# 1.3: Stylistic registers

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Among the many judgments that native speakers of English can make in word choice, they have intuitions about stylistic registers; they know for instance that the phrase “henceforth the parties agree” is very formal, but “c’mon, guys” is very colloquial. They also know that the former phrase can be used in official (e.g., legal) documents, but not with friends or family, while the latter is unlikely to appear in an academic paper. Understanding this stylistic distinction does not just help us decide what to say and when. It helps us decipher people, offering clues as to who might be a pompous bureaucrat, overusing formal vocabulary in inappropriate situations; who might be a cheerful, formality-eschewing hipster; etc. Knowing about stylistic registers helps us interpret people’s linguistic behavior.

The same applies to Russian, and one of the goals of this book is to help students develop stylistic awareness of registers in Russian (see Freels 2007). For example, the utterance «Я люблю Беню Крика, и мне все равно, что он является бандитом» would strike any speaker of Russian as rather bizarre, because this first-person statement, dealing with intimate feelings, uses the formal word является, which is inappropriate for such a context. An appropriate, neutral way to express the same idea would be: «Я люблю Беню Крика, и мне все равно, что он бандит». Thus, one can distinguish between neutral style (нейтральный стиль), a language that can be safely used in a great variety of situations, from formal style (формальный стиль), which in this book is used as a catch-all term for official discourse, bureaucratese, or economic, legal, or any other technical discourse.

In addition to formal and neutral style, the textbook also makes reference to obsolete (устаревшее, marked in dictionaries with the abbreviation устар.) and bookish (книжное, or книж.) styles, and a variety of informal register types. In general, dictionaries present levels of informality as a scale. For example, on gramota.ru, informal words can be marked as simply colloquial (разговорное, or разг.), folkish-colloquial (народноразговорное, or нар.-разг.), rude (грубое or груб., sometimes referred to as бранное or бран.), jargon (жаргон, or жарг.) or vulgar (вульгарное or вульг.); while the latter is to be differentiated from мат (“obscene,” “offensive”), , which is not found in regular dictionaries. Dictionaries also use the label low-style colloquial (разговорно-сниженное, or разг.-сниж.) to signify an intermediate stage between colloquial and rude. These stylistic labels are retained in this textbook’s footnotes and assignments; the book also employs the stylistic labels диалектное (which gramota.ru refers to as нареч.) and просторечие (“uneducated discourse”), which gramota.ru does not use.

The nuanced differentiation between stylistic registers described here may seem excessive for a language textbook, but it has several advantages. First, it accustoms students to seeing the labels that they will encounter in Russian-to-Russian dictionaries, and that are especially important for heritage speakers who may not differentiate between formal and informal discourse. Second, attention to registers can help us interpret characters. For example, Ostap Bender, the con-artist from The Twelve Chairs, easily switches between formal and colloquial registers, and this linguistic unpredictability is one of the ways in which Bender manipulates or confuses his interlocutors. Finally, attention to register is crucial in understanding the language of the early Soviet period studied in this textbook. Stylistic register shifts represented a particularly prominent change in that period. As documented by linguist Afanasii Selishchev in his book The Language of the Revolutionary Epoch (1928), the revolutionary and post-revolutionary era was accompanied by an excessive use of ambiguous language, bureaucratese, and ideological clichés, like социал-предатели (“social-traitors”) or хищники империализма (“imperialist predators”); we will encounter the latter phrase in the speech of Shvonder, one of the characters in Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog. Selishchev quotes an extreme, comical example of vague bureaucratic language:

Мы молодежь, принимая во внимание, все эти серьезные тенденции и проекты, хоть минимум, но направлены стремиться серьезно обдумывая к сему интенсивно преодолевая старые, закоренелые виды, должны идти принципиально вперед, пробуждаясь от вечной спячки и апатичности. (Selishchev 1928)

We, the young people, taking into account all these serious tendencies and projects, are directed at the very minimum to strive toward this seriously pondering and intensively overcoming old, ingrained patterns, [and] must go fundamentally forward, awakening from age-old dormancy and apathy.

Bureaucratic phrases, observed Selishchev, were not a feature of written texts only: they were striking precisely because they entered spoken language. Responding to such speech, one newspaper of the period, quoted by Selishchev, noted that “presenters at meetings mention ‘the masses,’ but have not yet learned how to talk to the masses. Workers at one presentation sent notes to the speaker: ‘Please do not use vague language. We have just learned to read… What is ‘periphery,’ ‘quintessential,’ ‘tendency’”?

Almost forty years later, Selishchev’s sentiments were echoed by the Russian writer Kornei Chukovsky who, in his book Zhivoi kak zhizn’ (As Alive As Life Itself), coined the term канцелярит, or “bureaucratitis” (Chukovsky 1966: 114). According to Chukovsky, this word, with its disease-connoting suffix, is exemplified by phrases like учитывая вышеизложенное (“considering the abovementioned”), получив нижеследующее (“having received the below-following”), указанный период (“the period indicated”), or выдана данная справка (“the given certificate has been issued / given out”). Like Selishchev (1928), Chukovsky (1966) lamented the incursion of written bureaucratese into spoken Russian, famously declaring that he would sooner chop off his right hand than use bureaucratese. Chukovsky’s statement, of course, is dramatic and overly general: there are times and contexts when grammatical official written language is indeed called for; in fact, this is the only way to write a letter to an embassy if one wants to be taken seriously. This book thus includes writing exercises where students have to produce official letters. But Chukovsky’s intuitions, as well as Selishchev’s, are important. A similar antipathy to official language is shared by several writers in this volume; the use of an exaggerated, often ungrammatical bureaucratic discourse, for instance, is one of Bulgakov’s and Babel’s satirical devices.1

The stylistic register shifts of the early Soviet period described by Selishchev (1928) occurred in different directions. It was not just formal phrases that were entering colloquial language “from above”; at the same time, “from below,” words that had previously been considered part of the uneducated or rural-dialectal register gained wider acceptance in everyday speech, and we still use them routinely today. Words that underwent such stylistic shift include парень (“guy”), ребята (“guys”), пока (“bye-bye”), похабный (“dirty, obscene”), жульничать (“to cheat,” e.g., in a game), ему/ей наплевать (“s/he does not care about,” lit., “s/he could spit on”), ничего (“not too bad,” lit. “nothing”), Питер (“St. Petersburg”), пьянка (a drinking party), ляпнуть (to “blurt” or say something stupid). Some of these words appear in the narrative of Bulgakov’s Sharik, showing that Sharik the dog shares many linguistic characteristics with an average Soviet everyman long before he is transformed into Sharikov, the New Soviet Man.

Selishchev’s study lists other characteristics of the period highly relevant for this book. He mentions the mass borrowings of foreign words, such as альянс, гарант, дискредитация, лимит, ориентироваться, стабилизация, стандaртизация. Borrowings were not limited to individual words, but extended to prefixes or phrases; among the ones listed by Selishchev are сверх- (uber- or ober-), as in Lenin’s сверхлевый коммунист (“super-left communist”), целиком полностью (a rendering, pleonastic in Russian, of the German ganz und voll), and в общем и целом (from the German im grossen und ganzen); the latter phrase appears in the speech of Bulgakov’s Shvonder. Lists of foreign words and their meanings were attached to calendars and distributed among peasants (Selishchev 1928); thus, Bulgakov’s Sharikov’s adoption of the name Poligraf from a calendar represents a realistic rather than absurd element of Heart of a Dog. This period also saw an enormous influx of abbreviations, such as ВЧК (Всероссийская Чрезвычайная комиссия – the All-Russian Emergency Commission, or Cheka), ЦИК (Центральный исполнительный комитет – the Central Executive Committee), Нарком (народный комиссар – people’s commissar), and Ликбез (ликвидация безграмотности – the Soviet literacy campaign); many such abbreviations appear in the text of The Twelve Chairs. 2Selishchev (1928) quotes a newspaper report describing peasants’ reaction to such abbreviations: “Peasants coming to the city are bewildered amid these awkward and strange names.” But as Zhivov (2005) points out, Bolshevik revolutionary speakers felt quite at home with these acronyms: they gave them a sense of power and control, while foreign borrowings signaled symbolically that the revolution was supposed to spread across nations, being international both ideologically and linguistically.2

Selishchev’s study presents the most extensive account of early Soviet linguistic changes, but as Zhivov (2005) convincingly observes, it is problematic to attempt to explain, as does Selishchev, early Soviet language change with reference to the linguistic, ethnic, or educational background of revolutionaries themselves; such an approach opens the possibility of “blaming” the other for the Russian Revolution. For readers of 1920s literature, the main value of Selishchev’s book is not its explanation of the causes of linguistic change, but in the striking overlap between his lists of examples of “Sovietese” and the language of Russian literature of the 1920s; his ability to register people’s reactions and intuitions, to document their responses to innovation, to record what seemed striking to linguists, writers, or ordinary speakers – right at the moment when these changes actually occurred. In effect, Selishchev’s book provides a phonographic image of the vanished early Soviet “street”, and many of the assignments in this textbook encourage students to “relive” Selishchev’s experience and attend to the same phenomena he found striking enough to record for posterity.

1 Note that Soviet-era ideological clichés, like героический подвиг (“heroic deed”), are treated in this book as a separate category from formal discourse and are addressed in the chapter on Platonov (assignment 7) and Furmanov (assignment 12).

2 Some foreign borrowings entered the Russian language before the revolution as well, such as баррикады, бойкот, демонстрация, пропаганда, партия, провокатор, петиция, фракция, митинг; the difference, as Zhivov (2005) observes, was in the strikingly increased proportions of such words in the postrevolutionary language.

1.3: Stylistic registers is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.