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The Formation of Russian Computer Jargon

The Formation of Russian Computer Jargon

Presentation at the International Translation Conference "Global Links, Linguistic Ties: Forging a Future for Translation & Interpreting" New York City, New York, 23-26 March 2000

Author: Natalie Shahova

Due to the tremendous growth in technology coupled with intensification of communication, language processes that used to take years and years are now incredibly swift. The formation of the Russian computer jargon is an example.

This process might be divided into four stages (with shifts that are significantly related to political and economical changes in the country).

The process started following the invention of computers about half a century ago. From the very beginning, the computer industry was considered to be of great military importance; as a result it was developing extensively in all the participating countries.

In the first stage (before the mid-sixties), the computer industry in the USSR was evolving to a large extent independently from the worldwide industry. Along with new ideas, concepts, and technologies, new terms came into being as well. Security requirements and almost the entire absence of scientific communications between Soviet and worldwide developers resulted in the formation of an independent Russian jargon in the field.

Most terms were invented from scratch and thus were totally original. Even "computer" – the word that is now widely used in the Russian language – was not in use at that time. The corresponding unit was called "ellectronno-vychislitel’naya mashina" (which means electronic machine for calculations); the term was usually abbreviated to EVM. The abbreviation pattern was very popular with the Soviet military and as the IT industry was considered to be a part of the military industry it was no surprise that the same pattern was also widely used in the computer industry. The processor in those days was called "ALU" (an abbreviation for the Russian version of "Arithmetic and Logic Unit"), and the hard disk was called "NZHMD" (an abbreviation for "Storage Utilizing Hard Magnetic Discs"), etc.

Consistent with the development of the equipment came advancements in computer science considered to be a part of algorithm theory and other applied math theories. Since these theoretical issues were less subordinate to security requirements, this area gave rise to some sort of international jargon. Following the implementation of high-level programming languages that took place in the late 60s, lots of English terms were incorporated into the Russian language. The adoption primarily involved words that had been previously included in the Russian language in some other forms (e.g. "process" was already a common Russian word, and at that time "processor" was also added) or words that had in the Russian language some non-computer meaning (e.g. "register" was already used in reference to several notions and its computer meaning was added at that time).

Following the "invention" of Russian mainframes very similar to those of IBM, many English manuals were translated, leading to the assimilation of numerous English terms (e.g. "assembler" was adopted and "hard disk" calqued). Some attempts were also made to invent special Russian terms based on Russian roots and word-formation patterns. For instance, some Russian authors used a newly created term "pol’zuha" (formed in accordance with the rules of Russian language from the same root as the Russian equivalent of the word "useful") to denote "utility (software)", however, the artificial word quickly died and now everybody uses "utilita" as a Russian word.

At this stage, the centralized approach dominated. The translation of English monographs (e.g. the famous Programming the IBM 360 by Clarence B. Germain) were accomplished by professional translators and edited by specialists in the computer field. Every term was seriously discussed and authorized.

At the end of the 80s, volume import of computer equipment started. The use of computers received wide acceptance first as shared equipment in offices and later also as personal devices at home. At first, the equipment came mostly from unauthorized sources: no-name computers were brought from abroad in small shipments. Some of them were second-hand and the support documentation was often absent. If present, it was sometimes written in languages that nobody knew.

Actually, most Russians study English at school for about 6 years, and those who choose to go to the university study English there for about 3 more years; other languages are almost completely neglected both in schools and at universities. However, the level of language education (leaving aside schools and universities that specialize in languages and provide the highest skills) is very poor. For 99% of trainers, English is not their mother language and 99% of students haven’t been abroad (though, after the end of the cold war, the situation started to change). Due to these reasons, most Russians don’t understand English natives and cannot read original English texts. The only exceptions to this general rule during the Soviet era were scientists, who were usually able to read literature in their narrow specialty. (Nowadays the army of programmers who are involved with the Internet and have a lot of on-line practice have joined this elite.)

By the end of the 80s, the state itself and most of its inner processes were entirely decentralized. The equipment was imported by numerous small businesses. Due to limited budgets they depended highly on quick turnover; also, offering similar products, they needed to distinguish their devices on the market. One of the ways to make computer equipment popular and to make the products one sold specific was to provide the support documentation in Russian. That’s why at the beginning of the 80s many small dealers chose to undertake the translation of user manuals and other such papers.

To save money, the job was usually done by various employees of these businesses that mostly were not professional translators but rather IT specialists. The main idea of the sellers was to get the Russian documentation out as soon as possible in order to distinguish the equipment on the market and to increase sale volumes. On the other hand, equipment buyers were looking for understandable instructions on how to use their costly acquisitions. That is, nobody was actually concerned with the quality of the translations.

The main principle of the computer specialists usually engaged in the translation process was not to invent Russian terms but rather to use as many English words (in the original form or in Russian transliteration) as possible. First of all they were in a hurry; on the other hand, having learned the new technologies from English sources they found the English jargon quite natural and didn’t know how to express most of the concepts in Russian.

In order to be able to use the generally unalterable English words in normal Russian speech with its highly inflected forms, they sometimes replaced the original English terms by similar sounding Russian words that often had entirely different meanings (for instance, an archaic Russian verb "kliknite" that means "call" was often used to translate "click"). This resulted in multiple Russian equivalents for most English terms (e.g. Russian equivalents of "pictogram" and "badge" are used in parallel with "icon").

The next stage was initiated by the official entrance into the Russian market of the major international computer companies. Seeking to conquer this enormous niche, they started to localize the software. Localized products not only are more popular but also offer an opportunity for great discounts targeted strictly to the Russian market: as localized software has no demand outside Russia they are selling it in Russia with great discounts, being sure that it could not be resold to the West, causing a substantial drop in the worldwide prices.

In particular, Microsoft made great localization efforts that helped them to get the greatest market share. Today, most of the computers in Russia are using MS software, most of which is localized. As a result everybody use the terms suggested by Microsoft.

Currently, a great struggle is taking place between various "wildly" arising terms and a "cultural" mainstream enforced by several worldwide brands. IT professionals tend to use original English terms, slightly modifying them. For instance, using Russian cases for English terms ("softa", "softom", etc.). Typical is the life story of "Internet". When it was invented, it was called "Internet" in Russian. It was written with Latin letters and uninflected (unlike the majority of Russian words). In the next stage, it was written in Cyrillic though still uninflected. During the last year, it came into use as a standard Russian word subordinate to all the rules of the Russian language.

In the past, the Russian language had already overcome the periods when it was "overcrowded" with foreign terms in some specific area. From the times of Pushkin, the Russian upper class widely used French in everyday life. Being often brought up by French tutors, some of the representatives of the Russian upper class knew French better than Russian. Consequently, in the 19th century, most foreign terms usually came from French. However, very few of them survived unaltered.

In the 20th century, English terms were massively adopted first in the aviation area and then in sport (for instance in football). Following the invention of airplanes, all the Russian words pertaining to the area were actually duplicates of foreign words. "Aviation", "airplane", "pilot", etc. were adopted by the Russian language and used in accordance with its rules. However, now only aviation has no alternative in the Russian language. Instead of airplane, we now usually use an old Russian word "samolyot" (that means self-flying unit) which came into being prior to the airplane invention and was then used in fairy tales to denote fantastic devices that were capable of carrying people by air. "Pilot" is most commonly replaced by "lyotchik" (the root of this word means "fly" and is also included in "samolyot").

The same process took place in football. As the game first became popular in Russia, such words as "goalkeeper", "corner", and "off side" were widely used in the Russian speech. However, now we more often say "vratar’" instead of "goalkeeper", "uglovoy" instead of "corner", and "vne igry" instead of "off side".

Thus basing on the previous experience, we may expect that the same pattern will be implemented in the computer jargon. Following the new technologies, new terms are coming from abroad and at first are incorporated into the Russian language as they are. However, 2 to 3 years later newcomers either die out being connected with temporal secondary technologies or somehow assimilate into the Russian language. Some of them are replaced by the terms constructed from Russian words, some are calqued, and some are adopted.

This rapidly changing environment is a great challenge for the Russian translators who specialize in the IT field. Every day brings us new English terms and the only way to cope with them is to understand the underlying concept and to try to express it using Russian words. Dictionaries are not of great help, as they often either lack the newest terms or give obsolete Russian equivalents.