What can Russian and foreign-language students alike learn from classroom study and discussion of contemporary Russian neologisms? This paper will focus on some of the most striking developments in lexical change in contemporary Russian, and suggest ways in which an interpretation of these developments can provide some insights into post-Soviet Russian culture, and the role of Russia in international events covered by the media.
If they were not aware of it before, certainly by the second year of foreign language study students begin to understand that not everything that can be said in one language can be said in another. The lexicons of different languages seem to suggest different conceptual universes. What can one find in the concpetual universe of modern Russian? It is well known that the evolution of language proceeds in a regular way during periods of social and political stability, with small parts of the language system changing gradually. However, during periods of instability and rapid social change, the evolution of language accelerates. The noticeable—even shocking—accumulation of new words and forms leads to an impression of chaos and disorder on the one hand; on the other hand, it is rich material for studying tendencies of linguistic and social development. In other words, studying lexical change is inherently an interdisciplinary exercise, which illuminates both the structure of language and the structure of contemporary society.
What are some of the recent changes in Russian? How might one construct a “vocabulary list” of these changes for discussion in the language and culture classroom? First of all, there is a visible increase in colloquial, non-normalized language, including “jargon”: tusovka, bespredel, baksy, razdraj, dedovščina, der′mokraty, prixvatizacija. What is interesting about this list (a fraction of a fuller list) is that all of the new lexical items are formed with the use of negative expressive markers; i.e., they use morphological resources carrying negative semantic connotations. A companion list consists of new words which have entered Russian lexicon by adding the Latin prefix “anti.” There are thirty-six words of this type according to the Russian Explanatory Dictionary of the End of the XX Century: Linguistic Changes (Petersburg: 1998): ‘antihuman,’ ‘antiterrorist,’ ‘antidemocratic,’ etc.
A third type of neologism derives from words that used to be explicitly associated with social reality in capitalist countries; these words were on the periphery of Russian, a kind of foreign terminology with limited (and negative) connotations. These words have moved into the mainstream of contemporary usage, to describe the post-Soviet, Russian version of these “old” realities: infljacija, korrupcija, mafija, bezrabotica (‘unemployment’), etc.
A brief analysis of modern vocabulary shows that the language is accumulating the negative appraisals and deflating style of political and public discourse as a whole. On the other hand, many of our linguists have overlooked an equally important trend: the tendency to use neutrally or even positively-marked neologisms (or, usually, new word combinations) to describe war, terror, and forced diaspora. In the official Russian media, Chechen refugees (bežency) are now regularly referred to as “temporarily migrated people.” The combination “alternative elections” (al′ternativnye vybory) has begun to crop up, to emphasize the voters’ possibility to choose, but elections have to be alternative! In this respect, Russian usage parallels similar tendencies in the American press, which described the war in Kosovo in terms of “humanitarian operation,” “humanitarian intervention,” etc.
Looking a neologisms can be done in limited doses, to vary class material. Yet, the discussion opens up much that is important and relevant to the students’ understanding of contemporary Russian culture in a global context.