The Mysterious Russian Attitude Towards English Language

The Mysterious Russian Attitude Towards English Language
02 June 2016

I have to recognize that Russian attitude displayed with regards to English language baffles me. It seems to me that there is some love-hate dynamics going on. On the one hand, in Russia there are strict legal rules concerning the use of any foreign language and thus they affect English. On top of this, there is a widespread social anti-Americanism. On the other hand, there are in circulation strange ensembles of letters like пункт коворкинга, бизнес ланч or герлфренд. With regards to these, there are common and ready to use local terms, but it seems that an English-sounding concept is, for some reason, more attractive to many!

The Background story:

Let’s try to understand what is behind this state of affairs. By law, there are certain obligations with respect to the use of the Russian language and of the Cyrillic alphabet in the territory of the Federation and stringent sanctions are foreseen in the event of infraction. This is all foreseen in the Federal Law on the State Language of the Russian Federation and in a couple of other regulations. However, as the satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin famously wrote already in the XIXth century, “the severity of Russian laws is alleviated by the lack of obligation in their application”. Accordingly, words like саммит, брифинг, аукцион, имидж, мэр, менеджер, сервис, прайс-лист, супервайзер, спиккер, киллер are frequently [and it seems without any negative consequences] heard on Russian public television and can be read in the press. To me, this goes against the abovementioned law, which forbids to the media [and to many others], “the use of words and of expressions not corresponding to the norms of the contemporary Russian literary language […]” and to which there are Russian equivalents.


Of course, as in any other language, in Russian exist foreign words which have become part of the local tongue for the right reason. Terms like проблема, кофе, кафе, лазер, трамвай are clearly internationalisms which are spread all over the world. My personal concern comes with words like вау!, бойфренд, герлфренд, the ones already mentioned and many others of the same type.

What I see as another, but closely related, problem is the inclination of providing English language translations when this is absolutely unnecessary. For instance, I saw in a reputable Muscovite bookshop, on top of a shelf containing exclusively Russian language educational material, a sticker with the word Formation on it, which is clearly a wrong translation. Also, I do not see the need of a translation of the instructions preceding an exercise in a Russian language book for training of foreigners. Indeed, if a student is expected to do the exercise in Russian, what is the reason which makes us believe that he or she is incapable of comprehending the instructions in that same language? There are many similar examples of poor or excessive use of English.

What this tells to foreigners like me is that independently of the unequivocal will of the State, the pervasiveness of English seems unavoidable. However, English language in Russia seems to have become a separate entity, partly independent from London or Washington. For example, the abhorrent пункт коворкинга pretends to be the Russian equivalent of coworking office, an expression which does not exist in English [there is co-working but it is a noun!]. Also, the expression business lunch does not have in English any specific connotation, as it clearly has in Russia.

Garbis Latifyan, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz Moscow

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