Monday, April 5, 2010

Language And Social Values

Many words in the language, besides the meanings, have some connotations – stylistic or moral. If there are two different words for one and the same object, most likely, these words either belong to different styles of speech or reflect different moral judgments and approaches to a subject. An attentive observer can use the language to uncover moral values that the society shares and track changes in public opinion by monitoring the speech. Thus, the Russian language provides us with the unbiased and accurate reflection of the changes of commonly shared values in the Russian society. Here are some examples.

In the Soviet Union, “We” always dominated “I”. By the way, in Russian language, the word “I” (я) is a lowercase letter. Altruism and selflessness was considered the main virtues. The word “self-denying” (самоотверженный) was the highest praise. The labor of people, though often not very efficient, was “self-denying”, and it was considered very good. It was right to deny yourself for the welfare of others. There were some words with strong negative connotations for persons who value their own profit more than the abstract common welfare – зазнайка (“swank”, literally, a person who thinks about himself too much), якало (informal I-talker, the one who talks about himself too frequently). “I” was denied in many levels, including the level of spoken language.

Since Perestroika, the moral values started changing, and the idea of the personal success started to penetrate into the social morality. The linguist Irina Levontina wrote an interesting article about the changes of connotations of some words. She said, that nowadays, the word self-denied is rarely applied to one’s social activity and more often to personal life (e.g., a “self-denied” mother). The words “successful” (успешный), “efficient” (эффективный) previously was attributed to actions, not to a person. In the Soviet Unions mass media told us about successful negotiations and efficient production, but now we are reading about successful and efficient managers. With the idea of personal achievements, we’ve got the idea of individual failure as well. The word “loser” (неудачник) had no negative connotation in the Soviet time. A loser was the one who was out of luck – that’s it. Now this word is used to name the one who is worthy nothing. Many words like “individualist” (индивидуалист), “careerist” (карьерист) and “career” (карьера) itself, “egoist” (эгоист) lost their negative moral connotations and now are considered positive personal characteristics. The word персона (a person) was used only in ironical context, while now it is a neutral word.

All these linguistic changes point out that changes of values of the society are changing. During the last two decades, the idea of a personal promotion and self-actualization gained social liking. The claims that individuals are morally obliged to benefit others are not so strong anymore. The success of each distinct member of society is recognized, it is not disgraceful any more to gain a success by your own. Did we lose altruism? My answer is yes, we did. The good news is that along with the individualistic values we have to get the idea of personal responsibility. It’s you, no one else, who is responsible for your success or failures. Well, maybe in another ten years, we will see the penetration of this idea into the language.