Town To Honor Forgotten Letter
Published: October 30, 2001 (Issue # 717)
Temporary tribute to the letter "yo" next to a memorial to the man who invented it.
MOSCOW - The town of Ulyanovsk may have plenty of monuments and museums to its famous son, Vladimir Lenin, but a group of locals wants the town to erect a statue to another birth in its history - the seventh letter of the Russian alphabet.
Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - Lenin was a pseudonym - had his own lexical influence on the Volga town, which was renamed Ulyanovsk on the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1970. But the letter "ë ," pronounced yo, is on a completely higher semantic level, Ulyanovsk residents say. The letter has since its birth in 1797 become the langurage's most expressive or, when needed, most indecent letter.
And Ulyanovsk is banking on this one small letter to bring in the tourists who no longer visit to see where Lenin was born.
Local writer Nikolai Karamzin invented the letter in 1797 to fill a gap for the sound he found lacking in the Russian alphabet. Now Ulyanovsk natives say it is the country's favorite letter, used to start expressions of surprise, anger and frustration and some of the strongest obscenities.
"Everyone loves this letter, the sound and the letter, respectively. We all express the most joyful, overwhelming emotions with the help of this letter," Tatyana Klink, a local architect who is helping run the campaign to erect the monument, said in recent televised remarks.
For such a favorite letter, yo is used very sparsely in the Russian language, and for a non-native speaker it is remarkably difficult to find.
Most Russian books and newspapers do not print the umlaut over the letter as its presence, for the most part, is obvious to the Russian speaker.
This absence can cause confusions abroad. The "e" in former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's name is actually a yo and pronounced as such.
In Russian dictionaries, yo doesn't even merit a section of its own, with all entries slipped into the "ye" section. In the Oxford Russian-English dictionary, only 10 words beginning with yo are actually listed.
Two of those are swear words that would make a sailor blush, while another is yorsh, a ruff fish or a slang term for a drink mixing beer and vodka.
Ulyanovsk residents once ran a competition to see who could name the most clean words beginning with the letter. Eight was the most the winner could come up with.
The most frequently used words beginning with yo are yozh, or hedgehog; yolka, or fir tree; and a host of euphemisms for profanities such as yo moyo, yolki-palki, yoshkin kot and yoprst.
Ulyanovsk philosophy teacher Sergei Petrov, who like Klink is enamored with the letter's expressive uses, said that often the letter is simply added to the end of a word to express discontent. Red Army soldiers, Petrov said, would refer to the White Army as eto ofitseryo, the added yo being a distinctive mark of disdain.
Four years ago, on the 200th anniversary of Karamzin's invention, Petrov came up with the idea for a monument to the letter.
At that time, Ulyanovsk, like many regional towns, had teachers, factory workers and doctors who had not been paid for months. Petrov suggested that the letter could be placed above the exit to the schools, factories and hospitals so that employees, leaving after another day of working for nothing, could see the letter and choose the right expletive to express themselves.
The suggestion was never taken up.
But this summer, town officials met to discuss ways to pull more tourists into town, and Klink came up with the idea for a yo monument.
The town then announced a design competition for the tribute to yo.
Fifty designs have already been submitted, with a favorite being a fountain that sprays water in the shape of the letter whenever an attractive girl walks past. Another favorite envisions a monument that lights up whenever somebody keels over nearby.
Inadvertently, the yo competition has also sparked a division in the press. Local paper Simbirsk Courier, which is one of the few papers in the country to print the letter yo with umlauts, was supportive, but Ulyanovsk Pravda attacked the idea.
"They say teachers and doctors are not being paid. They say we are taking money from the poor," Petrov said.
He said the monument would be funded through private sponsors.
A temporary monument to yo was set up last week beside a monument to Karamzin in the center of town. But with so many entries coming in, the deadline for the design competition has been extended to April 1.
The statue is to be erected next year.
"When we have a beautiful monument, more people will come than those who came to see Lenin," Petrov said optimistically.