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Prominent Russians: Dietmar Rosenthal

December 19, 1900 - July 29, 1994
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His name sounds far from Russian and he himself used to say his mother tongue was Polish, yet Dietmar Rosenthal is familiar to any Russian language learner or enthusiast, be it a 10-year-old Russian student or a serious Oxford professor.

Rosenthal was born on 19 December 1900 in Poland where he spent the first years of his life before moving to Berlin. Later, when World War I broke out in 1914, he moved to Moscow where remained for the rest of his life. In 1923 he graduated from the Moscow State University where he majored in Italian, which despite his life-long devotion to the Russian language studies, he never shelved. He translated works of Italian writers into Russian and was the author of a Russian-Italian dictionary and the first Soviet course in Italian for beginners. But above all Dietmar Rosenthal is remembered at home and abroad for his contribution to the Russian language.

Rosenthal started teaching Russian at a high school in 1922 while still a university student. In 1927 he returned to his alma mater where he spent the rest of his life and career. From 1962 to 1987 he held the chair of Russian stylistics at the University's Faculty of Journalism. Rosenthal's teaching and scientific career lasted more than 70 years. He published more than 150 reference books, textbooks and language guides, most of which are still best-sellers in their hundredth reprints.

Rosenthal's scientific interests embraced all fields of linguistics, but most often he is credited as the father of practical stylistics of modern standard Russian. In simple terms, he put down a code of language rules which is to modern Russian what the Queen's English is to modern English. In collaboration with his colleagues Rosenthal updated the rules of Russian spelling and punctuation (Russian is meticulous about having all the commas in their right places) and did much to clarify difficult and ambiguous cases of language usage.

As a linguist Dietmar Rosenthal was above all a grammarian. In 1975 he wrote: "Whatever your take on grammar is, you cannot but admit that a language does not exist without grammar, that it forms a core which words are stacked around."

Rosenthal lectured often and was a welcome guest at linguistic seminars across Europe. His works have been translated into many languages. In 1953, for example, his book "Modern Russian Usage" was published in the UK.

The popularity of Rosenthal's handbooks is accounted for by his unique ability to weld together complicated science and ease of understanding for non-linguists, making them the Bible of correct Russian both for ordinary people and for those whose work involves public writing and speaking. For quite a long time Rosenthal supervised a group of TV and radio presenters who in Soviet times were chief sources of exemplary Russian for educated speakers.

Modern Russian linguists say there's a lot to thank Dietmar Rosenthal for scientifically, but his main merit is that he managed to take an “X-ray” of correct Russian which helped preserve the language throughout the turbulent 1980s-90s known for a tendency towards volatility of language norms, or, to put it plain and simple, it is because of Rosenthal most Russians still speak good Russian.

Written by Timur Mustafin, RT

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