The impact of COVID-19 on Russian

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Yevgeny Basovskaya, a specialist on public speech at Moscow’s State University of the Humanities, says that the disease has had a "radical" influence on the way Russians speak their language.  This begins with the word coronavirus, which has an "a" in the middle.  This is in "in complete violation of Russian orthographic rules".

Paul Goble, "Coronavirus has Radically Affected the Language Russians Speak, Basovskaya Says", Window on Eurasia — New Series (4/17/20)

It should by rights be an “o” but it isn’t and so feels alien for that reason alone


More words:


“Even the uneducated recognize this word,” but to recognize it is not to understand it. Basovskaya recalls than in 2008, people on the street told her that default meant there were no matches in the stores. Now, many Russians probably think that pandemic means there is no buckwheat.


This word for "distancing"

…has been formed according to the same rules that lead Russians to speak about elektrichka for a local train or sotisalka for public benefits. But it has also been given a popular connotation that puts it at a distance from government orders for “self-isolation” (samoizolyatsiya), a truly bureaucratic term.

Other words that have taken on unwonted and unwanted meanings are Italiya, maska, dostavka ("delivery"), and so forth.

“Do you know when the crisis will end?” Basovskaya asks rhetorically. “No, not on the day when we’ll be permitted to run to the park or move about on the metro. It will end when its traces in the language become entirely unnoticed, when the word ‘pandemic’ returns to medical textbooks, ‘masks’ to children’s games … and ‘delivery’ will not have any emotional shadings.”

I suspect that similar considerations are operative with regard to sensitive words pertaining to the pandemic in English-speaking countries, and in countries speaking other languages, including what to call the disease itself.  We have all been adversely affected by this terrible trial.  Never have I seen my fellow citizens so terrified of anything en masse.

Selected readings

[h.t. Don Keyser]


  1. Alice Ramsay said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 7:35 am

    Why s aren’t you using Cyrillic letters?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 7:42 am

    Was following the original blog.

  3. profan said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 8:09 am

    Yevgeny (masculine) should be Yevgeniya or Yevgenia (feminine) to agree with her last name (Basovskaya, not Basovsky if it were a male). Udalyonka is not merely distancing, but working from home, work done remotely. If other words are transliterated (maska, Italiya) then why not pandemiya?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 8:14 am

    The blogger:

  5. Ash said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 8:15 am

    This is what happens when a prescriptivist isn't allowed to leave their apartment for weeks on end.

  6. KB said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 10:57 am

    The 'Source' link is broken.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 11:29 am


    Fixed. Should work now.

  8. cameron said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 1:37 pm

    What "emotional shadings" has "dostavka ('delivery')" acquired?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 1:40 pm

    Probably refers to the vastly increased amount of things being delivered to one's doorstep, instead of people going to stores to buy them. That certainly has been a big change in the way people purchase things in America these days.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 1:41 pm

    From Nikita Kuzmin:

    I also read some articles, regarding the influences of COVID-19 on the Russian language. Nevertheless, I would not consider this influence as "radical".

    I would say that there is another interesting term that appeared after Putin decided to nullify his presidential term, which allows him to stay in power up to 2036. The term 'nullify' in Russian is обнулять / obnulyat'. The imperative form, 2nd face is обнулись / obnulis'. Anti-Putin netizens added umlaut on the top of "o" – ö. So it turned out to be öбнулись / yobnulis', which in Russian slang means "get crazy".

  11. Christian Weisgerber said,

    April 18, 2020 @ 2:54 pm

    Nothing in the blog article suggests any remotely "radical" impact.

    It is unclear to me how coronavirus (коронавирус) completely violates Russian orthographic rules. It might violate Russian morphologic rules if it were a Russian compound, but it isn't. And since the -a- or hypothetical -o- is unstressed, it makes no difference at all for "the language Russians speak".

    I think the blog article is just blather by somebody who knows nothing about language and I'm sad to see Victor think it might be meaningful.

  12. Leo said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 12:51 am

    @profan: I too wondered about the mismatch between "Yevgeny" and "Basovskaya".

    If you Google the all-female form "Евгения Басовская" (Yevgeniya Basovskaya) you get a profile on the Ekho Moskvy radio station for a "доктор филологических наук" (Doctor of Philological Sciences) with that name.

  13. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 2:30 am

    The middle -a- in "coronavirus" is a little odd, biological Latin usually does have connecting -o- in compounds.

  14. Rachael Churchill said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 3:21 am

    The first few times I typed "coronavirus", about a month ago, I typo-ed it with an O in the middle.

  15. Bob Ladd said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 5:13 am

    What Rachael Churchill said – in fact, it still keeps happening. Not sure why.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 6:09 am

    The o's get on a roll, like an egg wobbling onward.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 6:19 am

    Doesn't happen to me, but I don't think that I know any words beginning with "corono" so it would seem an unlikely muscle-memory typo. anyway.

  18. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 11:58 am

    There are, however, the Oronoco River and the corozo fruit, both from South America.

    I once knew a quite sharp paralegal who was working on a case involving the Econo Lodge motel chain, and she’d gotten into the habit of pronouncing it “Ocono Lodge”. So those “o”s can be infectious. (Though in her case she was perhaps being unconsciously influenced by the name “O’Connell”.)

  19. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 12:05 pm

    Addendum to my previous comment: I realize that only some of the orthographic “o”s in those examples are also phonetic “o”s. But the linguistic behavior of literate people can, I think it’d be fair to say, be influenced by what they see as well as by what they hear.

  20. Rodger C said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 12:08 pm


  21. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 19, 2020 @ 3:41 pm

    Rodger C: Yikes, thank you. I stand embarrassed.

    "Oronoco" is an obsolete spelling variant of the river's name–it can be found in many sources from the nineteenth century and earlier–that's left its mark on the state of Virginia where I live, almost certainly because of the historical importance of Oronoco/Orinoco tobacco growing there, that being a tobacco variety that's thought to have come from the vicinity of the Orinoco river valley. There's a tiny place called "Oronoco" east of Lexington, Virginia, an Oronoco Street and an "Oronoco Bay" in Alexandria, and various businesses using "Oronoco" as part of their names. So that spelling had wormed its way into my head.

    (It's also the case that further north within the Eastern Algonquian branch of the Algonquian subfamily of the Algic language family, there are some similar-sounding place names such as Woronoco in Massachusetts, Woronock in Connecticut, and Oronoque in Connecticut, all possibly meaning "turning place"; but on the whole it seems unlikely that those are related to the Virginia "Oronoco", even given the fact that native-derived place names ending in "-co" are fairly common in Virginia and thereabouts.)

  22. Michael Watts said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 6:29 am

    biological Latin usually does have connecting -o- in compounds

    Are you thinking of something in particular? English biological vocabulary is usually drawn from Greek, not Latin, and Greek compounds are formed that way. Latin almost never forms compounds, but the couple I know about are formed with -i-. (e.g. lucifer, the light-bearer, from luc- "light" + -i- + ferre "to bear".) The only biological term from Latin that comes to mind is "vas deferens", which indeed isn't a compound.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 6:47 am

    "Otorhinolaryngology" ? Admittedly ultimately from Greek, but in practice derived from New Latin, at least if Wikipedia can be believed :

    The term is a combination of New Latin combining forms (oto- + rhino- + laryngo- + -logy) derived from four Ancient Greek words: οὖς ous (gen.: ὠτός otos), "ear", ῥίς rhis, "nose", λάρυγξ larynx, "larynx" and -λογία logia, "study"[1] (cf. Greek ωτορινολαρυγγολόγος, "otorhinolaryngologist").

  24. Alexander Browne said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 9:53 am

    @M. Paul Shore

    Surely "O'Connoll" ;-) ? (Maybe even eventually "Ol' O'Connoll".)

  25. B.Ma said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 1:33 pm

    Coronaviruses are viruses that look like crowns.

    Коро́на is the Russian word for crown, so the name ought to seem more "native" in Russian than in English.

    Russian scientists must have been aware of these viruses before the current pandemic. So if the spelling ought to be короновирус according to Russian morphology (I know zero Russian), why wasn't it translated like that in the first place?

  26. M. Paul Shore said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 6:36 pm

    Alexander Browne:

    Without meaning to sound too dismissive, "O'Connoll" is a fairly unusual spelling. Of course, my pointing that out might stimulate some elderly retiree by that surname with too much time on his hands to post here in protest, in which case Ol' O'Connoll will have a forum. Which will then force us to discuss "e" and "i" as well as "o".

  27. Andrew Usher said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 9:45 pm

    Michael Watts:
    Yes, and of course a connecting vowel isn't necessary when there is already an appropriate vowel, as in 'coronavirus'. People today seem not to know much about the classical languages, certainly not enough to know the epenthetic vowel in compounds is 'i' in Latin but 'o' in Greek – of course, things like biological nomenclature don't clearly separate the two anymore; there's pretty much a common Graeco-Latin stock of roots, combined with modern names in that field.

    M. Paul Shore:
    I'd pronounce the first vowel of 'Econo Lodge' as a schwa, just as in 'economy'. But I suppose that wouldn't do in a court, where the enunciation of unstressed vowels in an infectious habit.

    k_over_hbarc at

  28. Philip Taylor said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 5:15 am

    As a native speaker of <Br.E>, I have /i/ for "Econo Lodge" and "economy", and vary between /e/ and /i/ for "economics". Schwa in none, regardless of whether in a court-room or a public bar !

  29. Michael Watts said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 7:19 am

    of course a connecting vowel isn't necessary when there is already an appropriate vowel, as in 'coronavirus'.

    I'm not sure this is true of Latin; the compound I actually encountered in a Latin class was "laniger", from lana "wool" + gerere "to bear", referring poetically to a sheep. But lana is a first declension noun, just like corona. You still use the -i-.

    It makes sense to me in that the final -a in lana / corona isn't part of the stem, but part of the case ending, so there's no real reason to include it in a compound.

  30. Andrew Usher said,

    April 21, 2020 @ 11:32 pm

    Actually, the final 'a' is part of the stem; first-declension nouns and also first-conjugation verbs are a-stems. (Consonant stems are in the third declension and third conjugation.)

    The suffixes -fer and -ger always reduce the previous vowel to 'i', but -mentum doesn't (the example I had in mind, e.g. testament), and somehow *coronivirus just seems wrong.

    Philip Taylor:
    The prevailing pronunciation of 'economy' in both America and British English reduces the first vowel; of course the weak-vowel merger means the outcome is slightly different. But always saying ee-conomy seems like an overpronunciation (in 'economic(s)' the syllable is stressed and should be so pronounced; the long vowel is somewhat preferred both in Britain and America).

  31. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 3:15 am

    @Michael Watts:

    I'm thinking of the nominally Latin words that are used to name biological taxa, such as "coronavirus", Tyrannosaurus, Australopithecus and what not. The roots and compounding patterns tend to be more Greek than Latin, it's true, but the endings are Latin and you're supposed to treat them as Latin according to the applicable nomenclatural codes.

  32. Andrew Usher said,

    April 23, 2020 @ 5:47 am

    With the stem vowels, the first elements in those would be 'tyranno-' and 'australi-', so the first is correct regardless. For the other, I think the connecting vowel 'o' has just become generalised to all contexts before a Greekish element, as with '-ology' where the 'o' was originally the connecting vowel.

    But with 'coronavirus' the second element is definitely Latin and not Greek.

  33. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 6:33 am

    I should evidently have avoided the word "Latin". The point is that in taxonomic compounds, the connecting vowel is usually -o- irrespective of whether the stems are Latin or Greek (or something else, think e.g. Shantungosaurus were the first element is Chinese).

    Parvovirus would be a random example of connecting -o- despite both stems being of Latin origin.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 7:18 am

    Well, the OED can adduce four counter-examples :

    1. Mosasaurus, n.
    …A genus of mosasaurs; (also mosasaurus) a reptile of this genus….

    2. Muttaburrasaurus, n.
    …An Australian genus of heavily built ornithopod dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, related to iguanodonts; (also muttaburrasaurus) a dinosaur of this genus….

    3. Pareiasaurus, n.
    …A genus of fossil reptiles of the family Pareiasauridae (see pareiasaur); (also pareiasaurus) a reptile of this genus, a pareiasaur….

    4. Ultrasaurus, n.
    …A former genus of very large dinosaurs of the late Jurassic period; (also ultrasaurus) a dinosaur of this genus; = Supersaurus…

  35. Andreas Johansson said,

    April 24, 2020 @ 3:13 pm

    There's plenty more counter-examples –Altispinax and Limusaurus for two – but the claim was usually.

    There's also plenty of ones that simply ignore classical norms and dispense with a connecting vowel altogether, like Chaoyangsaurus, or don't classically need one, like Dimetrodon and all the myriad other ones in -odon.

    Arguably a name like Mosasaurus also lacks a connecting vowel altogether; it's just a concatenation of Mosa (Latin name of the Meuse) and saurus.

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