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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.
    Photo: Itar-Tass

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.

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