Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

'Teenageri' Don't Care, but Moscow Mayor Wants to Cut Use of English

The mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has had enough of the supermarkets, shops, and mini-markets that have popped up all over the Russian capital.

Barely five years after the demise of official socialism, he has ordered an end to this phenomenon. But these businesses will not be closing their doors - just changing their signs.

About these ads

The mayor is not engaged in an economic war but a war of words: Russian words versus foreign encroachment, almost all of it from American English. He has decreed that "supermarket" become gastronom, "drugstore" become apteka, and "home center" become vsyo dlya doma (everything for the home).

Mayor Luzhkov, who takes a keen interest in the appearance of his city, has long been concerned that it look sufficiently Russian. A year ago, he decreed that Russian script on signs for shops or restaurants must be at least twice the size of foreign script. The new decree intends to make it clear to Russians, in familiar Russian words, what a store sells.

Like the French defenders of linguistic purity that chased alleged barbarisms such as "le parking" from the language of Voltaire, the mayor has some local support in his battle.

"Of course, Moscow, as the face of Russia, should have all the national symbols that reflect the country," says engineer Valentin Samykin as he waits in the rain outside a metro station. "So Luzhkov's effort to Russify signs has some basis."

After all, he notes, people no longer read classical literature in Russian. "They read signs," he says.

Linguist Larissa Moukrova of the Plekhanov Institute concurs: "Without a doubt, Russian is under threat in the last five years. It's not normal when in the premier city of such a big country as Russia, where millions of Russians live, there are signs in the street in foreign languages, most of all English."

Younger Muscovites, as a rule, are not quite so worked up about the matter. "English is creeping into Russian at just the rate it should be," says teenager Yura Stroilev, who picks up a lot of English tekkie jargon working with computers.

About these ads

For 16-to-35-year-olds, says Lena Nekonkina, marketing manager for the BBDO advertising agency in Moscow, Latin script and foreign words connote high quality and style.

Older Russians, however, don't often know what a "supermarket" is, and they often associate Latin script on products with the inferior goods they used to see from Turkey and China during the Soviet era.

This age divide over language is just another deepening of the split in Russian society between those who are adapting to the brave new world of bureaucratic capitalism and the many who are not, Ms. Moukrova says.

This brings up another difference between the venerable Russian gastronom and the supermarket.

"They're two different things," laughs Yelena Uvarova, a university student. "A gastronom is a place that's huge and empty. When the gastronom is full, they call it a supermarket."

Likewise, she calls herself a "teenager" because the Russian word podrostok has been estranged to her ear by its use in pious Soviet-era speeches about youths and the future.

There is an irony about this effort to hold the line against foreign intrusions, however. Gastronom is a word brought from the French in the early 19th century, as is the Russian magazin, which is to replace the English "shop." Another French borrowing, for that matter, is Mayor Luzhkov's own title: Mer.

On the other hand, Russian may not be so threatened. Some of the popular Americanisms of 10 or 15 years ago - shoozi for footwear and geerla for a young woman - are hopelessly unhip now and have disappeared from the lips of teenageri.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.