Linguistic Ideologies, Economies, and Technologies in the Language Culture of Contemporary Russia (1987-2008)

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Abstract: In this article I outline a theoretical and methodological framework for pursing a comprehensive study of the dominant issues and trends of Russian language culture from the Perestroika era through the present day. My chief claim is that the general shape, tone, and trajectory of a language culture will change over time and depend largely on the interdependence of three driving forces: language ideologies, economies, and technologies. To illustrate and substantiate this working hypothesis I examine both secondary theoretical sources and concrete case studies from the language culture of contemporary Russia (1987-2008).

1. Politkonkretnost'

Along with kreativ, it was this term that received the dubious award of "anti-word of the year" (antislovo goda) from a panel of linguists and literary critics appointed to name both the anti-word and word of the year for 2007 (Epshtein 2008). (The honor of "word of the year" went to glamur.) Although a close cousin to politkorrektnost', a derivative of the English "political correctness", it means something quite different (and can be translated literally as 'political concreteness'), more akin to what some believe to have been the very first manifestations of "political correctness", now long forgotten, in Mao's "correct thinking" and the Leninist "correct line-ism" (Suhr and Johnson 2003: 8-9). As Mikhail Epshtein defines the term in his article announcing the awards,

Politkonkretnost' is when, in politics, everything is determined in advance, such as duma elections or the election of the next president. Putin comes out in support of "United Russia", they get a majority, nominate a successor, and everyone votes for him. It can be added that recently the word 'konkretnyj' has acquired broad popularity in such slang expressions as 'konkretnyj pacan' ("real [i.e., 'totally awesome'] lad") [and] 'konkretnyj muzik' ("real bloke").

Who are these politically concrete? Those who have announced themselves, positioned themselves within the framework of the dominant policy. The chair of the election commission, who suggests that "the president cannot be incorrect (a formula of papal infallibility)". Cultural and sports leaders begging the president (out of personal love for him) to violate the constitution. Pedagogues and caregivers organizing a movement of young 'bear cubs' (miski) for the sake of victory for the 'all-bear' cause. You sense the difference: in the West--political correctness, in Russia--political concreteness. (Epshtein 2008) (1)

On a certain level, the English and Russian terms do share a common orientation--one critical of a certain political or social agenda and cognizant of the powerful role of language in establishing and imposing that agenda. (An interesting corollary here is that both terms seem to be deployed chiefly by opponents of the phenomenon they are using it to describe. No self-respecting person would label him or herself "PC" or, presumably, "politkonkretnyj".) But the objects of criticism are quite different: in one case, left intellectuals who are themselves largely marginalized in American culture; in the other, establishment players who belong, or aspire to belong, to dominant power structures. One sees "political correctness" as an illness of an outgroup and threat to established belief systems, the other views politkonkretnost' as a malady of party insiders keen on reinforcing the status quo and thereby buttressing their own claim to its authority. One challenges the status quo, the other seeks to reinforce it. And yet the two do share one assumption central to my work: that language not only reflects but itself shapes perception, identity, reality; that how we name things and call people helps define not only their image and status in society, but our own as well. In their very differences, the two terms also reflect a second important assumption--that language, culture, and politics are closely intertwined and mutually dependent on one another for meaning. …