of globalization proved a more powerful cultural force than Russian nationalism. I suspect that the same is true today. I leave it to Russians to decide whether Doshchinskii or Pakhomov’s approach is better, but I doubt that either would change much.

9 thoughts on “Plus ça change …”

  1. “One of the founding fathers of modern Russian nationalism”

    I don’t understand you, Poul. Can you describe what do you understand by the term “nationalism”? To prevent any future confusion.

    “Doshchinskii thinks that the Russians should have an official committee, like the one in France, which thinks up native equivalents of English words and expressions.”

    I missed the moment when the entire Enlightened Western Public ™ lost their minds and began their awalanche of “deep concern” after the fact, that the French decided to call the “computer” – un “ordinateur”. But Russia – Russia is different! The West is always ready to provide in the wailing and gnashing of teeth department!

    “Shishkov fought a long battle against proponents of the ‘new style’, most notably the historian Nikolai Karamzin. In the end, he lost, and the influx of foreign words continued.”

    Have you read 18 c. (especially – 1/2) Russian documents, letters, momoirs etc? The level of foreign words pollution was even higher. Instead of “ура” – “vivat”, instead of “ваше величество” – “maiestat”, instead of “победа” – “victoria”, etc, etc, etc. 19th Century became the centure when the modern, “classic literature” Russian language took shape and it became a staple for decades to come.

    As for Russia nowaday not experiencing another wave of foreign language pollution – care to translate (for yourself) this exaple of hipster speak?

    “Следующий лекчурер брифовал насчет организации хайтек стартапа широкформатного стриминга через перископ и телеграмм с выводом флоутраффика на айфоны, причем без предоставления референса. Я сванговал, что это вызовет легкий троллинг, бурные дизлайки и расфолловинг, так и произошло. К тому же доклад несколько раз прерывался ловцами покемонов в погоне за редким слоупоком и краби. А IOS-девелоперы и хэштег-программеры, сидящие на бинбэгах рядом со мной, окончательно похоронили стартап выкладками свежих кейсов из Эплстора и сделали неутешительный вывод: «Перетумачил». Докладчику не помог даже неймдроппинг Элизабет Холмс, черная водолазка и демонстративное распитие фруктового фреша из бумажного стаканчика для кофе с логотипом Старбакса. «Я тебя услышал», – только и сказал расстроенный стартапер и с бэдмуд вернулся на свой бинбэг, да и мы были не хеппи.”


    1. I use ‘nationalism’ in this context to refer to a cultural more than a political phenomenon. As such, it derives at least to some extent from German philosophy (Herder etc), and maintains that nations are distinct organic beings, each of which contains within itself some element of the universal truth, and which therefore should develop along their own separate paths, developing that which is most valuable of their own culture. Seen this way, and applied to Russia, nationalism is an assertion of Russia’s distinctiveness from the West, and thus a call for Russia to develop in its own distinct way. This, of course, has political ramifications – calls for sovereignty, denials of universal political and economic truths (democracy, human rights, neoliberal economics, etc), but at heart it is a cultural project. From Shishkov onwards, it evolved in a variety of not always compatible directions – Slavophilism, the pochvenniki, Eurasianism, etc. Note that cultural nationalism of this sort is not the same as ethno-nationalism (‘Russia for the Russians’, etc).

      As for the rest of your reply, Lyttenburgh, you take offence far too easily. I am certainly not defending mangled Anglicised Russian of the sort you provide. I merely express some doubts about whether much can be done to stop it.


      1. “I use ‘nationalism’ in this context to refer to a cultural more than a political phenomenon… Note that cultural nationalism of this sort is not the same as ethno-nationalism (‘Russia for the Russians’, etc).”

        So you differentiate the two. Good. Because the latter is called in Russian “национализм” and the former – “патриотизм”. As examples of Navalny, Maltsev, Dyomushkin and Prosvirin show us one can be a nationalist, but not a patriot.

        So, I have a question – why not use the word “patriotism/patriotic” instead, to avoid any consufion? I’m glad you mention Slavophiles and others who tried to stress the uniqueness of Russian/Slavic culture, history and experience. Here on my desk lays a small book of poetry by Pierre de Ronsard and du Bellay. They, and other members of “Pléiade” were sick and tired of the mainstream fanboyism of the Antiquity’s poets and that anyone was still trying to copy that. They, instead, tried to make something more, well, “French”, despite the fact that France (and the French language as we know it) at the moment was still a work in progress.

        Does it make them (and Chaucer, and Lope de Vega, etc, etc) “nationalists” and “literaterary vatniks”? Or, merely, just the founders of “destinct national” (meaning – country’s) literature? And destinc culture is a must have for any country who wants to remain independant in all meanings of that word.


      2. “Patriotism is something closer to ‘love of country’, and thus not quite the same thing.”

        Patriotism is more than that. You don’t just love your “clay” – you understand the “country” as something more than just a territory, but as combination of (often – different) people living here, their interconnected culture, the way they choose to be governed and interact with the world at large, while keeping themselves distinct.

        Once again – one can be nationalistic but not patriotic. Zionist living in the USA and Zionist living in Israel are both (ethnic) nationalists. But the former might not be a patriot of his resident country, while the later quite often is more patriotic than any given vatnik. At the same time the Jewish state of Israel has within its borders people, who are not ethnically Jewish. One particualr group – Yazidis – proved themselves (especially through military service in the IDF) to be very patriotic, while not particularly nationalistic (although they are not forced to assimilate… neither they want to). As for Palestinians, well… You know.

        The question of how “nationalism” differs from the “patriotism” is a fine one, and just lumping everything you don’t like (or which stands against so-called Universal Human Values ™) into “nationalism” is wrong.


    1. Here in Canada we have the Office québécois de la langue française , which can be quite punitive. But while it represses English in the official sphere (public signs, official documents etc), it can’t control how people actually speak French, and when they do, anglicisms proliferate (‘Mais, j’ai booké cette salle’!). So, the problem is that punitive measures don’t work very well when it comes to changing how people actually speak.


      1. I don’t know about Canada, but I hear in France you must use courriel, ordinateur, etc, while at the office (only a government office? not sure). And indeed this is how people talk…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “it can’t control how people actually speak French, and when they do, anglicisms proliferate”

        And for how long were Anglophones and Francophes living side by side, inadvertantly cross-polinating each other’s language?

        Meanwhile, I can’t remember any significant English speaking diaspora living throughout Russia, so that it’d be possible to “inject” Russian language with any amount of angicisms. Surprisingly enough, the same cannot be said about the French and, to a lesser extent, about the German. We call “sidewalk” a “trottoir“, and “hairdresser” – a “perückenmacher” (even if this word fell into disuse in the Germany).

        Neither you or me are professional linguists. But one thing is apparent to me – there is a reason why some borrowed words stick and remain in use for ages to come, while others are forgotten. And in each and every country’s case it’s a unique process.


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