Russian College Slang Today

Artemi Romanov, University of Colorado, Boulder

Of all the linguistics levels (phonology, morphology, syntax and grammar), vocabulary is the most sensitive to political, economic and cultural changes, since it is tied referentially to the culture. During the 1990s Russian student culture experienced significant changes that are manifested in the composition of student slang vocabulary. In transitional Russian conditions students seek to strengthen their social identity, value system, and emotional growth, but are finding this difficult to achieve. Increasingly students turn to one another for support, but struggle to create group harmony in a society experiencing a difficult transition from collectivism to competitive individualism. Russian college slang reflects the adaptation of university students to cultural changes, particularly cultural influences from the West.

Under the Soviet regime substandard vocabulary was not a subject of systematic linguistic investigation. Most introductions to lexicology mentioned slang only in passing; youth slang words were not included in dictionaries (with few exceptions) and were often viewed as lexical elements that contaminated the Russian language and shattered literary norms (Linguistic Dictionary. Moscow: Soviet Encyclopedia, 1990). In the last decade this attitude has changes: Russian youth slang words have been collected and systematized by Russian scholars (T. G. Nikitina. Tak govorit molodež. Youth Slang Dictionary. St. Petersburg: Folio Press, 1998), but no observations have been made about the restrictive character of slang, slang word-formation process, the semantic organization of slang, the frequency of slang words, methods of creating expressive tone typical of slang etc.

Slang is an ever changing set of colloquial words and phrases that speakers use to establish or reinforce social identity or cohesiveness within a group or with a trend or fashion in society at large. (See C. Eble. Slang and Sociability. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.) Dumas and Lighter proposed four identifying criteria for slang—“(1) its presence will markedly lower the dignity of formal speech or writing, (2) its use implies the user’s special familiarity with the referent, (3) it is a tabooed term in ordinary discourse with persons of higher social status, (4) it is used in place of well-known conventional synonyms in order (a) to protect the user from the discomfort or annoyance of further elaboration”—criteria that I use in my project (B. Dumas and J. Lighter, “Is Slang a Word for Linguists?” American Speech 1978, 38:164–177). American college slang has been studied by a number of scholars (among them Dundes and Schonhorn 1962, Eble 1989). The most numerous group of slang expressions are general words with a particular specific meaning. For instance, chick, fox ‘attractive person,’ cool, sweet ‘excellent’ (in American college slang); krutoj ‘excellent,’ lit. ‘steep’; buterbrod ‘group sex,’ lit. ‘sandwich’; skleroz ‘computer memory,’ lit. ‘sclerosis’ (in Russian college slang). Slang vocabulary offers clues about how group members conceptualize the world, how they organize their knowledge, and how deep their knowledge goes in specific areas. The study of college slang is closely related to the question of how much lexical variation can be explained by group-based and age-based differences.

An often cited characteristic of slang is its group-identifying function. However with the possibility of instant and wide-spread communication, the group-identifying function of slang for the population at large may be diminishing in favor of identification with a style or an attitude rather than with a specific group. (See C. Eble 1996.) It will be important to determine whether or not this is the case for Russian college slang.

Russian college slang requires a special study with a focus on the slang word-building process (affixation, compounding, shortening, functional shift, blending and borrowing), on how slang terms get to mean what they do (generalization, amelioration and pejoration, metaphors, metonymy), on semantic organization of slang vocabulary (semantic fields), on the use of slang, its tone (colloquial, descriptive, judgmental) and the effects of slang. In addition to lexicological questions, cultural issues will be equally important to the project. What cultural phenomena are lauded, supported, stereotyped, made fun of, or condemned in modern Russian college slang?

In order to carry out my project I plan to go to Russia. During the summer 2000, I plan to conduct a lexicological survey among college students in St. Petersburg. Questionnaires with selected words and expressions (taken from T. Nikitina 1998) will be presented to respondents (a sample of about 300) who will be asked to indicate: (1) how often they hear a selected word, (2) how often they use a slang word on their own speech, (3) how fashionable they think a selected slang expression is, (4) what their attitude to speakers who use such an expression in their speech is. Participants will be also asked to put down ten words and phrases that they consider examples of good current student slang. This part of the project will be carried out with the help of research assistants (students from the Russian language department of St. Petersburg State University). I also intend to conduct two focus groups in St. Petersburg to examine the attitudes of participants toward college slang. One group will consist of participants of student age, and the other group will include people from different age group (30–50 years of age). The focus groups will help me to interpret the results of the survey part of my project and make judgments about the validity of the survey.