Yo: In Russia, Two Dots Can Mean a Lot They Change the Way a Letter Is Pronounced, Raising Controversy; Fans, Monuments
By JAMES MARSON, Wall Street Journal
MOSCOW—When Alexander Shevelyov tried to register his son's birth earlier this year, two small dots gave him one big problem.
While his wife's passport has the dots over the letter ë in the final syllable of her surname, Mr. Shevelyov's doesn't. "I couldn't register as my son's father," he says, because the spellings didn't match.
In Russian, the two dots show that the letter should be pronounced "yo" rather than "ye."
The late Viktor Chumakov, an 80-year-old former engineer, waged a campaign for two decades against what he called the laziness of leaving out the two dots on the letter. His sweater vest reads, "Yo is yours."
Though technically ë qualifies as a separate letter, it has never quite gotten the same respect as other members of the Cyrillic alphabet. Often writers leave out the dots, as it is usually clear to most Russian speakers when what looks like a "ye" is really a "yo." That is why Russians know Stalin's successor as Nikita KhrushchYOv, while the rest of the world thinks he is KhrushchYEv.
The distinction has bedeviled bureaucrats and stymied students of the language for decades, but a solution may be at hand after Mr. Shevelyov wrote to Education Minister Dmitry Livanov in July to complain.
Unexpectedly, Mr. Livanov, who spends most of his time on major overhauls of the university and school systems, took up his cause.
"We absolutely have to fix this problem. Millions are suffering," Mr. Livanov said in September, promising to look into legal changes to, as it were, dot all the e's, where necessary.
The ministry won't say just how it plans to do this, but Mr. Livanov's pledge has rekindled the centuries-old debate over the letter, one that for a small group of enthusiasts goes far beyond the tiny drops of ink.
Russia isn't the only country to debate peculiar letters: In Germany, some leading writers and newspapers called for a boycott of new spelling rules introduced in 1996 that included the partial replacement of the sharp "s," which looks somewhat like a capital B.
But here, the letter ë incites passions and debate that transcend orthography, touching on history, defense of the motherland and amusement at the letter's hint of vulgarity.
Frowned on for decades by some purists after it was invented at the end of the 18th century to reflect colloquial pronunciation, the letter was promoted under Stalin, becoming obligatory in schools and popularized by the Communist Party newspaper.
One often-recounted version tells how the Soviet dictator grew angry after he read a decree where generals' names were written with e, not ë. (Historians say there is no documentary evidence he ordered the letter's use.)
Now, the letter has a cultlike following that has honored it with monuments in two provincial towns, written books about its use and computer programs to make sure the dots are never left out.
It also has a mischievous side, bringing to mind a Russian swear word meaning "copulate," some forms of which start with ë.
Fans of the letter call themselves yofikators—or champions of the letter ë—and insist that the dots be used in all cases when the letter is pronounced "yo." Their opponents say the dots are optional and dismiss the yofikators as amateurs and sticklers for artificial rules.
The late Viktor Chumakov, the self-styled Chief Yofikator of Russia, waged a quixotic campaign for nearly two decades from his Moscow apartment against what he called the laziness of leaving out the two dots.
In an interview before his death on Nov. 17, the 80-year-old former engineer said this lies at the heart of what has been wrong with Russia since the death of Stalin.
"There was an erosion of discipline after Stalin died. Russian slovenliness and slackness took over," he said.
He penned complaints to newspaper editors and label writers, pestered the Kremlin to change the sign to a presidential office and taken a marker pen to a supermarket sign. With a broad grin during the interview, he leafed through a book crammed with packaging and labels for nuts, fish, beer and other foodstuffs that he said were altered after he wrote to the companies.
But it is the academics from the Russian Language Institute that he saw as his greatest opponents.
The state-run institute says the dots, known to linguists as a diacritic, are optional and need only be used in proper names or where a word's meaning would otherwise be unclear.
Mr. Chumakov saw a more sinister motivation. He alleged the institute is at the heart of a plot by the Central Intelligence Agency to weaken Russia.
"In any country, the alphabet is an instrument to bring order," he said, carefully brushing a loose wisp of white hair behind his ear. "If it isn't respected, everything falls to pieces."
Academics at the institute find his passion for ë hard to fathom.
"We are well aware of Mr. Chumakov and his statements," said its deputy director, Maria Kalenchuk. "The yofikators are artificially drawing attention to the letter. It's a kind of parody. Some people collect stamps; others like the letter ë."
"There is absolutely no truth to this allegation," a CIA spokesman said in an email. "The Agency supports the practice of good grammar and pronunciation in any language."
The letter ë is popular for brands, perhaps because its overtones create buzz.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin hinted at a government meeting last year that sales of the hybrid electric car Yo-mobile—produced by one of Russia's richest men, Mikhail Prokhorov—may be helped by its name.
"What have you called it, the Yo-mobile?" Mr. Putin asked, breaking into a smile as officials and businessmen tittered.
The company says it is tapping into the letter's status as a symbol of Russia's cultural heritage.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul was tripped up by the letter in July when he tweeted he was heading to "Yoburg," a vulgar-sounding abbreviation for Yekaterinburg.
After another Twitter user pointed out the "horny overtones," Mr. McFaul apologized. "The richness of the Russian language on Twitter continues to amaze me," he wrote.
Mr. Chumakov waved aside talk of swear words and said he preferred to think of the sound as the pop of a cork from a bottle. Asked whether his quirky love of the letter was an ironic joke, he flashed an affable smile, before protesting the seriousness of his endeavors.
For Mr. Shevelyov, whose complaint to the education minister reignited debates overёthe letter, it is neither a joke nor a source of fascination.
"I can understand love for one's country and language. But a letter?" he says. "I just wish they'd fix the problem with documents."
Write to James Marson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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