I love this, I'm charmed by this constant joy, even though I feel a chill in my heart, I love the resourcefulness of the word. In a society like this I never hide the fact that I'm a writer, just the opposite--I try to communicate this as soon as I can, to make myself part of the group, and I don't mind writing down the materials of life when I need to.On a recent post at the Varieties, I made an offhand comment about Russian spelling reform, where I noted that the Soviets had abolished the silent and meaningless "yer" (Ъ) and thereby saved countless trees. (Only to waste them again printing indictments in counterrevolution cases. What was the point?) But I don't think I was quite right. The Ъ--and I am speaking here of the pre-revolutionary terminal Ъ, which is now called the "hard sign" and used in a much smaller number of cases--is not meaningless, not anymore. It has transcended the realm of the linguistic and entered that of the political.
"What do you need those swamp boots for?"
"We live in a swamp," I reply, "and swamps are crossed in swamp boots."
"Hey, look at you, a writer, always with some kind of twist. Why don't you go write a complaint from the Russian people, about why they destroyed the three best-loved letters: the yatt, the phita, and the hard sign."
"What are they best-loved for?"
"They give liberty to the word: you can put the letter down, or not--the meaning is the same either way, but it's as if it's lighter and curlier ... Yeah, they abolished three light letters, and gave us three hard ones."
"Which hard ones?"
"The bad letters: G, P, U."
- from the diaries of M. M. Prishvin, 1923
Originally, in the olden days, Ъ sounded roughly like a schwa, a usage which is preserved in modern Bulgarian. As modern Russian evolved, however, Ъ ceased to represent any sound at all, except for modifying vowel sounds between certain roots and prefixes. The terminal ъ, which belonged at the end of all words not ending in а vowel, а ь, or а й, remained as a parasite letter, signifying nothing, occupying millions of pages of space. Already in the nineteenth century reforms began to be suggested, but these made little headway. (Other, even more useless, letters were abolished in the second half of the century). It took the Revolution to excise this hanger-on from the language. In power for barely three months, the Soviets carried out a comprehensive spelling reform aimed at destroying useless letters and thus increasing mass access to reading and writing (since it took a high-quality education to be able to distinguish the rules for one useless letter from its identical counterpart).
It is here that the story gets interesting. As the spelling reform went underway, stubborn reactionary printers continued to use the terminal Ъ as a way of signaling protest against the regime. The Red Guards responded by forcibly seizing all existing stocks of the glyph; of course, that meant that even the meaningful non-terminal Ъ could not be printed, and for several years it was replaced by an apostrophe. (I am always tempted to read texts printed in this style as if they were written in some kind of Leninesque Jewish accent.) The Whites, naturally, continued to use the old orthography. In fact, it became a sort of banner for everything that had been good and true and pious about Imperial Russia, as if some eighteenth-century holdout in Victorian Britain had stubbornly kept using the long S.
So the hard sign isn't meaningless after all: it has a concrete and specific system of referents, and it is seen as a highly charged token of ideological politics. But in order to achieve this referentiality, the terminal Ъ had first to be abolished as a practical linguistic signifier. It thereby short-circuited Barthes' three-fold system of mythological signification (signifier, denotation, connotation); it could only acquire a connotation because it lacked a denotation. Once it acquired one, however, there was no going back. The Communist apostrophe, which denoted the same thing as the non-terminal Ъ, could not but connote the permanent and continually reinforced absence of the terminal. The Revolution did not destroy the Ъ. It gave
it self-transcendence and filled it with more meaning than it had had for hundreds of years.
In post-Soviet Russia, the terminal Ъ is likely to be seen only on the cover of the well-known business daily Коммерсантъ (which sees itself as the successor of an identically-titled pre-revolutionary paper). But there is also a group of people whose goal is to revive the old orthography, a standpoint obviously linked to all sorts of monarchist ideas about the nature of the social order. The political meaning of the Ъ spells the doom of this reformist project. What these reactionaries really want is a return to Tsarism, where all ideologies spoke the same language, where the Ъ was still meaningless. And that, of course, is no longer possible.