I don’t post on this blog on weekends, unless something happens that is из ряда вон выходящее (out of the ordinary). Today is just such a day.
As you know, the Russian alphabet has 33 letters. Or rather, it had 33 letters until today when the number was reduced by 1 letter. Can you guess which one?
If you answered with a ё then you are correct. Unexpectedly and in a stark reversal to its постановление (resolution) from May 3, 2007, Министерство образования и науки Российской Федерации (The Ministry of Education and Science of Russian Federation) decided to eliminate the letter from the alphabet.
According to the Ministry’s spokesperson, the decision was a difficult one.
On one hand, letter Ё is present in over 12 500 Russian words as well as in thousands of geographic names in Russia as well as around the world. Furthermore, over 2500 Russian surnames have letter Ё in them. This is a letter used by the most brilliant minds of Russia to compose their бессмертные творения (immortal creations), both prose and poetry.
And yet, compared to the other letters of Russian alphabet, Ё appears infrequently. Statistically, in an average text, the frequency of Ё’s appearance is less than 0.5%. Furthermore, unlike some other letters, most notably И and М, the frequency of appearance is not growing, but staying flat even as the number of words in the modern Russian language is undergoing an explosion.
The spokesperson also noted that neither the old resolution of 1956, nor the more recent one of 2007, both making the use of Ё mandatory in cases when otherwise возможно неправильное прочтение слова (misreading of a word is possible), had any effect on the use (or rather lack of thereof) of the letter.
The only times the decrees were followed were in official documents. However, most people do not read them, but instead rely on СМИ (public media) which customarily replace Ё with Е.
The Ministry emphasizes that although the letter Ё is being retired, the sound [йо] continues to exist and is essential to the vitality and своеобразие (identity) of the Russian language.
As monumental as this decision is, its practical implications are expected to be minor. There will be initial expense and confusion replacing all the old alphabets (i.e. in textbooks, toy blocks, talking toys) with the new versions of just 32 letters. Fortunately, the Russian alphabet song lends itself easily to this change (Sesame Street has already agreed to re-issue an updated version of its Russian alphabet song episode).
Those Russians who have Ё in their names (first, last or patronymic) will continue experience difficulties с оформлением официальных документов (with processing official documents), both in the Russian Federation and abroad.
Those affected the most seem to be the learners of Russian, especially at beginner levels. They will now have a long list of words which pronunciation they will have to memorize. On the bright side, with Ё out of the picture, the rules for word stress will relax somewhat for many words, easing the pain of memorization. This has already happened with a number of words, including свекла and свёкла (two different ways of pronouncing the word “beetroot”) and the list is expected to grow as Russians loose the handy rule of буква Ё всегда ударная (Ё is always stressed).
Of course, as history has shown, there’s always a possibility for yet another dramatic reversal in the rules. Let’s just hope it won’t be the kind that resurrects the ять.
As a tribute to the letter, let’s commemorate its passing by taking a minute or two to remember all the words that start with Ё or have Ё in them.