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Language and Power in the Creation of the USSR, 1917-1953.

Michael G. Smith: Language and Power in the Creation of the USSR, 1917-1953. Contributions to the Sociology of Language 80. Berlin and New York: Moution de Gruyter, 1998. vi + 294 pp.

This book is a critical examination of official Soviet linguistic policy in the period from the Russian Revolution to Stalin's death in 1953. The book is divided into eight chapters grouped into four parts, in addition to an Introduction (pp. 1-13) and a Conclusion (pp. 175-180). Part I, "Historical challenges," includes chapters on "Democracy and language in late imperial Russia" (pp. 15-33) and "Divided speech communities of the Soviet Union" (pp. 35-58); Part II, "Theoretical approaches," includes "G. G. Shpet, linguistic structure, and the Eurasian imperative in Soviet language reform" (pp. 59-80) and "N. Ia. Ma rr, language history, and the Stalin cultural revolution" (pp. 81-102); Part III, "Practical experiments," includes "Mass mobilizing for Russian literacy: scripts, grammar and style" (pp. 103-119) and "`A revolution for the east': Latin alphabets and their polemics" (pp. 121-142); Part IV, "Stalinist solutions," includes "The official campaign for Russian language culture" (pp. 143-160) and "Stalin's linguistic theories as cultural conquest" (pp. 161-173). The volume closes with abbreviations and acronyms (pp. 181-183), Notes (pp. 185-223), Archival sources (pp. 225-228), References (pp. 229-286), and Index (pp. 287-294). The usual way of presenting bibliographical references, incidentally, is a note number in the text, which leads to one of the notes toward the back of the book, which in turn includes an author/date or equivalent reference that must be sought in the list of references, all of this requiring a fair amount of manual dexterity on the part of the reader.

The book follows three main strands of Soviet linguistic policy against the background of political changes. First, attention is paid to the Russian language, in particular mother-tongue education in Russian-language schools, though also the teaching and spread of Russian among the non-Russian-speaking population of the Soviet Union. A question of particular importance here is spelling reform, including the major reform officially implemented in 1918. Another question treated within this rubric is the teaching of literacy in Russian, with special emphasis on the shift from more experimental methods in the early Soviet period to more traditional methods from the late 1930s (p. 161). Second, official policy relating to relations among the various languages of the Soviet Union is discussed, including the practice in the early Soviet period (roughly to the 1930s) of devising writing systems for some 60 languages using the Latin alphabet, followed by a period in which these languages had their writing systems shifted to Russian Cyrillic; the question of whether neologisms should be introduced primarily through loans from Russian, a policy that clearly and explicitly triumphed from the 1930s; and of course the question of the relative positions of Russian as the "language of interethnic communication" and of local languages in the Soviet Union. The third strand is the development of linguistics in the Soviet Union, including of course the aberrations of the Marrist period from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, with its claim that different stages in language evolution match the different stages of Marxist economic evolution.

The strength of the book is in its analysis of the political side. Access to archival material that was not open to outside inspection during the Soviet period has meant that much hitherto unavailable material has been used, with the result that it is now sometimes possible to pinpoint particular changes in official policy much more accurately than was the case heretofore. And while some aspects of the interrelation between Soviet linguistics and Soviet linguistic policies were reasonably well known before, such as the role of Marrism, the albeit temporary important influence of some other linguists and schools had been largely neglected, such as G. G. Shpet (pages 59-65) and Eurasianism, with its denial or at least deemphasis of the linguistic ties between Russian and Indo-European and the emphasis on Russian's ties to the East. Smith succeeds in demonstrating the at times intricate links between linguistic theories, political ideology and linguistic policies, and certainly my own understanding of some of the details of these interactions has been clarified, for instance the precise reasons for the attractiveness of Marr's theories, which stemmed not only from the apparent correlation of linguistic and Marxist economic evolution, but also from the importance of his notion of linguistic "crossbreeding" for utopian ideas concerning the eventual fusing of all languages into a single international language (pp. 87-88).

The side of the discussion that is slighted in presentation is, unfortunately, the structure of language. In contrast to such works as Comrie (1981) and Comrie et al. (1996) -- both, incidentally, cited in the references, the latter in the form of its 1978 predecessor -- hardly any actual examples of linguistic forms are presented in the book, and even the few that are presented are not without error, as in the item galif (for the correct form galife), glossed `riding breaches' (page 117) -- though at least some principle of linguistic equality seems to have determined that the English translation (for `riding breeches') should also be flawed, and errors of this kind do not, of course, affect the argument. There are other instances where linguists will find linguistic definitions vaguely familiar but hardly adequate, as when a phoneme is defined as "the letter sign in languages which carries and distinguishes meaning, apart from the many distinctive features of sounds" (page 19); presumably the linguistically initiated already know what a phoneme is, but this definition will not serve to enlighten other readers. And this is unfortunate, since one of the main recurring debates relating to Russian spelling that is discussed in the volume is the potential conflict between the phonetic (linguists would rather say: phonemic) and the morphological principles, one of whose main manifestations in Russian is the decision not to represent in writing the neutralization of unstressed vowels, that is, triumph of the morphological principle. (Belarusian spelling, interestingly, does represent this neutralization in spelling.) A few choice examples and a clearer presentation of the principles would have aided readers who are not already familiar with the principles and their application to Russian.

With regard to the non-Russian languages of the Soviet Union, one finds similar unfortunate wordings, as when vowel harmony is introduced in the sentence "[a]s a unique characteristic of the Turkic sound system, it [i.e. vowel harmony -- BC] dictated the need for a rather large vowel system in order to provide matching sets of vowels within and between words" (page 132). Vowel harmony is, of course, far from unique to Turkic languages; indeed even among the languages of the former Soviet Union it is also found, for instance, in some Uralic languages and in Chukchi. Turkic languages typically get by with eight or nine vowel phonemes, hardly a large number by world standards, and well below the number of vowel phonemes in standard varieties of English or French. And the number of vowel phonemes is in principle independent of the existence of vowel harmony. Smith's discussion of vowel harmony is part of a discussion of the choice of standard variety for Uzbek, where there was a real controversy over whether the standard should be based on the southern dialects, with a nine-vowel system, or the northern dialects (including that of the more Russianized captial Tashkent), which are at least analyzed conventionally as having a six-vowel system, with the six-vowel system eventually triumphing in 1934 (p. 136). But this was primarily a polemic over the choice of dialect base, rather than, as suggested by Smith, an issue over vowel harmony and Russian loanwords -- other Turkic languages with clearly eight- or nine-vowel systems succeeded then as now in incorporating Russian loans. Now, in the history of Soviet language policies, linguistically erroneous claims were often made as arguments in favor of a particular position, and Smith may be right in implying that this was the case here. (For another instance, consider the claim discussed by Comrie [1981: 32-33] that the Cyrillic alphabet, having more letters than the Latin alphabet, is better suited for representing languages with a larger number of phonemes, without recourse to diacritics or special letters. In fact, the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets do about equally well, despite the disparity in number of letters -- 33 versus 26 -- because much of the additional number in Cyrillic is designed to deal with rather parochial problems of Russian phonology, such as the phonemic opposition between palatalized and nonpalatalized consonants, that are rarely relevant in the non-Slavic languages of the Soviet Union.) Thus, overall in evaluating the claims of Soviet language policies with regard to the advantages and disadvantages of specific policies, it is necessary to have a clear description and analysis of the linguistic structures at issue. Only then can one distinguish genuine arguments based on linguistic structures from pseudo-arguments, although of course one is still left with the more difficult problem of deciding whether the advocates of a particular pseudo-argument advanced that argument through ignorance or by deceit.

Since the sole aim of this book is to discuss language policy in the Soviet Union, it is perhaps not unreasonable that there is little or no comparison with the rest of the world. And indeed, much of the specific politicization of language policy in the period under discussion seems unique to the Soviet Union and its closest satellites, where advocacy of a particular linguistic approach could lead to one's being branded as a leftwing deviationist or a bourgeois nationalist, and to imprisonment. But many of the problems that were being discussed are problems that are very much alive in other parts of the world. For instance, the furor in Germany that has surrounded a recent rather mild spelling reform of German (effective 1998) shows that spelling reform in democratic societies can equally unleash political backlashes; much of the discussion of controversies surrounding mother-tongue education in Russian-language schools will be familiar to those who follow the debate between "conservatives" and "liberals" with regard to mother-tongue education in the English-speaking world; the rights of minority languages are as much a subject of political debate, including political violence, in the world today as they were in the Soviet Union; and even where minority languages are guaranteed legal status, questions of the relationship to the majority language remain controversial, such as adoption or rejection of orthographic systems close to that of the majority language, or adoption or rejection of loan vocabulary from the majority language. This perspective would emphasize that there were real linguistic problems requiring practical solutions in the Soviet Union, rather than seeing events as driven purely by political concerns.

The volume draws to a close in 1953, the year of Stalin's death and clearly an important watershed in Soviet cultural history. Certainly linguistics as a science adopted a more normal appearance after the vagaries of Marrism. But, contrary to the suggestion on page 176, even in the later Soviet Union formalist and structural approaches remained an object of some suspicion, with many of those recognized as leading practitioners continuing their work outside the Russian linguistic establishment or in emigration. While one might agree that the survival of the major languages of the Soviet Union was guaranteed largely independently of official policies (pp. 179-180), one should equally note that both some small languages that were provided with official support and some that were denied such support or had such support withdrawn (Comrie 1981: 25-27) have nonetheless become moribund. Even if the dynamics of language development and interaction were largely independent of the specifics of official Soviet policy, the results in individual cases have been different depending on local circumstances.


Comrie, Bernard (1981). Languages of the Sovient Union. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

--; Stone, Gerald; and Polinsky, Maria (1996). The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Revised edition of Comrie, Bernard; and Stone, Gerald [1978]. The Russian Language Since the Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.)


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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Comrie, Bernard
Publication:Linguistics: an interdisciplinary journal of the language sciences
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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