Arts, Culture & Media

Russian leaders have tinkered with their alphabet for centuries, but with the letter ё, they have a fight on their hands

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Sara/Flickr

The most controversial letter in the Russian alphabet is the letter ё, or yo.

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Fans of the letter call themselves Yoficators. They even have a theme song set to the music of Russian rock icon Viktor Tsoy. Why does a letter have a fan club? Because some people think yo has got to go.

Yo’s shaky status has to do with it being a relatively late addition to the Russian alphabet, dropped in at the end of the 1700s. As Yaroslav Gorbachov, Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Chicago, tells me, “(yo) really never took off as an independent letter. It has always remained sort of the shady companion of the letter ye.”

Yo is really the Cyrillic letter ye, which looks just like the English letter e, only with a diacritic — that is, two dots — on top. Confused? Well, trust me, you’re even more confused when natives casually omit those two dots, turning a name like “Gorbachov” into “ Gorbachev.”

But Russians have only gotten lazy about dotting their yos since the 1950s. Before that, both the letter yo and the essentially non-Western nature of the alphabet, had a powerful backer: Josef Stalin.

In 1930, Stalin signed an edict that protected yo

“It was a secret document, it was not to be published," says Professor Gorbachov. Stalin's intention was to get Russians to stop Latinizing the script. ”He also decreed that yo be put to use every time it’s there in the pronunciation.”

For the 3% of Russians whose names contain yo, not having Stalin around anymore to enforce a standard protocol is causing massive bureaucratic headaches. People have been denied passports and had their citizenship revoked, they’ve been unable to legally divorce and prove their children are theirs — all because of ye/yo discrepancies on official documents. But unlike Stalin, Russia’s current strongman is remaining silent on the issue.

“I don’t think Putin is behind this. He probably doesn’t care about the alphabet would be my guess.” Gorbachov instead blames the problem on “super-eager local bureaucrats who want to be holier than the pope.”

Of course, getting rid of yo would bring Russian one step closer to the English alphabet. East vs. West — the linguistic tug of war has been going on for centuries. Russia’s dual impulse to be embraced by the West while remaining distinctly Slavic is literally etched into the alphabet. Starting with legendary font-designer, Peter the Great.

“He was out to Westernize the country," says Gorbachov. "[Peter the Great] had realized how far behind Russia had fallen in terms of education, in terms of technology, and all these things. And he literally sat down and picked out characters that looked more Roman than Cyrillic in the Cyrillic alphabet.”

The Russian alphabet was adapted from Greek, a radically different language, leaving a lot of extra wood to chop. But when Peter axed redundant letters, he was denounced as the anti-Christ by religious conservatives, who accused him of changing the very meaning of the Bible. 

Another even more controversial modernization proposed by the last czar actually took decades to implement, finally rammed through by the Bolsheviks in 1917. It incensed language snoots — you know, the kind of people who view linguistic misdemeanors as crimes against humanity. They felt Russian was being reduced to the 20th century equivalent of chatspeak.

The monument to 'yo' in Ulyanovsk, Russia
Credit:

City of Ulyanovsk

The monument to 'yo' in Ulyanovsk, Russia

In 2005, the city of Ulyanovsk — birthplace of that most famous of Bolsheviks, Lenin himself — unveiled a monument to yo in honor of the local historian who first popularized the rogue letter. But that monument triggered protests, too, which brings us to the other reason Russians love yo.

“My guess is that the letter is so popular because a very obscene word begins with this letter," says Gorbachov. "And Russians, we like krepkaya slova, you know — a curse word. So people are amused by having this letter around. There may be other reasons, but that’s probably the principal reason.”

Given that Vladimir Putin recently passed a law banning the use of curse words in Russian films, plays and print media, one can only wonder; will yo end up a victim of modernity or propriety?

Or maybe Russia will end up keeping yo, and keeping it weird.

 

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