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It is not often that Russian literary works are given Latin letter titles. The young Valerii Pecheikin’s short story “ICQ” from 2008 is a rare exception together with Viktor Pelevin’s novel Generation “П” and Sergei Minaev’s Духless. In fact Latin letter titles and digital media seem to typical features for Pecheikin, he has also written the short story “YouTube“.

Pecheikin, who was awarded the literary price Debut in 2007, has written a short story situated in an Internet café. The intrigue revolves around the appearance in this very juvenile setting of an old lady, Marina Andreevna, who would like to send a letter to her sister, with whom she has lost contact. She has been told that through the Internet you can get in touch with everyone, and makes this last attempt to find her long lost sister. The literary value lies in Pecheikin’s ability to show the tension in the meeting between the young administrator of the Internet café, Timur, who ends up typing down Marina Andreevna’s hand written letter on a computer, and the old lady.

The short story contrasts the linguistic resources of the young computer geek, which do not allow for the description of tragedy (he has to make do with phrases like “Tipa prikol. Tol’ko ne prikol.”), and the old lady who tries the impossible speech act of reestablishing contact with her sister and telling her that their common sister has recently died, while at the same time reprimanding the addressee for having turned her back on them.

Two different sets of linguistic resources clash when Timur types Maria Andreevna’s letter. “Здравствуй, Наташа!” becomes “Здравствуй Наташа. :-)”, and the rest of the typed text is showered with smilies in different variants. This undermines the tragedy of Maria Andreevna’s life story, while, one could add, it increases the tragedy by leaving her unable to convey her grief. The smilies are thus an integral part of the story.

As are the Latin letters. Both the title and the nick names that appear when Timur and Maria Andreevna enter the ICQ instant messaging program to search for the latter’s sister, are symbols of the digital technology and signals that this technology is the domain of the Latin alphabet. In addition, the vulgar phrase “Nah?” is written in Latin letters to avoid digital censorship. Still phrases like “и-мейл” and even “зи энд” are written in Cyrillic letters. The latter example is somehow ironic and demonstrates the opportunities for creative linguistic play opened by the co-existance of the two alphabets in contemporary Russian.

There appears to be an insurpassable gap between Maria Andreevna’s handwriting and Timur’s digital typing, a technological gap that duplicates the traditional generational gap. Pecheikin succeeds in transfering this into good literature.

A group of Belarusian bloggers recently celebrated the “Week of the Belarusian Latin alphabet”. This is already the third year in a row this occasion is marked by using the Belarusian variety of the Latin alphabet to write blog posts, comments or whatever one needs to put down on paper or hard disk.

The Latin alphabet has a long history in Belarus, and was used widely until approx. 1910, when the choice was made for Cyrillic, which is now the norm. Recently the Academy of Sciences established an official form of the Latin alphabet to be used when writing geographical names on international maps and official documents, but it is not used in the latter context, because the official organs find it technically difficult to use this alphabet on their computers.

Adherents of the Latin alphabet claim that it is genuinly Belarusian and linked to the souls of true Belarusian patriots. They suggest that the Week of the Belarusian Latin alphabet helps convince more people that this is true.

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.