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In the middle of the 1970s I made the acquaintance of a young graduate student from Sweden, who was spending a period of study at Pushkin House and had by that time already lived several months in Leningrad. His spoken Russian was good, and during these months he had made friends with half the city and was always being invited to different places. In the course of one conversation with me he made a remark which I remember to this day: ‘You Russians have a peculiar way of arguing. When people argue in Sweden, one of them speaks and the others listen and try to understand what he means. But here one person speaks, and the others wait their turn.’ I was struck with the accuracy of the expression. This was my first, unconscious encounter with a phenomenon that I learnt the names of twenty years later: analysis of communicative interaction, conversational analysis, ethnography of speaking (Hymes 1962), sequence of utterances, change of turn (Hudson 1990: 116–21), overlap (Tannen 1982: 219), and so on. That is what this introductory chapter is concerned with: the traditional peculiarities of a ‘Russian argument’ and the contemporary peculiarities of the discourse of argumentation and their consequences for the future.
Two reservations must be expressed from the start:
The subject of this chapter is what is known in sociolinguistics as register. This term is sometimes used in its strict sense, and sometimes with considerable latitude as a synonym for such terms as genre, style or type of text. In its general scope a register is a variant of language that is contingent on the situation: people switch registers in their speech depending on the situation in which they find themselves speaking (where, with whom and about what; cf. Fishman 1965). The speakers of any language are usually competent in many registers within that language and able to switch freely from one to another depending on the situation. In this respect a register is different from a (social) dialect, since the latter is more tightly bound to the speaker's identity (see Biber 1994 for more detail).
The chapter will treat only of that type of communication that aims at first bringing a group of people to a common opinion on a particular issue, and then, potentially, urging them to joint action.
On 15–17 January 2013 an international conference on ‘Russian Society in Search of a Public Language: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow’ was held at the European University at St Petersburg (EUSP). The idea of the conference was (quoting the call for papers distributed in the spring of 2012) as follows:
Twenty years have passed since the last revolutionary transformation of Russia, but no effective mechanisms for the public discussion of vital problems have yet been developed in that country. The organisers of the conference start from the position that a ‘syndrome of public aphasia’ is not the least of the causes of this, and that it is the result of the underdevelopment of what might be called the ‘public register’ of the Russian language.
The ‘official register’ of modern Russian is well developed – the linguistic, stylistic and genre peculiarities of official speeches have been inherited in their entirety from the Soviet period, when strict regimentation and highly ritualised speech were combined with an extreme level of responsibility for anything spoken in public, and the result of any ‘discussion’ was known in advance. No less well developed – perhaps even better – is our ‘private register’: friendly, confidential conversations ‘in the kitchen’ are a distinctive characteristic of Russian late Soviet and post-Soviet culture. However, the register that would serve for the situation of speaking in public in front of an audience that is unknown and not necessarily friendly, which would help to convey one's point of view to one's opponents and successfully bring the two positions together, is almost totally lacking in modern Russian.
In these conditions either the official or the private register usurps the role of the public register in situations that ought to require it. The use of the official register in public discussions immediately evokes the sense of ‘being organised’, excessive formalisation and a pre-determined result, whereas the use of the private register is associated with the sense that there is no need to arrive at any result at all, and rather to defeat one's opponent than to try and find a compromise together.
The first book to offer a detailed exploration of the condition of public debate in Russia, this pioneering volume presents a truly interdisciplinary perspective on Russian language and society making it essential reading for advanced students and specialist.
When “endangered languages” are mentioned, normally people have in mind the danger of language death, the danger of a language disappearing from the linguistic map of the world. However, in my opinion the situation here is more complicated than one of just “the language is alive versus the language is dead.” Language is a highly viable and an extremely flexible system; it is often not at all easy to eradicate a language.
I would like to present here an example of the outstanding viability of a native language. This particular case exemplifies a Russian–Native contact of extreme intensity and duration (of over 150 years). Current linguistic research in language endangerment suggests that the native language in question should have become extinct long ago, but in reality the situation is very different. This does not mean I am overly optimistic about the fate of endangered native languages; I simply wish to stress that there are other possibilities besides linguistic “life” and “death,” especially at times of sharp turns of history, such as the one Russia is living through now. To an external observer, a caterpillar in a cocoon does not show any sign of life. It looks dead, but it is not dead: it has ceased to be a caterpillar, but in due time it will become a butterfly, and the life of the organism will continue, though the form of life will become different.
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