31 May 2015

Keeping the language pure

The French have always been pretty ruthless in their defence of their language, while we have cravenly accepted every incursion from America. When I first started studying Russian (and it has been an extremely slow start: after 35 years it is barely under way, though now I have adopted the inverse of the Putin method, listening to Машина Времени songs, there has been a distinct ускорение, or acceleration, a term used along with перестройка and гласность, two Russian words which almost became loan words in English back in the eighties) I was fascinated by some of the loan words it had adopted. Воксал is particularly impressive, adopting as the generic term the name of one railway station which evidently made a deep impression on some Russian railway entrepreneurs on a visit to London (but why Vauxhall? Oh, Wikipedia suggests that it's more complicated than that - how interesting). And when I first encountered the word карандаш (pencil) I was actually unaware of the Swiss company pencil manufacturer Caran d'Ache: but until now I had remained even more unaware, if you understand my meaning, that the company had adopted the name of a cartoonist who had taken as his pen-name the Russian word for "pencil", duly transliterated. And he was born in Moscow, the grandson of a French officer wounded at Borodino who stayed in Russia while the Grande Armée struggled home - who must have had an interesting story to tell. So that's a multiple-loan word. Another French example also springs to mind, which I spotted on my first visit to Russia on a street stall selling rather garish landscape paintings: пейзаж (paysage).

Now a proposed law would make it an offence, punishable by fines that vary according to whether the offender acts as a private individual, an official or a legal entity, for using a loan word (or a foreign word which hasn't yet truly been borrowed, I suppose) where there is a perfectly good Russian one. It sounds like a task that calls for a Canute to demonstrate its impossibility, unfortunately. It's amusing to see signs for Макдоналдс and Пицца Хат, but it would be sad if every street in Moscow came to look like every English high street, dominated by American franchises.

The best thing about this worthy initiative, though, is that it comes from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalist Либерально-Демократическая Партия России (Liberal'no-Demokraticheskaya Partiya Rossii, the sense of which I am confident you can guess, and which we would recognise in British terms as neither Liberal nor Democratic) - which one might fairly call the Loan Words Party. (But actually, it changed its name a few years ago, officially replacing the loan-words with their initials).

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