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Таяніе снѣга въ сѣверной части Ладожскаго бассейна...

This sentence is taken from a book published in 1908. I understand that the spelling reform of 1917 simplified things by reducing the number of letters and signs used to write the language, but what's the idea behind replacing аго by oго to mark the ending for the genitive singular in masculine and neutral adjectives?

After all, the vowel is reduced to /ə/ in spoken Russian irrespective of its being spelt а or o and the sequence of sounds gives /əvə/ whether you write аго or oго.

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    The goal of the 1918 reform was the simplification of the orthography. So, the idea behind this particular change was to remove the need to learn and remember when one should write -аго and when -ого. -аго was used only for the adjectives ending (in nominative) in -ый, -ій, other adjectives required -ого.
    – tum_
    Dec 20, 2019 at 21:51
  • @tum_ actually one of the goals was exactly simplification of the orthography.
    – shabunc
    Dec 20, 2019 at 22:51
  • And what of forms like больнóго? Did it used to be больнáго??
    – CocoPop
    Nov 1, 2023 at 16:19

1 Answer 1

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The 1918 orthography reform was not something that came into existence all of a sudden after the Bolsheviks came into power. In fact, this question was quite a hot topic from the early 20th century. Russian academics had quite heated discussions on what had to be changed in Russian spelling. The 1918 reform was based precisely on the results of such disputes.

In particular, in 1912, Russian linguists had a meeting where they — among other things — proposed this exact change. The decisions made at that meeting were published in the booklet "Постановления Орфографической подкомиссии". Luckily, they also made a point of elaborating on why those decisions were made.

Here's the part (transposed to the modern orthography by me) that clearly explains their motives:

В склонении имён прилагательных, местоимений прилагательных и причастий мужского и среднего рода родительный падеж единственного числа в современном правописании имеет два окончания -ого и -аго (-яго). Причём первое окончание употребляется при ударении на первом о (слепого, второго, какого), второе при отсутствии ударения на предпоследней гласной (добраго, перваго, котораго, синяго, волчьяго), хотя ещё не так давно в прилагательных именах писали -аго также и при ударении на звуке о в предпоследнем слоге (слепаго). Написания -аго, -яго появились у нас под влиянием церковно-славянской письменности.

Имея ввиду: 1) показания современных окающих говоров, сохраняющих , а не , например в доброго, первого, и 2) то обстоятельство, что различение в письме ударной и неударяемой гласной в родительном падеже не находят соответствия в написании других падежей тех же слов (слепому и доброму, о слепом и о добром) — подкомиссия предложила в твёрдом склонении писать -ого, ..., в мягком -его.

In short, they decided to do it, as they explain, because:

  • Up until that point, the -o spelling was not non-existent.
  • In other cases, it was already spelled with an -o, so they decided to make the spelling consistent.

I'll add to this the following motives (some of which one can deduce from the document itself):

  • Historically, Russian linguists tend to prefer etymological spelling to the phonological one in many cases. For instance, in Belarusian, it's quite the opposite; that's why we have "грамота" in Russian and "грамата" in Belarusian.
  • Even if we consider phonetic consistency, a spelling such as "усопшаго" wouldn't make much sense.

I'm also attaching a scan with the actual quote for anyone who's interested.

Scan of booklet explaining the orthography change (transposition is above)

As a side note: One of the most active opponents of this reform, philosopher Ilyin, used the following counter-argument against the new spelling (adopted up to that point):

Мы различаемъ «самъ» (собственнолично) и «самый» (точно указанный, тождественный). Родительный падежъ отъ «самъ» — «самого», винительный падежъ — «самого». А отъ «самый» — «самаго». «Я видѣлъ его самого, но показалось мнѣ, что я вижу не того же самаго»... (письмо изъ современной Югославiи). Въ кривописанiи это драгоцѣнное различiе гибнетъ...

While this distinction was indeed lost, luckily nothing dramatic happened ;)

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