Bid to block out uglier sounds of Western culture

6th February 1998 at 00:00
RUSSIA. Jennifer Louis on a campaign to preserve the language from the influence of popular TV.

Boris Yeltsin is battling to protect the purity of the Russian language from the slang and sloppy speech of Western television and the influence of dramatically wider contacts with the world since the fall of Communism.

He has set up a Council on Russian Language which will screen textbooks and make recommendations about tightening up the curriculum.

While the Germans have long preferred to invent their own new words rather than absorb foreign ones and the Academie francaise is famous for its firm statute against "le weekend" and other intruders, Russian linguists used to admire the impeccable St Petersburg accents retained by returning emigre families with only a gentle smile of nostalgia.

But now the alarm bells are ringing. Gone are the days when the newsstands only stocked party propaganda that was stylistically correct. Walt Disney and the Mexican soaps take up large proportions of television air time, and along with commercials, pop concerts and talk shows, provide ample subject matter for expanding the Russian vocabulary. The young are particularly quick to learn new words and phrases, to Russify and adopt them, proud to sound clever, modern - and Western.

Prompted by the philologist Dmitri Likhachev, Yeltsin set up a council in 1995 to look into the potential dangers. "I wanted to create a body similar to the one that existed in France at the time of General de Gaulle," says Likhachev of his campaign, but it fizzled out for lack of funding.

Then in December the government formed the new council and put deputy prime minister Oleg Sysuyev in charge.

Defenders of the language point to bad grammar and speech, the introduction of foreign words and the use of slang as main areas of concern. Likhachev, who is still prominent in fighting for the cause and will act as a consultant to the council, has demanded the appointment of an official to monitor the quality of language used by every television station, and in every school. Mistakes should be corrected and, he proclaims, "if a television commentator is not capable of upgrading the quality of his language, he should be fired".

Deputy chairman of the new council Yevgeny Chalyshav has his sights on the media. "I sit by the television every day and write down the mistakes I hear. There are dozens and dozens of them." He is also targeting individual politicians who are guilty of poor speech.

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