Moscow says 'nyet' to words like 'yes' Language: Moscow's mayor has ordered the foreign words on business signs to take a back seat to Russian ones.

March 05, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- In the old days, shop signs here meant what they said.

If a sign said "moloko," or milk, that's exactly what the store sold, nothing more, nothing less.

Then came the post-Soviet capitalist boom in goods and services. The fallout was a thicket of foreign-language signs to describe concepts or styles modern Russia had never heard of.

For certain Russians -- mostly the young and the hip -- the now nearly ubiquitous English words "supermarket," "mini-market," "drugstore," "pub," and "shop" are a splash of capitalistic cachet.

For many others, the lexicon of capitalism -- in Latin or Cyrillic letters -- means nothing.

And for them, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has declared a war on words.

A mayoral decree outlaws foreign words as the primary signage of a business.

For example, as of June 1, all supermarkets must adopt the traditional Russian term "gastronome" on their signs -- or pay a $700 fine.

Would a supermarket by any other name be the same?

"No," snorts Yelena Uvarova, a 19-year-old university student who finds the mayor's decree ridiculous. "They're two different things. A gastronome is someplace that's huge and empty. When a gastronome is full, they call it a supermarket."

Never mind, she adds, that the Russian term "gastronome" is actually a French word that really means a person with a taste for good food, not a supermarket.

But city consumer affairs officials pushing the sign ban are not etymologists.

"You don't see any Russian signs in Switzerland or the United States, so why should there be English signs here in Russia?" Svetlana Korolyova, deputy director of the city's consumer department, told the Moscow Times last week.

The new regulation strengthens one introduced a year ago by the city requiring all foreign words on a sign to be half the size of Russian words.

This isn't just a consumer-rights issue. Russia has had long-standing resistance to language dilution.

In Soviet times when "djins" (jeans) and "rok" music were considered unwholesome foreign influences, Komsomolskaya Pravda, the Communist youth newspaper, denounced the use of Americanized words.

The newspaper called it a "vulgar" habit that risked the loss of the Russian language's "sense of beauty, richness, picturesqueness and melodiousness."

Some Russians feel the onslaught of foreign political and economic systems, foreign products, and foreign languages is undermining traditional Russia.

"Without a doubt, Russian has been under threat in the past five years," says Larissa Moukrova, a Russian language specialist at the Plekhanov Institute, a Moscow think tank. "It contributes to the disintegration of our society."

"It's not normal when in the premier city in such a big country as Russia, where millions of Russians live, there are signs in the street in foreign languages -- most of all English," says Moukrova, who supports the new sign law as a way of preserving the language.

She acknowledges that the Russian language now includes many French, German, Tatar and Turkish words. But these were absorbed over longer periods and under different circumstances than English words are now being adopted.

"The essence of the difference is that a lot of words [that already exist in Russian] in everyday life are switching to English like 'teen-ager' for the Russian podroznik," she explains.

For 15-year-old Masha Byertseva, English words make her "curious" about what's inside a store. But they also signal to her she probably can't afford the high-quality goods inside.

She has never studied English, but Masha agrees that it is creeping into everyday life. She uses the English "mother" to address her mom, she says.

But older Russians have no such curiosity. Foreign terms serve to remind many that their Cold War toil was in vain -- now that most of their food comes from the former enemy.

"I agree with Luzhkov's Russification. I'd guess only 60 percent of the people know what a supermarket is -- they see the sign, and they get confused," says Valentin Samykhin, a 54-year-old scientific researcher.

But a municipal code is hardly going to head off the changes going on in Russia, reports Komsomolskaya Pravda -- the newspaper that once called English words "vulgar."

Comparing the traditionally reviled Russian diner with the modern, expensive Western "pub," the newspaper says:

"It'll be impossible to make Muscovites enter a 'stolovaya' to drink $10 beer and [eat] $20 shrimp."

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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