Grammar war ahead? Twitter vs Russian

Posted on 18 April 2011


The number of Internet users in Russia isn’t massive, relatively speaking – but it recently hit 50 million (out of 140 or so million). They don’t all use Twitter, but the number is growing by the minute.

As in 2008 for Barack Obama et al., the 2012  presidential elections in Russia will see the country’s first major political role for the social networking site. Both Medvedev and Putin are already au fait with tweeting – with Medvedev’s Russian presidential count boasting 235,000 followers.

Now, if you didn’t do Russian at school – perhaps you remember your German or Latin classes. All of these languages have overt grammatical cases systems – nominatives, accusatives, ablatives, datives, vocatives… – is it all coming screaming back?

Russian has between six and eight cases depending on who you ask (it’s seven, if you ask me). It’s simple enough once you’ve got the paradigms memorised. After a while, they more or less come naturally.

Where English normally uses a preposition of sorts: to x, with x, of x — Russian changes the morpheme on the end of the word: the additional endings x-{a}, x-{u},  x-{om}, x-{e} serve the vast majority of regular masculine singular nouns, for example.

For normal written and spoken languages, it works nicely.

Navalny on Twitter

Whatever the alphabet, the surname "Navalny" here should be "Navalnogo"

When it comes to Twitter, I’ve noticed that things start to get a little difficult.

You see, with search engines it doesn’t matter which case you put the word in – although you will by default search for a word in the nominative form (as you’d find it in the dictionary).

But, with Twitter, the problem is that very often you have a keyword or two in the sentence. Maybe you want to hashtag it.

A very obvious example of this is names – as with the example highlighted in the screenshot cutting to the right.

Aleksei Navalny – the famous anti-United Russia blogger and lawyer – should change depending on the grammatical position in the sentence.

Here: “только что зашел в жж #navalny…” – should (if you follow the rules) be “…#navalnogo”

This comes from another Twitter features: if you want to mention @someone – you need to include it in the regular, nominative form.

But it will inevitably apply to all trending words.

Facebook is also breaking the rules on grammar here – in the same way.

Ben on Facebook

My name should, by rights, be "Benu Taveneru" (Бену Тавенеру) here

If you want to mention someone, you have to have it as is set with the profile. Obviously, this is in the nominative.

Oversight? I think so!

Of course Twitter and Facebook were both first made for English-speakers, and then the first raft of languages are by-and-large non-inflected, i.e. the words don’t change form – e.g. French, Chinese, Spanish.

If you want to highlight these words as identified names, keywords, trending hashtags, etc., you have to be able to write sentences with all these words in the nominative form.

Time will tell whether this will hinder comprehension – I have a feeling that it won’t really.

But it can be confusing, while people get used to it. Look at this tweet from the 12 April (Gagarin anniversary).

[Я забыл] сфоткать что-то на тему #kosmos в #orenburg на родине #Gagarina

[I forgot] to take pictures of something #space related in #orenburg in #Gagarin‘s homeland

Now, #kosmos should be in the genitive (#kosmosa), #orenburg should be in the prepositional (#orenburge) – but the user has put Gagarin in the correct genitive case – adding {-a}.

(If you think, the English is also affected with the ‘s, but most people would probably leave a gap – so as not to interfere with the word.)

Now, the first two keywords are picked up by Twitter. But #Gagarina is not.

If you search this, you get just this one tweet, as opposed to thousands and thousands of #Gagarin.

Theoretically, if everyone wrote with cases – you’d get a lot of different searchable trending terms, although depending on the number of cases – the search would be rather diluted.

So – unless the technology allows for each language’s grammatical foibles, Twitter and Facebook are forcing languages into a grammatical corner, levelling cases into the more recognisable – nominative – case.

And this is before we consider agglutinative languages – like Turkish – which string all grammatical information together and squidge it into the same word, or root-based languages – like Arabic – where words revolve, typically, around three semantically-key letters in a word.

Now that’s going to get messy. Perhaps they need to take a leaf out of whichever book Google read that allowed their search able to match words in all their forms…


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