Attitudes Towards Recent Americanisms in the Russian Language

During the 1990s a large number of American English (AE) words were borrowed into the Russian language. The explosive growth of loanwords is usually explained by at least three factors: cultural influence, fashion, and social need (Aitchison, 1991.) In the case of recent AE borrowings into Russian the relative significance of these factors is not clear. The most common and obvious motive for borrowing is sheer necessity: speakers may have to refer to some unfamiliar object or concept for which they have no word in their own language (McMahon 1994). However, Russian linguists point out (Duličenko 1994, Kostomarov 1994) that many of the recently borrowed AE words are redundant—there are Russian equivalents that can quite adequately serve the linguistic need. The second major motivation for lexical borrowing depends on the perception of cultural influence and prestige: “borrowings generally move from the more to the less prestigious language, and will be concentrated in the semantic fields where the more prestigious speakers wield the greatest influence” (McMahon 1994). If indeed there are reasons to believe that prestige and American cultural influence and are largely responsible for the recent intensive infiltration of Americanisms into the Russian vocabulary, then a broad sociolinguistic study is necessary to confirm or reject this hypothesis. In spite of the existence of a strong and almost unanimously negative opinion on recent AE borrowings into Russian among Russian linguists and literary scholars, the attitude of ordinary Russian speakers to this phenomenon is largely unknown and has not been studied systematically. A systematic study of linguistic attitudes has not only a scholarly and a practical aspect as well. If lexical borrowings are particularly numerous, speakers of the recipient language may argue that it is being contaminated or overwhelmed, which in turn creates conditions for a popular support of language policy efforts to limit the stream of loans and/or find replacements for loans in their own language.

In order to measure language attitudes, three main methods have been employed by researchers in previous studies: content analysis of documents of various kinds, questionnaires and interviews in which respondents have been asked directly about their attitudes, and experiments with the matched-guise technique (Cargile et al., 1994; Hyrkstedt et al., 1998). Our study used questionnaires in a sociolinguistic survey in which Russian respondents provided their replies to a number of questions related to the process of lexical borrowing from AE into Russian. In summer 1998 158 respondents participated in the study and 150 returned fully completed and usable questionnaires. Out of 150 respondents 56% were women and 44% were men. 46.7% of the participants were younger than 30 years and 53.3% of them were 30 years of age and older. The survey was conducted with the help of eight St. Petersburg University students (departments of philology and sociology). Respondents were presented with 29 English/American loanwords that I encountered several times in recent Russian newspaper articles and periodicals. Most of the words have not been recorded in the latest issue of Russian Language Dictionary by S. I. Ožegov (1997), but have been found in recent Russian dictionaries of foreign language words (Komlev 1995) and accounted for in research of Timofeeva (1995), Duličenko (1994), Ferm (1994) and others.

All data on the respondents were derived from the questionnaires returned by the participants. The questionnaire contained demographic and educational items (sex, age, income, education, knowledge of English); a series of items designed to assess respondents’ perceptions of the lexical borrowings and Americanization phenomenon in general; a set of questions about particular AE loanwords (familiarity with these words as a result of encountering them in mass media sources; the usage of these words in the speech of their friends and relatives, the usage of the loanwords in their own speech). The questionnaire contained Likert-scale response items which were scored on a four-point scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” or “often use” to “never use.” In addition to Likert-scale response items, participants were also tasked with providing synonyms for the loanwords and identifying possible Russian equivalents that could be used instead of the loanwords.

This study found that Russian speakers generally have somewhat negative attitudes toward excessive AE borrowings. 72% of the selected words evoked negative connotations; 76% of the respondents felt that intensive borrowing from American English is unjustified. However, it seems that at present ordinary Russians are rather indifferent and/or ambivalent about taking any measures to halt the process of extensive lexical borrowing from American English, especially by comparison with the ardently purist attitudes of professional linguists and literary scholars. It remains to be seen whether the Russian Academy of Science, and possibly other Russian institutions, along the lines of the Academie Francaise, will attempt to oust some of these AE words—or at least make them conform more closely to Russian orthography and morphology, or take a more balanced wait-and-see approach corresponding to the current attitudes of the general Russian public.