Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

The Dialectics of Pronoun Use in Modern Russia

The Dialectics of Pronoun Use in Modern Russia

Brenna Moloney

The use of the formal and informal you pronoun in Russian has changed significantly over the course of the twentieth century. This change reflects the dynamic alterations in Russian social life over the same period. Further, variations in pronominal address continue to be a mode by which contemporary social antagonisms and tensions are expressed. This paper traces the development of pronominal address in the Revolutionary, Stalinist, and post-Perestroika periods. It builds on the work of Paul Friedrich who studied 19th century Russian pronoun use and class relations in the 1970s. In his now classic investigation, Friedrich outlined ten social components of pronoun use. These components serve as a starting point for the present paper and allow some measure with which to trace diachronic change and interpret embedded metalinguistic beliefs in a variety of social settings and usages. Examination of novels, personal letters, television transcripts and essays written on pronoun use form the basis of the analysis and reveal three primary usage shifts. First, the current universal use of the formal vy in addressing strangers regardless of class; second, the rapidity with which younger Russians switch from the formal to informal and third, the loss of ty/vy switching as intimate relationship boundary maintenance. Each of these shifts reflects not only material changes in Russian society but also contain an ideological component, i.e. how Russian speakers view social divisions and conceptualize their place within them. This analysis can serve as a basis for future investigation or comparative analysis on the nature of language change and its relationship to societal changes.

Keywords: language change, ty, vy, pronouns, metalinguistic beliefs, Russian Revolution, Stalin, Trotsky, perestroika, Vladimir Putin, class

Read full essay (PDF)

April 15, 2013 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Very interesting topic. One thing that can be made more clear is how these particular circumstances cause the language changes in question.

    Comment by Ljiljana Progovac | April 15, 2013 | Reply

  2. Great (but challenging) to have the dynamic in full swing in the present. I am reminded of studies surrounding revolutionary France where linguistic leveling was both symptomacic of and operational in class leveling: tu-tois (elimination of the formal second-person singular “vous”), and the replacement of all titles by “citoyen.”

    Comment by Dan | April 19, 2013 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: