Reforms of Russian orthography

From Academic Kids

Template:IPA notice The Russian language adopted the Cyrillic alphabet, almost certainly during the tenth century and at about the same time as the introduction of Eastern Christianity into the territories inhabited by the Eastern Slavs. An earlier rune-like and possibly syllabic script was simultaneously discarded, and so thoroughly discouraged that today there are no uncontested specimens of it extant.

In this way, no sharp distinction was drawn between the vernacular language and the liturgical, though the latter was based on South Slavic rather than Eastern Slavic norms. As the language evolved, several letters, notably the yuses (Ѫ, Ѭ, Ѩ) were gradually and unsystematically discarded from both secular and church usage over the next centuries, and not one of several attempts at linguistic standardisation properly succeeded.

The printed alphabet assumed its modern shapes when Peter I introduced his "civil script" (гражданскiй шрифтъ in 1708. The reform was not specifically orthographic in nature. However, with the effective elimination of several letters (Ѯ, Ѱ, Ѡ, Ѧ) as well as all diacritics and accents (with the exception of й) from secular usage, there appeared for the first time a visual distinction between Russian and Church Slavonic writing. With the strength of the historic tradition diminishing, Russian spelling in the eighteenth century became rather inconsistent, both in practice and in theory, as Lomonosov advocated a morphological orthography, and Trediakovsky, a phonetical one.

Miscellaneous adjustments were made on an ad-hoc basic throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as the Russian literary language came to assume its modern and highly standardised form. These included the introduction of the letter ё (yo) and the gradual loss of the letters ѵ (corresponding to the Greek upsilon and the Latin y), in favor of и ; and ѳ (corresponding to the Greek theta), in favor of ф or, more usually, т . By 1917, the only two words still usually spelled with ѵ were мѵро "myrrh" and сѵнодъ "synod", and that rarely. The ѳ remained more common, though phonetic evolution had made it quite rare, as a "Western" (French-like) pronunciation had been adopted for many words, for example ѳеатръ / which became театръ "theater". Attempts to reduce spelling inconsistency culminated in the standard textbook of Grot (1885), which retained its authority through 21 editions until the Russian revolution of 1917. His fusion of the morphological, phonetic, and historic principles of Russian orthography remains valid to this day, though both the Russian alphabet and the writing of many individual words have been altered.

The most recent large reform of the Russian spelling was carried out shortly after the Russian revolution (see below). The Russian orthography was made simpler by unifying several adjectival and pronominal inflections, replacing the letters ѣ (Yat) with е, і and ѵ with и, ѳ with ф, and dropping the archaic mute yer ъ (hard sign) in the terminal position following a consonant (thus eliminating practically the last graphical remnant of the Old Slavonic open-syllable system).

Minor adjustments were made in 1956, but attempted further simplifications in the early 1960s and late 1990s were met with public protest and were not implemented.

A notable de-facto modification of spelling is the replacement of the letter ё with е. Used regularly for a brief period following WWII, today the ё is still seen in books for children, but is usually absent in regular print. Though pronounced correctly in educated speech, its absence in writing has led to confusion in the transliteration of certain Russian names (for example, Khrushchev is actually Khrushchyov Хрущёв), and occasionally even in their native pronunciation (e.g. Chebyshev Чебышёв, also spelled as Tschebyschoff, Chebyshov.) Curiously, Brezhnev was Брежнёв during WWII.


The story of the letter yat (ѣ) and its elimination from the Russian alphabet makes for an interesting footnote in Russian cultural history.

That it was retained without discussion in the Petrine reform of the Russian alphabet of 1708 indicates that it then still marked a distinct sound in the Moscow koine of the time. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the polymath Lomonosov (c. 1765) noted that the sound of ѣ was scarcely distinguishable from that of the letter е, and a century later (1878) the philologist Grot stated flatly in his standard Russian orthography (Русское правописанiе ) that in the common language there was no difference whatsoever between their pronunciations. Dialectal studies have shown that in certain regional rustic dialects, a degree of aural distinction is retained even today in syllables once denoted with ѣ.

Calls for the elimination of yat from the Russian spelling began with Trediakovsky in the eighteenth century. It is said that Nicholas I (rgn. 1825-1855) considered issuing a decree to that effect, but, when told the letter was useful for distinguishing the illiterate from the literate, abandoned the project, possibly from personal shame. A proposal for spelling reform from the Russian Academy of Science in 1911 included, among other matters, the systematic elimination of the yat, but was declined at the highest level, and the letter remained for the time being the nightmare of Russian schoolchildren, who had to memorize very long nonsense verses made up of words with ѣ:

Бѣдный блѣдный бѣлый бѣсъ The poor pale white devil
Убѣжалъ съ обѣдомъ въ лѣсъ Ran off with his dinner into the forest
... ... ...

The spelling reform was finally promulgated by the Provisional Government in the summer of 1917. It appears not to have been taken seriously under the prevailing conditions, and two further decrees by the Soviet government in December 1917 and in 1918 were required. Orthography thus became an issue of politics, and the letter yat, a primary symbol. Emigré Russians by and large adhered to the old spelling until after World War II; long and impassioned essays were written in its defence, as by Ilyin in c. 1952. Even in Soviet Russia, it is said that some printing shops continued to use the eliminated letters until their blocks of type were forcibly removed; certainly, the Academy of Sciences published its annals in the old orthography until approximately 1924, and the Russian Orthodox Church, when printing its calendar for 1922, for the first time in the new orthography, included a note that it was doing so as a condition of receiving a license for impression. To the builders of the new regime, conversely, the new spelling visibly denoted the shining world of the future, and marked on paper the break with the old. The large-scale campaign for literacy in the early years of the Soviet government was, of course, conducted in accordance with the new norms.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a tendency occasionally to mimic the past appeared in Russia, the old spelling became fashionable in brand names and the like. Calls for the reintroduction of the old spelling were heard, though not taken seriously, as supporters of the yat described it as "that most Russian of letters", and the "white swan" of Russian spelling. Nonetheless, almost no one knew its proper usage, which had become somewhat debased, relative to the ancient Old Slavonic norms, even prior to its elimination.

In objective terms, the elimination of the yat, together with the other spelling reforms, decisively broke the influence of Church Slavonic on the living literary language. It can be argued as well that the morphological-compositional nature of Russian spelling was somewhat damaged, since a number of inflexions and common words had previously been distinguished by е/ѣ (For example: ѣсть/есть "to eat"/"(there) is"; лѣчу/лечу "I heal"/"I fly"; синѣ́е/си́нее , "bluer"/"blue" (n.); вѣ́дѣніе/веде́ніе , "knowledge"/"leadership"). On the other hand, the modern spelling is, unequivocally, greatly simpler than the old one. The choice in the matter, insofar as it can be made today, is one of psychology. The presence of ѣ in a printed text noticeably alters its apperception. It is significant, therefore, that many Russians today consider texts in the old spelling quite difficult to read.

An urban legend holds that the yat was dropped because it somewhat resembles a church with belltower or spire.

See also


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