If any of you out there are trying to learn Russian, then here is some good news for you: Native Russian speakers themselves make a lot of mistakes! So don’t feel so bad…
First off, we have to ask: What is a mistake, and who decides what is a mistake? For example, if in English I were to ask someone: “Who are you looking for?” then technically that is a mistake, because you’re supposed to say “whom“. But these rules change over time, obviously. On the pronunciation side, some Americans say “EN-velope” (for that thing you put letters in), and others say “ON-velope”. Who is correct? And who is the judge of who is correct? These are all deep questions pertaining to “Sociological Linguistics”, the establishment of national languages, norms, Academies of Letters, teaching language in schools, and all that jazz.
The first piece I have today is this one from RIA, which reports on the results of a poll. The Russian sociological polling agency VTSION-Sputnik (ВЦИОМ-Спутник) conducted a poll just a few days ago, on May 16. The poll was scientifically conducted with a sample size of 1,600 Russian adults aged 18 and over. The methodology was telephone interviews of randomly chosen landlines and mobile numbers. The maximum margin of error, with a confidence factor of 95% does not exceed 2.5%.
Anyhow, one of the questions was to determine who (whom?) respondents regarded as an authority on issues of grammar and pronunciation. Of those polled, 63% believe that the “norm” of correct pronunciation of words is set by the dictionaries, and also by “Philologists” (языковеды) [yalensis: who are not to be confused with actual Linguists, just sayin’…]. Residents of the two major cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg were particularly adamant on this point (69%). Of those polled, only 27% said the “norm” should be set by the majority of actual speakers, and most of the ones who said this, live in the countryside, so what can one expect of such rubes? 10% of respondents didn’t know or care.
Coffee is a Masculine Beverage!
Next, getting down and dirty with individual words, for that we have this related piece:
In a shocking twist, 22% of Russians think that the Russian word for “coffee” (кофе), is of the neuter gender. Those fools don’t know that it’s actually masculine!
Foreigners studying Russian get very frustrated as to where to place the main stress on certain words. It’s especially important when one is trying to read Pushkin’s poems. As everybody knows, each multisyllabic word in Russian has a main stress, and the other syllables just sort of get blurred down. Sometimes (not always) this shift in stress serves a grammatical function as, for example, in English where you have two different pronunciations of “EN-ve-lope” (noun) vs “en-VE-lope” (verb).
Stress serves an imporant function in Russian grammar, but when it isn’t that clear-cut, sometimes even native speakers get confused. For example, the word do-go-VOR (договОр – “agreement”, “treaty”) — the good news is that 66% pronounce this word correctly, but 31% incorrectly put the stress on the first syllable and say DO-go-vor, and when they pronounce it like that, it makes them sound like country hicks. The equivalent would be some American hillbilly saying “PO-lice” instead of “po-LICE“.
Similarly, with the verb звонить (zvonit – “to call on the phone”), I used to get very confused myself, when it comes to the 3rd person single (“he/she phones”), am I supposed to say ZVON-it or zvon-IT ? Apparently the latter is more correct, and 74% of Russians pronounce it that way, but 24% like it better the other way. And likewise, with many other examples of individual words which cause confusion. A certain delicious dairy product is sometimes pronounced TVO-rog (57%) and sometimes tvo-ROG (39%), but either way, as Shakespeare might say, a curd by any name would taste as sweet.
In any case, none of this really matters. The so-called “philologists” are just desperately trying to maintain their relevance (and their job security), because there are no standards any more. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the Russian language. Nowadays most elite Russians only use words borrowed from American English, just as in Tolstoy’s time they only spoke French! Except today’s geniuses don’t know English per se, they just speak bad Russian, only substituting American vocabulary with a Slavic accent, grrrr.
And Griboedov (or whatever is left of him) continues to roll in his grave.