The history of the Russian language and its alphabet is long and fascinating. Here are a few anecdotes from that history.
The following is taken from a list that has been published in many places on the Russian Internet. One version can be seen on Russian7.ru. It has been translated to English and revised by SRAS and SRAS Translation Abroad Scholar Sophia Rehm.
The Unprinted Letter
It is widely believed that the letter “ё” (which replaced the old letter combination “iо” and is pronounced “yo”) entered the Russian language from French solely through the efforts of writer Nikolay Karamzin. Indeed, in 1797 he rewrote the word “sliozy” (meaning “tears”) in one of his poems and declared in a footnote: “The letter with two dots replaces ‘io.’”
However, in fact, the letter was brought into use by Princess Vorontsova-Dashkova (a highly educated woman, who was president of the Academy of Sciences) in 1783. In one of the Academy’s first sessions, she asked the academics why the first sound in the word “iолка” (the old spelling for “fir-tree”) was depicted by two letters. None of the great minds there, including the notable writers Gavrila Derzhavin and Denis Fonvizin, dared to point out to the Princess that there were two sounds: “y” and “o.” So, Dashkova proposed the use of a new letter, “for the expression and pronunciation of words beginning with this sound, like “матiорый, iолка, iож, iол” (the old spellings for “full-grown,” “fir-tree,” “hedgehog,” and “ate”].”
The popularity of the letter “ё” peaked during the Stalin years: throughout the decade it was given a place of honor in textbooks, newspapers, and new editions of the classics. Today, that popularity is waning, perhaps because the letter is in a very uncomfortable position on the Russian keyboard (top right corner) and thus is falling out of favor in printed texts. It is now replaced by a simple “e,” which creates a whole new phonetic conundrum of the reader needing to remember where “e” is pronounced as “e” and where it should be pronounced as “io.”
Perhaps Russian would have been better off keeping the two-letter combination, but, for better or worse, today “ё” is more often seen in the form of stone monuments to the letter (of which there are several in Russia), than in a book or newspaper.
A Bully to Schoolboys
The letter “yat” (ѣ) was a peculiar marking that set apart “native,” Slavic words from other Russian words. It was the subject of heated debate between “Westernizers” and “Slavophiles” in debates over Russian orthographic reform. It was a true torment for schoolboys, because it represented the same sound as the letter “е,” and words spelled with “yat” simply had to be memorized.
However, resourceful young minds composed a rhyme comprised only of words with “yat” in order to remember them. The rhyme read:
The white, pale, poor demon
ran hungry into the forest.
He ran through the woods like a squirrel,
and lunched on radish with horseradish.
And thanks to the bitter lunch,
he made a promise to do harm.
In the old Russian, it looked like this:
Бѣлый, блѣдный, бѣдный бѣсъ;
Убѣжалъ голодный въ лѣсъ.
Лѣшимъ по лѣсу онъ бѣгалъ;
Рѣдькой съ хрѣномъ пообѣдалъ
И за горький тотъ обѣдъ
Далъ обѣтъ надѣлать бѣдъ.
(see the full poem here)
The writer and translator Dmitry Yazykov was the first in his time to call for the abolishment of the letter “yat,” declaring: “The letter ‘yat’…resembles an ancient stone lying out of place, over which everyone stumbles but which no one moves aside, only because it is ancient and was once used for building.” In the Soviet era, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, known for his conservatism, fought unsuccessfully to bring back the “yat” in Russian grammar, along with the vowel “ъ” (“yer”). This vowel was used in Old Church Slavonic and could be read as “a” or “o” depending on its place in the word.
A Letter Worth Its Weight in Gold
The symbol that been used for “yer” was later appropriated for a “silent” letter, one which did not denote a sound but instead served as a “hard sign.” It was traditionally written at the end of words after hard consonants until the orthographic reform of 1918. However, the letter took up more than 8% of printing industry’s time and paper, and had cost Russia more than 400,000 rubles annually. Thus, it was dropped from the language in an effort to save money.
Note: the pictures for “yat” and “yer” are taken from Alphabet in Pictures by Alexander Benua, 1904. See more of his work here.
Peace/world to the World/peace!
Another torment for schoolchildren was caused by the letters “и” and “i” (both usually rendered as “i” in English). When philologist reformers came to discuss which of the two letters to remove from the Russian alphabet, the matter was decided with a vote! The arguments in defense of each of them were truly arbitrary. The problem was that, in the Greek alphabet, “и” and “i” denoted two different sounds. But in Russian, by the time of Peter the Great, they were already impossible to distinguish. The letter “i” was in the root of only one word: the word “мiр” (“mir,” meaning “world”). To denote peace, ie the absence of war, the word was written “мир” (also “mir”). Related words were accordingly written with different vowels: the adjectives in “peaceful people” (“мирные люди”) and “world order” (“мiровой порядокъ”) used “и” and “i,” respectively.
How a Letter Became a Word
In Cyrillic, the letter “ф” (“f”) used to bear the fanciful name “fert.” The phrase “to stand like a fert” appeared, meaning “to stand with hands on hips,” and then the new noun “fert,” (English “fop”) and even the diminutive “fertik.”
The Slavic alphabet had two letters to denote the sound “f” – “fert” (ф) and “fita” (ѳ) – but this led to real confusion. The name “Philip” was written with “fert,” while “Fyodor” and the word “arithmetic” (Russian “arifmetika”) with “fita.” Work that one out! (The secret lies in Greek: in the Greek alphabet, the letter “fert” denoted the sound “ph,” and “fita,” or “theta,” denoted “th”). Russian has never had the “th” sound, and thus the two letters, borrowed from Greek, were pronounced the same in Russian.
Over time, the word “fert” became pejorative. Chekhov wrote: “There’s a fop who comes to see us with a violin, strumming away.” (“Тут к нам ездит один ферт со скрипкой, пиликает”).Pushkin wrote: “At the wall stands a young fop, like a picture in a magazine” (“У стенки фертик молодой стоит картинкою журнальной”).
The letter “э” was formally adopted into the Russian alphabet only in the 18th century, when adopted words beginning with the “eh” sound started entering the language and were an inconvenience to read and write: should it be Yevripid or Evripid (Euripedes), Yevklid or Evklid (Euclid)? The new letter was received with hostility, and scientist and poet Mikhail Lomonosov even wrote that “if foreign pronunciation leads to the invention of new letters, then our alphabet will end up being Chinese.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Encyclopedic Dictionary of F. Pavlenkov, recommended that the average intelligent person write “кэнгуру” (“kangaroo”), “кэксъ” (“cake”) and “пенснэ” (the name of the type of glasses Chekhov and Theodore Roosevelt wore).
In general, “э” still feels like a foreign letter in Russian. Perhaps this is the reason why modern Russian does not heed Pavlenkov’s advice and instead writes “кенгуру,” “кексъ,” and “пенсне.”
Epistle to the Slavs
The Russian alphabet in its customary arrangement is in fact nothing more than an “epistle to the Slavs.” Each letter of the Cyrillic alphabet has a mnemonic name, and reading these names in alphabetical order produces a text. The letter names are Church Slavonic and the text is only partially intelligible, but has been translated into modern Russian. One translation reads: “I know letters: writing is property. Work earnestly, people of earth, as befits rational people – comprehend the universe! Carry the word with conviction: knowledge is a divine gift! Venture forth and penetrate, to comprehend the light of existence!”
In the original is looks like this: “Азъ буки веде. Глаголъ добро есте. Живите зело, земля, и, иже како люди, мыслите нашъ онъ покои. Рцы слово твердо – укъ фърътъ херъ. Цы, черве, шта ъра юсъ яти”. Один из вариантов перевода этого текста таков: “Я знаю буквы: письмо это достояние. Трудитесь усердно, земляне, как подобает разумным людям – постигайте мироздание! Несите слово убеждённо: знание – дар Божий! Дерзайте, вникайте, чтобы сущего свет постичь!”