Orthographic Distinction and Social Change: A New Turn of the Old Ѣ

Danslav Slavenskoj


Orthographic distinction in Slavic languages are discussed, with the goal of identifying motivations of those writers making this conscious choice. Choices made on the basis of religious, national, and group identity are explored, and new trends in the use of old orthography Russian, enabled by new technology, are highlighted. The trend of identity formation centered around on-line social groupings using variant orthographies is identified as supplementing the common motivations of religious or national identity which were the key drivers behind orthographic distinctiveness in the past.


The idea that a particular orthography is a symbol, and is used a tool of identity formation, is not new. Because the use of an older, or rarer, orthography is a matter of conscious choice, the motivations for writing in this style are often self-identified. Looking at the motivations behind such phenomena, provides us with a perspective into particular instances of social change. In the case of the Russian language, the phenomenon of orthography as a social symbol has taken a new turn. Old motivations of religious and national identity remain, yet are supplemented by motivations of contemporary group formation only possible with with the rise of contemporary social networks.

Historical Orthographic Distinction

Language and in particular orthography and script, has been a subject of control and debate for centuries, and each language and region has its own historical developments. Heated debates and trivial, linguistically inconsequential elements, become symbols that take on a life of their own. In regards to Slavic languages written in the Latin script, we can refer to the reforms of Jan Hus, elaborated in De orthographia bohemica, which came to influence both Western Slavic languages as well as Southern. Notably, this simplification was not adopted by Polish writers, and thus the older style of writing composed of digraphs, remains the standard in Poland. In Russia, the spelling and alphabet reforms of Peter I also had a religious element, one which defined, a new Western and secular identity for the state, and relegated the old Cyrillic to church books.

While in earlier time periods spelling had a religious connotation, with the advent of the ideas of romantic nationalism, such specificities took on a symbolic nationalistic feature, and heated debates centered around issues of identity. Thus, despite linguistic similarities, new and novel ways of writing are established for the specific purpose of being different from one's neighbors: the difference between the ‘ě’ and ‘ie’ in Czech and Slovak respectively stems from just such an orthographic conflict. Separate spellings were, and often are seen as essential to the evolution of independent languages, and divergence in writing systems and orthographies serves as a tool of nation building. For example, in 2009, the Montenegrin Ministry of Education introduced two new letters: ‘ś’ and ‘ź’, (replacing the digraphs ‘sj’ and ‘zj’) in an effort to differentiate itself from the customary way of spelling common in Serbian and Croatian written in neighboring countries.

Towards a New Identity Through Orthographic Change

Just as new and novel ways of spelling, and newly invented letters and orthographic conventions, form the foundation and become a symbol of those seeing progress or to form new identity formation, standards of language which were formerly common, and are now rarely seen can likewise become a symbol and begin to form the basis of a shared sense of identity, distinct from non-users of these forms.

In the case of Russian, recent scholarly attention has focused on novel uses ways of spelling on the Internet, what may be called phonetic or substandard use of the language. Parallels to casual language use in prior centuries are ignored, and this is sometimes presented as something new heretofore unseen. 1

One modernizing approach is the ‘correction’ of illogical writing conventions, which by historical circumstance, have become entrenched through usage. One such convention is the use of the Cyrillic letter ‘и’ [i], which if we observe its graphical form, logically represents an iotated form ‘ji’ rather than a simile ‘i’. One such proposal is Oleg Kaprinsky’s single-masted-i reform, which would almost eliminate ‘и’ from Russian, replacing it with the Cyrillic ‘і’ with the exception of cases where it represents a confusable ‘і’ after a ‘ь’, in words such as ч-ьи [č’ji]. Karpinsky himself, notes that calls for the ‘restoration’ of the ‘і’ came as early as the 1960s: “Perhaps, the first to call for the return of the single-masted ‘і’ to the Russian alphabet was the famous poet Vladimir Soluchin in the mid 1960s. There were publications on this theme in the 1980s and 1990s. In the last 15-20 years, nostalgia for this rejected letter, from time to time, finds itself reflected in usage in headlines and logos.”2 Despite presenting this as a restoration, such usage in fact is rather different from the use of ‘і’ in old orthography Russian, where which had both a Cyrillic ‘і’ and ‘и’, but usage reflected an earlier imitation of Greek in Cyrillic texts, rather than any meaningful phonetic value.

A less studied phenomenon is the use of seemingly archaic forms language, or spelling based on standards which have been abandoned by the majority of a language’s users. As regards to Russian, the application of standards established by Yakov Karlovich Grot in the 1880s, rather than those promulgated in 1918, has become a phenomenon which deserves more attention.

Discussion of various spelling reforms of Russian were a constant theme of public and private debate until rules prepared by the Assembly for Considering Simplification of the Orthography, headed by Aleksey Shakhmatov,2 became a political symbol of the Bolshevik revolution, promulgated decree issued by the Soviet People's Commissariat of Education in 1917. Whatever scholarly debate around the merits of this reform may have been, by the early 1900s, there was no taste for such prescriptive measures, and linguistic authority rested on general consensus: Grot’s rules were only endorsed on the basis of custom and perceived authority alone. The Bolsheviks however, ruled by decree, and thus were able to enact by force that which had been, at least since the times of the language reforms of Peter the I, become a matter of individual choice.

In response, publications in the old orthography, symbolic of resistance to the Bolshevik regime continue until the present.3

Today, outside of specialized centers for religious education of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russian, founded outside the control of the Soviet system, which continued to publish in the old orthography and thus needed to maintain a minimal educated class of adherents who knew how to write in the old way, few, if any, learn the old orthography. This creates a major problem for those seeking to use it, because the variations from the new, post-1918 orthography are not trivial and take time to learn. Although passive reading knowledge of it requires practically no additional study: a reading of ‘ѣ’ (transliterated as ě) as е, and ignoring the unpronounced ъ at the end of words, and a few adjustments for older spellings and grammatical patterns, actually applying the older orthographic rules is not a simple matter of substitution.

The use of the old orthography is thus a conscious choice, with the default being non-use. Use may be graded, for ad hoc use in advertising or promotional materials to add a historic flavor, to systematic usage which continues the tradition ignoring the prescriptions of the 1918 reform.

Such ad hoc use, however, is fraught with errors, when confusion of the letters ‘ъ’ and ‘ѣ’ leads those uneducated in the difference to publicly embarrass themselves. Numerous examples of a trailing ‘ѣ’, rather than the requisite ‘ъ’, can be found on signs attempting at a nationalistic or vintage connotation through spelling, found throughout Russia can found, such as the St.Petersburg store is known by the misspelled word for shoes: ‘Обувѣ’ [obuvě].4

Systematic usage, on the other hand, reflects a more careful effort. The motivations for such, can be classified into three main categories: religious belief, national pride, and irony.

While the phenomenon of religious and nationalistic motivation for using a distinct orthography is nothing new, a recent development is the use of historic elements in an ironic fashion. The later quality features in an Internet meme, the Дореволюціонный Совѣтчикъ [Pre-Revolutionary Advisor],5 a social network group, which at present numbers over 50,000 members, is dedicated to the production of ironic images accompanied with text in old orthography Russian. Using on-line translation tools6 to ensure orthographically correct usage, participants not only create such images for public distribution, but also engage in various pompously worded dialog amongst themselves, all the while adhering to the rules of the old orthography. Poetry and short stories, written in a style imitating the usage of the 1900s, have also appeared on-line.


Thus we can see that today, orthographic conventions are used not only as a symbol of religious or secular identity, as in earlier times, or as political statement of ethnic nationalism as in nineteen century, but also express new forms of group formation and affiliation which have become possible only with the rise of contemporary social networks.

Mgr. Danslav Slavenskoj – absolvent Harvardské univerzity. V současné době doktorand slavistiky na katedře Rusistiky a východoevropských studií na Univerzitě Komenského v Bratislavě.

Kontakt: danslav.slavenskoj@uniba.sk


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[1] Timofeeva, Galina. "Russian Internet Language: Innovations on Web Sites." New Zealand Slavonic Journal (2001): 199-210. Web.

[2] Our translation. “Возможно, первым заговоріл о возвращеніі одноштамбовой «і» в русскій алфавіт ізвестный поэт Владімір Солоухін в середіне 60-х. Былі публікаціі на эту тему в 80-х і 90-х. Последніе 15-20 лет ностальгія по отвергнутой букве время от времені обнаружівает себя в заголовках і логотіпах.”, Web. 15 May. 2015. <http://www.paratype.com/extpics/Titla_Odnoshtambovaia_i.pdf>.

[3] Bermel, Neil. Linguistic Authority, Language Ideology, and Metaphor: the Czech Orthography Wars. Berlin ; New York :Mouton de Gruyter, 2007. Print.

[4] Luneva, Mariia. "Iz aktualʹnoĭ problematiki bytovanii͡a t͡serkovnoslavi͡anskogo i͡azyka v Rossii (pragmaticheskiĭ i grammaticheskiĭ aspekty)" Slavica Iuvenum X. Mezinárodní setkání mladých slavistú (2010): 163-166. Print.

[5] Dorevoli͡ut͡sionnyĭ Sovetchikʺ. Web. 15 May. 2015. <http://vk.com/dorsovet>.

[6] Slavenica. Web. 15 May. 2015. <http://slavenica.com/>.

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