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First Russia bans US adoptions. Are English words next?

An ultranationalist party has proposed a bill to ban about 100 English words – like 'killer' and 'sale' – that it says are 'cluttering' the Russian language. Language experts are dubious.

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Flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Russian Liberal Democratic Party, addresses his supporters in this Feb. 2008 file photo. Mr. Zhirinovsky has proposed a ban on about 100 English words that he says are 'cluttering' the Russian language.

Mikhail Metzel/AP/File

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With anti-foreign sentiments riding high in Russia this political season, the flamboyant leader of the Duma's ultranationalist wing, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, is proposing a dramatic new measure to curb outside influence: a ban on about 100 English words that are allegedly subverting the Russian language.

"We want to minimize the usage of foreign words when they have ready Russian substitutes at hand," says Vladimir Ovsyannikov, deputy head of the Duma caucus of Mr. Zhirinovsky's party, the misleadingly-named Liberal Democratic Party.

"We cannot bear to watch how our language is becoming cluttered up with foreign words, while perfectly good Russian words are being shunted aside," he adds.

The bill the party plans to submit to the Duma in the coming days would impose heavy fines for journalists, politicians, and educators who use Anglicisms like "killer," instead of the Russian word "ubiytsa," or the very vogue term for a bribe taker, "korruptsioner," instead of the old Russian word "vzyatochnik."  In repeat cases, offenders could lose their jobs.

The proposal has brought snorts of scorn from language specialists, even some who say they're worried about the degradation of the spoken Russian language.

"What Zhirinovsky says is stuff and nonsense. There is not a grain of rational sense in it," says Lev Skvortsov, a Russian language professor at the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow.

"You can't forbid something in a language, it's impossible.... But, speaking of foreign borrowings, one can't agree to them all. Russian has become littered with unnecessary foreign words.... The problem here is one of speech culture and education, and that's how the issue should be discussed."

Zhirinovsky has laid out his colorful argument in a web page on his party's official site entitled "Rid the Russian language of garbage!"

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"We have often drawn attention to the fact that our media is constantly using these foreign words," Zhirinovsky says. "We are fed up, tortured by these Americanisms, Anglicisms.... We have excellent Russian words. Why say "dealer" when we have "posrednik," or "performance" instead of "predstavleniya"? All over the city you see [signs that say] "sale," "sale," "sale." Soon they'll even be forcing us to use the English pronunciation," he adds.

Russia's State Duma has already voted through serious legislation to force NGOs with outside funding to wear a label that says "foreign agent," and to ban all adoptions of Russian orphans by US citizens.

Last September the Kremlin unceremoniously booted the US Agency for International Development out of Russia after accusing it of interfering in domestic Russian politics.

But even Mr. Ovsyannikov says he isn't sure the main force in the Duma, the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, is ready to back a bill that would enforce criminal penalties on those who muddy Russian speech with impure foreign words.

"I'm sure the Communists will support us, but I can't say about the others," he says. "In any case, we're triggering a public discussion about the issue, and that's already a good result."

Specialists say it's a fool's errand that shouldn't be allowed to clutter up the Duma's agenda.

"Borrowed foreign words begin to live by the rules of the new language, and this process cannot be stopped by some subjective force.... These issues should only be discussed from the standpoint of common sense," says Viktor Molchanovsky, deputy head of the Pushkin State Institute of the Russian Language in Moscow.

"Zhirinovsky's proposal is extravagant, but no one can change the objective process that's going on. A language develops according to its own laws, it regulates itself. What he is calling for cannot actually be achieved," he adds.

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