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Does language need to be protected? A discussion with Andrei Gelasimov, Eugene Vodolazkin and Alexei Yudin

Language is the key to any communication. Should we protect it like the Amazon rainforest or should we ultimately leave it to function as a self-regulating system? Historian and journalist Alexei Yudin discussed this at Noôdome with Andrei Gelasimov and Eugene Vodolazkin.

Andrei Gelasimov
Historian of religion, journalist and television presenter
Eugene Vodolazkin
Expert on Russian literature and the Middle Ages and Doctor of Philology
Alexei Yudin
Journalist and historian
So, does language need to be protected?
Eugene Vodolazkin thinks that it does — from growth: “Language is an adolescent that will never grow up. It’s in a state of perpetual puberty. Problems with a language begin when you try to develop it.”
The problem of ignorance in language
Words can take on new meanings simply because they are used incorrectly. Take for example the Russian word dovlet’, meaning “to oppress.” All Russian speakers know its present meaning, but did it always mean the same thing? In the Middle Ages, dovlet’ meant “to be content.” But its sound is similar to davit’, whose figurative meaning is “to oppress”, and so similarity trumps logic and it is used incorrectly — and so the language develops.

“That’s tough on language. Developing language is not an honourable position,” concluded Eugene Vodolazkin.

But Andrei Gelasimov allows his students to use language freely and to develop their own. Is that ignorance? Gelasimov is not sure; for the time being, he is simply observing what happens.
Should we use loanwords?
When we borrow words from other languages, we’re expanding our language by increasing the number of words we have. But it’s about more than that. Vodolazkin thought there was nothing wrong with making use of loanwords per se; they are a bad thing when they affect the music of the language.

“Tupolev was once shown the design for a plane. He said, ‘No, that won’t fly. Planes that aren’t beautiful don’t fly.” The same applies to language, in Vodolazkin’s view. Gelasimov remarked that this was almost like Plato’s belief that beauty is truth.

The speakers agreed that a hermetically sealed language becomes exhausted and we do need to borrow words: it’s simply a question of doing so proportionately and with justification. Next, the speakers touched on the sensitive and topical subject of introducing feminized nouns.
Feminized nouns: a revolution or the norm?
In Russian, Vodolazkin believes that feminized nouns for jobs and similar roles — akin to words such as “actress” or “businesswoman” in English — are not a problem, because they have long been a feature of the Russian language. Problems in the contemporary Russian language are down to changes taking place too rapidly: language requires an extended period of change. “Language can’t withstand revolutions. Words that are introduced artificially will have a controversial tone, so they won’t last,” he added.

A new question had come up by the end of the event: do we speak language or does language “speak” through us? We have yet to answer this but everyone agreed on one thing: language is definitely smarter than those who speak it. It takes what it needs and leaves what it doesn’t.