The Russian Spelling Reform of 1917/18 – Part I (History)
[opening music] Let’s play a little game, shall we? I’ll ask you one simple question, and the only thing that you’ll have to do is to give the answer to said question. “…That’s the whole point of a question”, I hear you thinking, and even though you’d be correct… Y-you would be right. Um. Yeah. Anyway, are you ready? Er- Here we go. Yay. So, what crucial event happened in Russia back in 1917? Something that would forever change the country; Something huge, something incredibly important, something… New? Well, I’ll just give you a few seconds to think about that And meanwhile, here’s a picture of a Labrador duck. And “why a Labrador duck?”, you might ask “What does this have to do with the video at hand?” That’s actually a great question, because: did you know that there’re actually over 80 known breeds of ducks? And the problem is that the number of breeds might actually be a lot smaller? ‘Cause some ducks haven’t been seen for many years (like the duck in this specific picture, that hasn’t been spotted since 1878, which is a long time now, think about it…) Um, anyway, back to the topic at hand. If your answer was… [national anthem of the Soviet Union:]
Союз нерушимый- [blowing party horn]
You’d technically be correct, but also not really correct, because it’s not the answer to this specific question; If you read the title, however, you probably have answered: The Great Russian Spelling Reform of 1917 So, what was the reform about? How did it come to be? What did happen? What changes took place? Why? Where? Why? How? And many other question words will be covered in this video. Quick disclaimer before we start though, just so y’all know: I’m not a Russian native speaker. I know it’s a huge surprise, but I’m not. So, please excuse my terrible pronounciation and try to look through the terrible humor, and hopefully, you’ll learn something. — ИСТОРИЯ —
ʜɪꜱᴛᴏʀʏ So, let us first clarify what an orthographic reform—also known as a spelling reform—actually is. Well, a spelling reform is an active, deliberate, mandated change to the spelling rules of a specific language, Or, simply put, a change in the way one spells words. There are multiple reasons why the language institution of a country might consider implementing such a reform, But it usually boils down to making spelling more regular or contemporary, Often with the goal of increasing the literacy rate of a population. This can be done by decreasing the amount of etymological, or non-phonetic spelling, In other words, matching the spelling of words with how people speak rather than how they spoke. This is what causes English words to be impossible to reliably read at first glance. Other reasons might include: politics, international relations, or even æsthetics. Not everyone will agree with such a reform, though. Opposition to reform happens when people either: don’t want to learn a new system, don’t like abandoning tradition, or don’t like rendering old literature obsolete. All of this makes passing a reform pretty challenging. [jingle from The More You Know
…but riddled with false notes] Okay, but what about Russian then? Well, Russian orthography is no stranger to reform With the adoption of Cyrillic by the Old East Slavic tribes in the 10th century came the adoption of the South Slavic writing standard, Which, by this time, differed from the Old Russian vernacular language. As time progressed, gradual changes—although usually conservative in nature—were introduced, One of the most important and radical ones being the loss of the two Yuses—big Yus (Ѫ, большой Юс) and little Yus (Ѧ, малый Юс)— That already lost their nasal quality by the Old Russian period. Over the next few centuries, The vernacular kept evolving, but writing stayed relatively faithful to tradition. This tradition enforced maintaining the original spelling, but caused bigger and bigger problems for its users, Who basically had to learn a completely new language to even be able to write. It was these problems, combined with the second wave of South Slavic influence in the 1300s, And the subsequent third wave in the 1650s, That led to a state of diglossia and linguistic unrest in the territory we now call Russia. So, “did it stay this way?”, I hear you asking. …Yeah, it did. [roll credits] [except not] No, no it- No, it didn’t. Um- Moving on! The first huge codified change happened back in 1708, Issued by none other than God-Emperor Peter the Great himself. Peter was an adamant supporter of a more Western, technologically advanced Russia, And, after partying across Europe for a few years, He started purging everything back home that he deemed wasn’t Western enough, One of these changes being the old Cyrillic writing standard. His reforms infuriated a lot of traditionalists—especially the clergy—some of which went as far as calling him the Antichrist, But Peter… didn’t really care, though. Influenced by his Western European advisors, He eventually pushed for the creation of a new script: One that he called the “гражда́нский шрифт”, known as the “civil script” in English. Although it was presented as a compromise between the old traditional semi-uncial standard and a complete Enlightened Western overhaul …It really wasn’t. The reform removed all the previously used diacritics, Several letters that serve no secular or phonetic purpose, And letters that were only used in transcribing words of Greek origin. Basically, a lot changed. Much more can be said about this reform (and I would love to do so), But it’ll have to be in a future video. Despite Peter’s orthographic reform, and its subsequent updates, Spelling remained pretty chaotic, and to a certain degree, arbitrary throughout the 18th and a large part of the 19th century. The rules were there, but not really, ‘Cause… Should we use И, or І, Or, should we use both, but in completely different situations, even though they represent the same sound and don’t differ etymologically? Hmm. Yeah, it sounds great. Several attempts at standardization happened in the following years, The main one being the publication of the first edition of Yakov Grot’s manual “Русское правописаніе”, in 1885. This manual attempted and to a certain degree succeeded at standardizing Russian orthography, Dealing with topics ranging from spelling to grammar. Most of his orthographic rules persist in the convoluted but consistent Russian spelling conventions of today, Especially in the choice of which vowel to use, based on palatalization of the preceding consonant. Although back then, his word gained acceptance in most schools and among the nobility, It sadly had no official authority and wasn’t universally recognized By the beginning of the 20th century, a number of institutions were working for reform. The main one being the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Chaired by Alexei Shakhmatov, founder of the historical study of the Russian language Shakhmatov and his crew decided to set up the Commission on the question of Russian orthography, Which consisted of representatives of the Academy, school teachers, journalists, and writers. They agreed unanimously that simplification of the orthography was desirable, but were faced with a dilemma, though. Namely, should a new potential orthography be more phonetic, Whereby every symbol should correspond to a single phoneme or sound? A good example of this being the preposition “в”, which in Russian can be realized as both [v] before voiced sounds, as in “в доме”, And [f] before unvoiced sounds, as in “в саду” Or, should its rules only be standardized and ratified while the orthography should stay more etymological in nature? After some debate, the Commission eventually decided on taking the best of both worlds, by merging elements from both sides, Although the phonetic side did gain significantly more love. — Why you bully me? They eventually published and presented their proposals to the Ministry of National Education, But were violently turned down, Not only by the people in power, but also by a large body of opinion in favour of only a very small reform. To make matters even worse for Sha’ and the boys, several prominent writers, Including the man, the myth, the legend: Lev Tolstoy, Better known as Leo Tolstoy in English, Fiercely opposed the reform, further decreasing the morale of the proponents. Even though support for their proposed reform grew in the upcoming years, it would have taken a miracle to bring change to a centuries-old tradition. And a miracle—or some people regard it a disaster—is exactly what happened in 1917. [morse code:]
– …. . / .- .-.. .-.. -….- .-. ..- … With the fall of the Empire in February of 1917 and the subsequent overthrow of the Provisional Government later that same year, Poor Russia was plunged into a state of civil war. Even though the socialist Bolsheviks were de facto in power, Chaos and anarchy ruled the lands as several factions tried to regain full control of the country. One would presume that the Bolsheviks, being embroiled in all-out war from all sides, Wouldn’t have the time, resources, or even be interested in tackling the issue of orthography, But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Shakhmatov and the boys were re-invited and after re-evaluating and updating the original plan for reform, They presented it to the newly formed People’s Commissariat of Education, who improved and ratified it shortly after. On the 23rd of December, 1917 The People’s Commissariat of Education issued a decree, stating: “All state and government institutions and schools without exception should carry out the transition to the new orthography without delay”, And, that “from the 1st of January 1918”, (Which is why the reform is also referred to as the “Reform of 1918”) “All government and state publications, both periodical and non-periodical should be printed using the new orthography” In schools, the reform was to be introduced gradually, Beginning from the youngest classes. Furthermore and more interestingly, there was no compulsory re-education for those who had already learned the old rules. Even though the Soviets’ decision for reform might seem quite untimely, inconvient, Or arbitrary to us now, the motivation behind the reform is quite honestly justifiable and understandable; It basically came down to one main factor, namely: Increasing the overall literacy rate of Russia. According to the census of 1897, which is the last census we have access to, Only 28% of the population of the Russian Empire was able to read. To add further insult to injury, the disparity between the sexes was considerable, As approximately 40% of men but only 16% of women were literate. By significantly simplifying, standardizing, and making orthography more consistent, They managed to increase the overall literacy rate to over 85% in less than 30 years. To quote Lenin himself: Without literacy, there can be no politics; only rumors, gossip, and prejudice. Before y’all leave, I would just like to say a sincere thank you for watching the first part of my two-part series covering the Russian spelling reform of 1917. The second part—which I hope to release soon—will cover the actual changes this reform brought to the spelling of the Russian language. Please, do bear in mind that making a video such as this one takes an incredible amount of time, As a lot of work is involved in researching and producing it. Nevertheless. I hope you’re looking forward to the next video as much as I am, wishing you all the best, увидимся.
(see you later) [outro music]