The Divisive Letter Ё

The Divisive Letter Ё
27 May 2021

Students of Russian will know the struggle that is the letter Ё being printed as Е! Whilst it might seem obvious to native Russians that ёлка begins with a Ё, even if it isn’t typed as such, it can be a nightmare for those of us learning the language. 

Why is the letter Ё so elusive and why is its usage so controversial? Well, it all lies in the letter’s history…

How did Ё first appear?

The letter Ё  is actually the newest addition to the Russian alphabet, joining the club at the end of the 18th century. 

Apparently, at a meeting of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Princess Dashkova brought the word ёлка to the members’ attention. In those says the word ёлка was spelt ‘iolka’ and the Princess questioned why ‘io’ could not be expressed by one letter, given that it symbolised one sound. Thus, the letter Ё was born. 

Stalin demands use of Ё…

Legend has it that Stalin was also a fan of the letter Ё. In the 1940s he supposedly got so frustrated by a document, in which his generals’ surnames were typed using the letter Е instead of Ё, that he demanded that Ё be used from then on. His tirade apparently had some effect as, the next day, the Pravda newspaper began using Ё in its print issues.

The Yo-Mobile (Ё-мобиль)

In 2010 plans were made to introduce a hybrid car to the Russian automobile market. The Yo-Mobile was designed so that its plastic casing could be recycled in order to make other structural components, and the vehicle could even act as a power station by supplying power to a house or business during a power cut! 

Unfortunately, the car never came to fruition. In fact, it was eventually sold to the Russian government for just €1! 

When is Ё printed today?

According to the 1956 orthography rules there are 3 instances in which Ё must be printed: 

  1. In texts intended for children or for foreign students of Russian, in order to assist with correct pronunciation. The same is true for dictionaries, in which stressed vowels are also marked.
  2. In instances where the use of Е instead of Ё changes the meaning of a word. For example:
    •  все (everyone) всё (everything) 
    • передохнем (we will die) передохнём (we will rest) 
    • поем (I’m going to eat) поём (we sing) 
  3. In uncommon/ ‘exotic’ words. For example, река Олёкма (river Olyokma).

Butchering Russian Names containing Ё

According to scientific estimates there are around 2,750 Russian surnames and 1,650 Russian first names that contain the letter Ё. Thus, mispronunciation of Russian names is a surprisingly widespread issue! Some of the most notable Russian statesmen have a Ё in their name which, when typed as a Е and subsequently transliterated, can lead to some very strange pronunciations in foreign languages…

Whilst many English-speakers pronounce Горбачёв as ‘GOR-ba-chev,’ it should in fact be stressed on the last syllable and pronounced as ‘Gor-ba-CHYOV.’ 

Similarly, Хрущёв is often mistakenly pronounced as ‘Khr-U-schev,’ when it should be pronounced as ‘hroo-SHYOV.’

Inconsistencies in the printing of the letter Ё in names even led to a court case in 2018, when a Russian mother of 3 was refused state benefits because her surname was written differently on her children’s birth certificates!

Campaigns to save Ё

One man is so committed to ensuring that Ё remains in use that he began a campaign to save the letter. Chumakov, a retired engineer, has coined the phrase ‘yofikator’ to describe those who support the widespread use of the letter Ё. In his quest to get Ё the recognition he believes it worthy of, Chumakov has written three books on the letter’s history and compiled a whole dictionary of words containing the letter. He also regularly pens letters to editors around the country, pleaing with them to use Ё in their publications. His letters haven’t been in vain: in fact, the newspapers “Sovetskaya Rossia,” “Literaturnaya gazeta,” and “Argumenty i fakty” have all now reintroduced Ё. 

The campaign to save Ё is not just a one man show. In 2005 a statue was unveiled in honour of the letter in the city of Ulyanovsk, since Nikolai Karamzin, a historian born nearby, was committed to the widespread usage of Ё . However, proving as divisive as ever, the monument actually triggered protests upon its unveiling!

Yaroslav Gorbachev, Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Chicago, suggests that the letter’s divisiveness comes down to the fact that so many swear words (krepkaya slova) begin with this letter!

Let us know what you think in the comments…has the inconsistent use of Ё proved problematic for you whilst learning Russian? Are you a ‘yofikator’? For more on Russian letters and their usage see this article on the Russian hard (Ъ) and soft(Ь) signs.

Posted by Amy Wyatt

Привет! Меня зовут Amy. I study Russian and History at Durham University, and am currently interning and studying with Liden and Denz St Petersburg. I am particularly interested in Soviet and post-Soviet history, Russian literature, and current affairs.

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