Orthography as Mirror of Culture: The Case of Sumarokov

Marcus Levitt, University of Southern California

Eighteenth century spelling and orthography were notoriously haphazard. An Academy of Sciences translator complained in 1773 of the “great disagreements, uncertainties and difficulties, that [make] the spelling of almost every writer or translator in some way different from the rest” (Svetov, 7). Nevertheless, as V.M. Zhivov brilliantly demonstrated, eighteenth-century “orthography turns out to be the mirror of culture” (88). The goal of this paper is to characterize Alexander Sumarokov’s views on orthography as a reflection of his literary and cultural position, and to begin to situate them in regard to contemporary practice.

Sumarokov wrote several essays on orthography, most famously his “K Tipografskim naborshchikam” (1759), plus two posthumously published articles (“O Pravopisanii” and “Primechaniia o Pravopisanii”). There is evidence that “O Pravopisanii” (between 1768-1773) was known in literary circles, and that Sumarokov’s ideas had significant influence.

Sumarokov himself renounced any individual writer’s right to assert “rules,” objecting both to Trediakovsky’s rationalist approach (e.g, in the “Razgovor … ob orfografii” [1748]), that did not sufficiently consider the nature of the language, and to Lomonsov’s Rossiiskaia grammatika (1755), which he felt reflected provincial speech habits. Perhaps because of his stance against rules, Sumarokov’s essays are often heavily ironic and digressive (especially “K Tipografskim Naborshchikam,” one undivided eleven-page paragraph!)

In the first part of this paper I will suggest a discrete set of elements comprising Sumarokov’s orthographic “system,” as suggested by these essays, and relate them to his cultural argument. Sumarokov based his judgments on a combination of the “nature of the language,” spoken norms, “ancient” usage, and the usage of exemplary contemporary writers. His linguistic position is not reducible to a simple formula, as he argues for “moderate difficulty” that allows for greater variety, expressiveness and beauty. Still, Sumarokov’s perspective is extremely pessimistic, reflecting his view of the language’s progressive degradation. He locates the ideal in the “ancient” (pre-Petrine) literary language, and thus implicitly rejects the Baroque tradition. Sumarokov sees Slavonic and Russian as essentially one language (Slavenorossiiskii), and complains of the excessive Westernizing (Latinizing) tendency of the Petrine alphabet reform, suggesting that the very split into two scripts, civil and church, was unfortunate.

In the second part of the paper, I will suggest the influence of Sumarokov’s views, based on a preliminary survey of eighteenth-century publications. In the absence of systematic statistical analysis (a mammoth undertaking) such a survey remains somewhat subjective; yet even were such a study undertaken, it is doubtful that the results would be definitive, given the fact that publication involved many steps, including copyists, proofreaders, and typesetters, each of whose practices would have to be taken into account. Nevertheless, the partial evidence of various publications which employed or ignored the identifiable markers of Sumarokov’s orthographic “system” will, we hope, suggest some of the broad “lines of influence” of his orthographic ideas.