Russian Slang and its Study

The present paper provides an overview of four aspects of the study of Russian slang: the history of research on this topic, theoretical issues connected with the study of slang, the various areas of slang, and its dictionaries.

Section 1 of this paper provides an outline of the history of Russian slang research. The first examples of Russian slang were recorded in literary works of the second half of the 17th century. Organized collection of Russian slang (the language of traders, thieves and various professions) started in the middle of the 19th century. Such work was first recognized by linguists when TRACHTENBERG's 1908 dictionary of argot was published: a review of it by BAUDOUIN DE COURTENAY elevated the topic to the level of scholarship.

The first decades of the Soviet era brought changes of the spoken language previously unheard of: boundless quantities of nonstandard vocabulary entered standard Russian. Migration caused by collectivization and industrialization made the language of the cities highly varied. During the great terror under Lenin and Stalin and the years of stagnation of the Brezhnev era at least a hundred million people were imprisoned for some time and were thus daily exposed to the language of the underworld. The spread of such vocabulary in everyday life -unprecedented in its extent in either Russia or elsewhere until then- was also connected to the fact that for the better part of the 20th century even the whole of life outside prison was permeated by the psychology of the persecution under which people could be humiliated and arrested at any moment.

The study of the language of the cities and social dialects began under BORIS LARIN, who in 1926 started work in socialnaja lingvistika, the field that was called sociolinguistics in the United States only in the 1950s. However, Marrist linguistics brought an end to such research: LARIN was exiled to the provinces to teach in a secondary school, and his files perished during the blockade of Leningrad.

Further research was rendered impossible for many years after Stalin in his articles in 1950 on linguistics equated the field of sociolinguistics with the study of the linguistic eccentricities of the aristocracy.

The possibility for renewing research gradually appeared again with the "thawing" during the Khrushchev era. The first articles about student slang were published, although research on the topic of slang was discouraged for a long time to come.

The collection of slang data started in earnest only in the late 1960s. By this time argot and slang vocabulary constituted about 8-14% of the lexical items included in the series of dictionaries of new words, which otherwise openly declared themselves as being "argot free". In the 1980s areas of slang beyond that of students was also studied.

1985, the first year of Perestroika, marked the beginning of the freedom of speech, and, with it, the lifting of ideological barriers before the free flowing of slang into the standard Russian language. Slang expressions now appeared in printed texts without italics. Russian linguists admitted that linguistic means like slang, formerly means only of intragroup communication, increasingly become those of intergroup communication.

Section 2 of the paper reviews the theory of Russian slang. Slang has been discussed under several headings in the literature. The subsection entitled "Three terms" considers the changes in the meaning of the terms argot, jargon and slang on the basis of both entries of general, literary and linguistic dictionaries from 1948 through 1990, and the definitions of leading Russian linguists.

In the subsection entitled "Substandard - nonstandard" it is concluded, primarily on the basis of works by Russian linguists from Germany, that nonstandard vocabulary encompasses literary prostorechies (i.e. stylistically harsher, occasionally coarse, and sometimes even vulgar vocabulary), argot, jargon, slang, obscene vocabulary, and euphemisms.

The subsection entitled "Primitivism and expressiveness" summarizes DMITRY LIHACHEV's two essays written in the gulag, while the subsection entitled "The ontology of slang" reports on the main ideas of a paper by YELISTRATOV which was published as part of the most comprehensive Russian slang vocabulary.

Section 3 provides an overview of Russian slang research. TIMROTH's 1983 book, published in Germany, focused on slang in its broadest definition. KOESTHER-THOMA's work deals with the sociological aspect of the spheres Russian slang occurs in. HOMYAKOV considers nonstandard vocabulary to be a "complex lexico-semantic category". BYKOV carried out research in differentiating between what he calls "jargonisms" and "jargonoids". NILSSON was the first one to provide a general characterization of Russian student slang, a topic also explored by VIETH, GORSKII, ROSIGUOLO, LOSMANOVA, KOPYLENKO, and DUBROVINA. BORISOVA-LUKASHANEC studied the English loanwords in Russian student slang. Hippy jargon was analyzed by Room, military slang by DIACHOK, and that of drug addicts by SANCHEZ PUIG. KOZLOVSKI published a book about gay and lesbian argot in the United States (his data was later checked and updated by KROMBACH), as well as papers about Moscow taxi drivers' slang and about names used to refer to Stalin by the prisoners of the gulag and the nouns and adjectives derived from his name.

Section 4 reviews Russian slang dictionaries. The first subsection briefly characterizes 22 monolingual slang dictionaries published in North America, Europe and Russia between 1965 and 1996. Discussed in more detail are the Russian translation of ROSSI's 2-volume The GULAG handbook, BALDAYEV, BELKO & ISUPOV's dictionary of underworld, prison and camp jargon, YELISTRATOV's dictionary of modern Moscow slang, and BUY's work on the idiom of the obscene. In the end of this section five dictionaries (under compilation in four countries) are mentioned: four of them were published in the Soviet Union and Russia between 1979 and 1995 (a Russian-English, a Russian-German, a Russian-Dutch, and a Russian-Czech dictionary), and the fifth, a Russian-Hungarian dictionary, is one under preparation by the present author.