Educated Russians are the only people I know among whom vigorous grammar Nazism is as voguish as it is among educated native English speakers. (Disclaimer: I don’t know French.) It helps that standard literary Russian is buttressed not only by venerable scolds à la Strunk & White, but by ideologically motivated Soviet campaigns to prove and reinforce the greatness of the “great and powerful” Russian language,[1] a nationalized education system that ensures the standardization of grammar education, and a relatively short literary history that greatly limits the body of evidence for the validity of this or that construction. (Unlike English descriptivists, with claims about Shakespeare’s use of split infinitives always in our back pocket, Russians can only reach as far back as Pushkin, writing in the early to mid-1800’s; before that, Russian was only rarely used as a literary language.) Plus, Russian culture values intelligence and erudition in a way that American culture, frankly, doesn’t. Grammar-induced scolding and nose-wrinkling is a national pastime, at least among the educated elite (Muscovite and provincial alike – to say nothing of Petersburgers, likely the worst of the bunch!).

All of this is a long way of saying that you can find a lot of people complaining about the current state of Russian; the abominable slang that’s worked its way into daily use, from criminal argot to Soviet officialese; the ever-encroaching Anglicisms; the failing education system that does not effectively squelch the pedestrian habit of saying звОнит in place of the correct звонИт[2]. Fortunately, we foreigners get off easy – usually when I use an incorrect or slangy form, the tsk-tsking is directed at the questionable acquaintances from whom I presumably picked it up.

This is misguided, though – while I did learn a lot of slang from my younger acquaintances in Russia and from spending a lot of time on Russian livejournal, I know my way around it better than I let on, and probably deserve to be tsk-tsked in my own right. An incurable descriptivist defender of my native tongue, I can’t resist playing the same part in Russian. Thus, I was delighted when I stumbled upon a speech example that combines, a grammarian might say, Anglicisms and internet stupidity:

Слоупочный слоупок слоупочен.

sloupochnyj sloupok sloupochen

This is a variation on an English internet meme that takes the tautological form “[adjective] [noun] is [same adjective],” e.g. “awkward penguin is awkward.” What it says is, literally, “Slowpokey slowpoke is slowpokey.” Слоупок is just a Cyrillic transliteration of the English slowpoke. In the adjectives we see consonant alternation between k and ch before a suffix, a feature of Russian phonology. That in itself never fails to delight me – the application of native phonological rules to borrowed words.

Its real brilliance, though, lies in the grammatical subleties of Russian. Russian requires slightly different adjectival forms for adjectives directly modifying nouns (e.g. “tall woman”) and predicate adjectives (in forms like “The woman is tall”). Russian is also fantastically liberal in its use of derivational suffixes, allowing for flexible nouning of adjectives and adjectiving of nouns. Add in the fact that Russian is null-copula – the present tense verb “to be” is omitted entirely – and you have an easily-derived phrase consisting simply of three forms of the same root. Its repetitiveness is both more elegant and less redundant than the  equivalent English form. Beautiful, right? I mean, for a meme.

While I would love it if Russian grammar Nazis gave a little more credit to language innovators and the unique characteristics of Russian that they’re showcasing, I can respect that it’s probably not going to happen any time soon. The anxieties expressed by Russian prescriptivists reflect deeper insecurities – Russian’s loss of status as a language of empire and its weakness vis-a-vis global English; the frailties of the Russian educational system compared with the Soviet one; the replacement of the remembered culture of intellect and erudition with a crass consumerist mentality. Acceptance of language change is a sign of liberalization, but it’s also a sign of comfort and confidence in your language’s place in the world. This raises the question: will the playfulness of the younger, internet-loving Russian innovators fade as they age? If Putin’s third term turns out to be a crucible that decides the fate of the post-Soviet experiment with democratization, what role will it play in the development of the Russian language?

[1] great and powerful Russian language/великий и могучий русский язык – the Russians are great lovers of compact, easily meme-ified quotations (known as “winged phrases/крылатые фразы”) like this one, which entered the linguistic heritage via a Turgenev poem.

[2] English equivalent: using “bring” for “take.”