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The Cyrillic letter ë (pronounced “yo”) is a matter of widespread debate in Russian society. It has for a long time been a less priviledged member of the Russian alphabet, frequently replaced by e.

In recent years, language purists of different backgrounds have gone to great lengths to revive the letter, seeing it as a symbol of Russian uniqueness. There has even been set up a site, yomaker.ru for the promotion of the letter ë in Russian.

Recently the Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov released a hybrid car entitled ë-mobile, exploiting the letter for commercial purposes. The release led to a long discussion on the web site snob.ru about whether the letter is necessary in the Russian alphabet today. Most of the contributers to this discussion were strongly for the continued use of the letter, and some even wanted to make it compulsory. The discussion raised questions of the importance of identity (ë as a symbol of Russian uniqueness) and technology (it is not always easy to find the letter on a computer keyboard).

The yearly convention of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian studies (formerly known as American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, or just Triple A double S) was held in the far away Los Angeles this November.

Due to some very unfortunate circumstances the Future panel was reduced to one presenter. Our dear colleague Daniela Hristova, who was supposed to give a paper on the linguistic specifics on Russian Internet advertisements, very sadly and unexpectedly passed away just a month before the conference. In addition Aleksandr Berdichevsky, who should have given a paper on some quantitative distinctions between oral speech, written speech and instant messaging in Russian, caught a flu and could not make the trip.

This meant that my contribution, a paper on the politics of Cyrillics on the Internet was the only one at the panel, with Michael S. Gorham serving as discussant. In the paper I showed how Belarus, Russia and Ukraine have reacted very differently to ICANN’s invitation to establish so-called Internationalised Domain Names. While the Russians grabbed the opportunity straight away and have already set up the country code top level domain “.рф”, the Ukrainians have so far been unable to register “.укр” and the Belarusians have ignored the process completely. Russian president Medvedev has connected this process to the interests of the Russian language, and in my opinion the reactions of relevant actors in the three countries show that the Cyrillic alphabet means more to Russians than it does to their Slavic neighbours.

Michael S. Gorham and Dirk Uffelmann, members of the Future of Russian research group, presented papers on other panels at the conference. The representatives of the Future project were well received, and on several occasions recognized as part of “that Bergen group,” an indication that LA is perhaps not as far away after all.

The 2010 Conference of the International Council for Central and East European Studies (ICCEES) was held in Stockholm last week. More than one thousand participants discussed matters of culture, politics and economy related to countries in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. The Future of Russian project contributed with two panels.

The first panel took place on Thursday, and was chaired by Michael Gorham. I had the pleasure of opening the panel with a paper on the technological challenges of writing Cyrillic letters on computers and digital devices, where I argued that while the challenges persist today, they are being countered by programmers and governments in the East Slavonic language communities. Daniela Hristova presented a paper on the role of Latin letter phrases in Russian on-line commercial ads, where she suggested that the Latin letters gain an iconic significance in these ads. Varvara Christie rounded up the panel with a talk on Russian amateur subtitling on YouTube. She gave a typology of different translation strategies and discussed their significance. Unlike professional translations, which are often colored by the culture of the language they are translated into, amateur translations are more dependent upon the culture of the source language. Dirk Uffelmann had some very insightful comments in his role as a discussant, and the contributions from the audience ensured that the following debate was very lively indeed.

On the following day Michael Gorham opened the second panel, which was chaired by Hristova. He talked about two attempts by Russian authorities to influence language culture through the Internet: The Russian World Foundation (Fond Russkii Mir) and the political campaign to promote Cyrillic URLs. These are examples of a more proactive attitude towards language politics from Russian authorities. Gesine Strenge compared the metalinguistic discourse in off-line media to that in the new, on-line media and concluded that the debate on English loanwords is as active in on-line media, but it is also more personal and subjective. Vera Zvereva’s paper dealt with the language of Russian teenage girls’ blogs on Liveinternet.ru. She demonstrated the great degree of linguistic creativity in these blogs, and showed how these norm deviations relate to texts written in Standard Russian by the same girls.

For some of the participants the ICCEES conference signified the beginning of summer holidays, whereas for us here in Norway it marked the end of the summer and indicated that it is time to return to the office. In a couple of weeks the Norwegian participants of the Future of Russian project will go to Tampere, Finland to take part in the 18th Congress of Scandinavian Slavists.

In a recent blog post the Belarusian programmer Ihar Makhanëk explains the challenges of writing Belarusian on a Russian keyboard. As should be known the Cyrillic Belarusian alphabet is distinguished from the Russian Cyrillic one by several letters. The “Latin” “і”, the unique “ў” (u karotkae), the obligatory “ё”, as well as the absence of the Russian letters “щ” and “ъ” (Belarusian uses the diagraph “шч” and an apostrophe respectively).

The solution for many Belarusians (and, possibly Ukrainians as well) when they need to enter the Belarusian “i”, Makhanëk suggests in his highly informative post, is to switch to an English keyboard set up. The problem, however, is that the Belarusian “і” and the Latin “i” have different positions in the Unicode system. The Belarusian “і” holds the position U+0456 (lower-case) and U+0406 (upper-case), while the Latin “i” holds positions U+0069 (lower-case) and U+0049 (upper-case).

As a result of this the use of the Latin “i” as a replacement for the Belarusian creates problems when you want to search for a word, or to make alphabetical lists, since the words you want to search for have been coded incorrectly. Makhanëk’s post shows that the challenges connected with computer-mediated communication are not only related to the available technical solutions, but also to the individual choices of the users.