Reforms of Russian orthography

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The reform of Russian orthography refers to official and unofficial changes made to the Russian alphabet over the course of the history of the Russian language, and in particular those made between the 18th-20th centuries.

Early changes[edit]

The Old Russian language adopted the Cyrillic script, approximately during the 10th century and at about the same time as the introduction of Eastern Christianity into the territories inhabited by the Eastern Slavs.

In this way, no sharp distinction was drawn between the vernacular language and the liturgical, though the latter was based on South Slavic rather than Eastern Slavic norms. As the language evolved, several letters, notably the yuses (Ѫ, Ѭ, Ѧ, Ѩ) were gradually and unsystematically discarded from both secular and church usage over the next centuries, and not one of several attempts at linguistic standardization properly succeeded.

18th-century changes[edit]

Peter I made the final choices of letter-forms by crossing out the undesirable ones in a set of charts

The printed Russian alphabet began to assume its modern shape when Peter I introduced his civil script (гражданскій шрифтъ, graždanskij šrift (spelled "гражданский шрифт" in modern Russian), [ɡrɐʐˈdanskʲɪj ˈʂrʲift]) in 1708. The reform was not specifically orthographic in nature. However, with the effective elimination of several letters (Ѯ, Ѱ, Ѡ, Ѧ) as well as all diacritics and accents (with the exception of й) from secular usage, there appeared for the first time a visual distinction between Russian and Church Slavonic writing. With the strength of the historic tradition diminishing, Russian spelling in the 18th century became rather inconsistent, both in practice and in theory, as Mikhail Lomonosov advocated a morphological orthography, Vasily Trediakovsky a phonetical one.

19th-century changes[edit]

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, miscellaneous adjustments were made on an ad hoc basis, as the Russian literary language came to assume its modern and highly standardized form. These included the introduction of the letter ё /jo/ (yo) and the gradual loss of ѵ (izhitsa, corresponding to the Greek upsilon and the Latin y), in favor of и (both of which represented /i/); and ѳ (corresponding to the Greek theta), in favor of ф or т. By 1917, the only two words still usually spelled with ѵ were мѵро (müro, [ˈmʲi.rə], "myrrh") and сѵнодъ (sünod, /sʲɪˈnod/, "synod"), and that rarely. The ѳ remained more common, though it became quite rare as a "Western" (French-like) pronunciation had been adopted for many words; for example, ѳеатръ (ḟeatr, [fʲɪˈatr], "theater") became театръ (teatr, [tʲɪˈatr]). Attempts to reduce spelling inconsistency culminated in the standard textbook of Grot (1885), which retained its authority through 21 editions until the Russian Revolution of 1917. His fusion of the morphological, phonetic, and historic principles of Russian orthography remains valid to this day, though both the Russian alphabet and the writing of many individual words have been altered through a complicated but extremely consistent system of spelling rules that tell which of two vowels to use under all conditions.

The post-revolution reform[edit]

The most recent major reform of Russian spelling was prepared by Aleksey Shakhmatov and carried out shortly after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Specific changes[edit]

The Russian orthography was made simpler by unifying several adjectival and pronominal inflections, replacing the letters ѣ (Yat) with е, і (depending on the context of Moscovian pronunciation) and ѵ with и, ѳ with ф, and dropping the archaic mute yer, including the ъ (the "hard sign") in final position following consonants (thus eliminating practically the last graphical remnant of the Old Slavonic open-syllable system). For instance, Рыбинскъ became Рыбинск ("Rybinsk").

Practical implementation[edit]

In accordance with the edict, "all government publications, periodicals (newspapers and journals) and non-periodicals (scientific works, digests, etc.), all documents and papers must, starting 15th October, 1918, be printed according to the enclosed new orthography."

In this way, private publications could formally be printed using the old (or more generally, any convenient) orthography. Retraining of people previously trained under the old norm was forbidden by the decree. A given spelling was considered a misspelling only if it violated both the old and the new norm.

However, in practice, the government set up a monopoly on print production soon enough and kept a very close eye on the fulfillment of the edict. A common practice was the removal of not just the letters І, Ѳ, and Ѣ from printing offices, but also Ъ. Because of this, the usage of the apostrophe as a dividing sign reached wide proliferation in place of ъ (e.g., под’ём, ад’ютант instead of подъём, адъютант), and came to be perceived as a part of the reform (even if, from the point of view of the letter of the decree of the Council of People's Commissars, such uses were mistakes). Nonetheless, some academic printings (connected with the publication of old works and documents and printings whose typesetting began before the revolution) came out in the old orthography (except title pages and, often, prefaces) up until 1929.

Russian — and later Soviet — railroads operated locomotives with designations of "І", "Ѵ" and "Ѳ". Despite the reformed orthography, the series names remained unchanged up until these locomotives were discontinued in the 1950s.

Favourable aspects of the reform[edit]

The reform reduced the number of orthographic rules having no support in pronunciation—for example, the difference of the genders in the plural and the need to learn a long list of words which were written with "yat"s (the composition of said list was controversial among linguists, and different spelling guides contradicted one another).

The reform resulted in some economy in writing and typesetting, due to the exclusion of Ъ at the end of words—by the reckoning of Lev Uspensky, text in the new orthography was shorter by one-thirtieth.[citation needed]

The reform removed pairs of completely homophonous graphemes from the Russian alphabet (i.e., Ѣ and Е; Ѳ and Ф; and the trio of И, I and Ѵ), bringing the alphabet closer to Russian's actual phonological system.


The Old Russian letter 'yat'

The story of the letter yat (ѣ) and its elimination from the Russian alphabet has been a result of reforms.

More recent modifications[edit]

A codification of the rules of Russian orthography and punctuation[1] was published in 1956 but only a few minor orthographical changes were introduced at that time.[2]

A notable de facto modification of spelling is the replacement of the letter ё with е. Used regularly for a brief period following World War II, today the ё is still seen in books for children and dictionaries, but is usually absent in regular print. Though pronounced correctly in educated speech, its absence in writing has led to confusion in the transliteration of certain Russian names (for example, Khrushchev is actually Khrushchyov: Хрущёв), and occasionally even in their native pronunciation (e.g. Chebyshev, Чебышёв, also spelled as Tschebyschoff or Chebyshyov.)

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ (Russian) Правила русской орфографии и пунктуации 1956 г.
  2. ^ These include the changing of "цы" to "ци" in a few words such as "панцирь" and adding a hyphen to the words "по-видимому" and "по-прежнему". Отбой учебной тревоги (Russian)

External links[edit]

  • Criticism of 1917 reform (Russian)
  • CyrAcademisator Bi-directional online transliteration for ALA-LC (diacritics), scientific, ISO/R 9, ISO 9, GOST 7.79B and others. Supports pre-reform characters