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Russian is a Slavic language spoken primarily in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazhakstan, and Kyrgystan.  It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Modolva, Latvia, Estonia, and to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics of the USSR.  Russian belongs to the family of Indo-European languages and is one of three living members of the East Slavic languages.  Written examples of Old East Slavonic are attested from the 10th century onward.

It is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia and the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages. It is also the largest native language in Europe, with 144 million native speakers in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.  Russian is the 8th most spoken language in the world by number of native speakers and the 5th by total number of speakers.  The language is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Russian distinguishes between consonant phonemes with palatal secondary articulation and those withoug, the so-called soft and hard sounds.  This distinction is found between pairs of almost all consonants and is one of the most distinguising features of the language.  Another important aspect is the reduction of unstressed vowels.  Stress, which is unpredictable, is not normally indicated orthographically, though an optional accute accent may be used to mark stress (such as to distinguish between homographic words, for example замо́к (meaning lock) and за́мок (meaning castle), or to indicate the proper pronunciation of uncommon words or names).


ClassificationEdit

Russian is a Slavic language Indo-European family.  It is a lineal descendant of the language used in Kievan Rus.  From the point of view of the spoken language, its closest relatives are Ukrainian and Belarusian, the other two national languages in the East Slavic group.  In many places in eastern and southern Ukraine and throughout Belarus, these languages are spoken interchangeably, and in certain areas traditional bilingualism resulted in language mixtures, e.g. Surzhyk in Eastern Ukraine and Trasianka in Belarus.  An East Slavic Old Novgorod dialect, although vanished during the 15th or 16th century, is sometimes considered to have played a significant rule in the formation of modern Russian.  Also, Russian has notable lexical similarities with Bulgarian due to a common Church Slavonic influence on both languages, as well as because of later interaction in the 19th-20th centuries, although Bulgarian grammar differs markedly from Russian.  In the 19th century, the language was often called "Great Russian" to distinguish it from Belarusian, then called "White Russian" and Ukrainian, then called "Little Russian".

The vocabulary (mainly abstract and literary words) principles of word formations, and, to some extent, inflections and literary style of Russian have been also influenced by Church Slavonic, a developed and partly russified form of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic language used by the Russian Orthodox Church.  However, the East Slavic forms have tended to be used exclusively in the various dialects that are experiencing a rapid decline.  In some cases, both the East Slavic and the Church Slavonic forms are in use, with many different meanings.

According to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, Russian is classified as a level III language in terms of learning difficulty for native English speakers, requiring approximately 780 hours of immersion instruction to achieve intermediate fluency.  It is also regarded by the US Intelligence Community as a "hard target" language, due to both its difficulty to master for English speakers and its critical role in American world policy.

Standard RussianEdit

The standard well-known form of Russian is generally called the modern Russian literary language​ (современный русский литературный язык).  It arose in the beginning of the 18th century with the modernization reforms of the Russian state by Peter the Great.  It developed from the Moscow (Middle or Central Russian) dialect substratum under some influence of the Russian chancellery language of the previous centuries.  It was Mikhail Lomonosov who first compiled a normallizing grammar book in 1755.  In 1783 the first explanatory dictionary of Russian by Russian Academy appeared.  During the end of the 18th and 19th centuries Russian went through the stage (known as the 'Golden Age') of stabilization and standardization of its grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, and of the flourishing its world famous literature, and became the nationwide literary language.  Also until the 20th century its spoken form was the language only of the upper noble classes and urban population, Russian peasants from the countryside continued speaking in their own dialects.  By the middle of the 20th century Standard Russian finally forced out its dialects with the compulsory education system, established by the Soviet government, and mass-media.  Though some dialectical features are still observed in colloquial speech.

Geographical distributionEdit

Russian ex-USSR 2004

Competence of Russian in the countries of the former USSR, 2004.

During the Soviet period, the policy toward the languages of the various other ethnic groups fluctuated in practice.  Though each of the constituent republics had its own official language, the unifying role and superior status was reserved for Russian, although it was declared the official language only in 1990.  Following the break up of the USSR in 1991, several of the newly independent states have encouraged their native languages, which has partly reversed the privileged status of Russian, though its role as the language of post-Soviet national discourse throughout the region has continued.

In Latvia, its official recognition and legality in the classroom have been a topic of considerable debate in a country where more than one-third of the population is Russian-speaking.  Similarly, in Estonia, ethnic Russian constitute 25.5% of the country's current population and 58.6% of the native Estonian population is also able to speak Russian.  In all, 67.8% of Estonia's population can speak Russian.  Command of Russian language, however, is rapidly decreasing among younger Estonians (primarily being replaced by the command of English).  For example, if 53% of ethnic Estonians between 15-19 claim to speak some Russian, then among the 10-14 year old group, command of Russian has fallen to 19%.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Russian remains a co-official language with Kazakh and Kyrgyz, respectively.  Large Russian-speaking communities still exhist within northern Kazakhstan and ethnic Russians comprise 25.65 of Kazakhstan's population.

Those who speak Russian as a mother or secondary language in Lithuania represent appriximately 60% of the population of Lithuania.  Also, more than half of the population of the Baltic states speak Russian either as foreign language or as mother tongue.  As the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1918, a number of Russian speakers have remained in Finland.  There are 33,400 Russian-speaking Finns, amounting to 0.6% of the population.  Five thousand of them are late 19th and 20th century immigrants or their descendents, and the remaining majority are recent immigrants, who have moved there in the 1990s and later.

In the 20th century, Russian was widely taught in the schools of members of the Warsaw Pact and in other countries that used to be satellites of the USSR.  In particular, these countries include Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Albania, former East Germany, and Cuba.  However, younger geneations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system.  According to the Eurobarometer 2005 survey, though, fluency in Russian remains fairly high (20-40%) in some countries, in particular those where the people speak a Slavic language and thereby have an edge in learning Russian.  In 2005, it was the most widely taught foreign language in Mongolia, and was compulsory in Year 7 and onward as a second foreign language.

Russian is also spoken in Israel by at least 750,000 ethnic  Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (1999 census).  The Israeli press and websites regularly publish material in Russian.  Russian is also spoken as a second language by a small number of people in Afghanistan (Awde and Sarwan, 2003).

The language was first introduced in North America when Russian explorers journeyed into Alaska and claimed it for Russia in the 1700s.  Although most colonists left after the US bought the land in 1867, a handful stayed and preserved the Russian language in this region to this day, although only a few elderly speakers of this unique dialect are left.  Sizeable Russian-speaking communities also exist in North America, especially in large urban centers of the US and Canada, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Francisco, Seattle, Spokane, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, Denver, and Cleveland.  In a number of locations they issue their own newspapers, and live in ethnic enclaves (especially the generation of immigrants who started arriving in the early sixties).  Only about a quarter of them are ethnic Russians, however.  Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of Russophones in North America were Russian-speaking Jews.  Afterwards, the influx from the countries of the former Soviet Union changed the statistics somewhat, with ethnic Russians and Ukrainians immigrating along with some more Russian Jews.  According to the US Census in 2007, Russian was the primary language spoken in the homes of over 850,000 individuals living in the US.

Significant Russian-speaking groups also exist in Western Europe.  These have been fed by several waves of immigrants since the beginning of the 20th centry, each with its own flavor of language.  The United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, Norway, and Austria have significant Russian-speaking communities, Germany has the highest Russian-speaking population outside the former Soviet Union with approximately 3 million people.  They are split into three groups, from largest to smallest: Russian-speaking ethnic Germans, ethnic Russian, and Jews.  Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney also have Russian speaking populations, with the most Russians living in southeast Melbourne, particularly the suburbs of Carnegie and Caulfield.  Two thirds of them are actually Russian-speaking descendants of Germans, Greeks, Jews, Azerbaijans, Armenians, or Ukrainians, who either repatriated after the USSR collapsed, or are just looking for temporary employment.

According to the 2011 Census of Ireland, there were 21,639 people in the nation who use Russian as a home language.  However, of this, only 13% were Russian nationals.  20% held Irish citizenship, while 27% and 14% were holding the passports of Latvia and Lithuania respectively.  Some are Russian-speakers from Latvia and Lithuania who were unable to obtain Latvian or Lithuanian citizenship.  There were 20,984 Russian speakers in Cyprus according to the Census of 2011, accounting for 2.5% of the population.

Russians in China form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by mainland China.


Recent estimates of the total number of speakers of Russian
Source Native speakers Native rank Total speakers Total rank
G. Weber, "Top Languages",

Language Monthly, 3: 12–18, 1997, ISSN 1369-9733

160,000,000 8 285,000,000 5
World Almanac (1999) 145,000,000 8          (2005) 275,000,000 5
SIL (2000 WCD) 145,000,000 8 255,000,000 5–6 (tied with Arabic)
CIA World Factbook (2005)

According to published in the year 2006, in the journal Demoskop Weekly, the Russian language is gradually losing its position in the world in general, and Russia in particular.  In 2012, A. L. Aref'ev published a new study where he confirmed his conclusion about the trend of further weakening of the Russian language in all regions of the world.  In the countries of the former Soviet Union the Russian language is gradually being replaced by local languages, and the Russian language in the world is reduced due to the decrease in the number of Russian and diminuation of the total Russian population.  In Russia itself, the increasing popularity of the English language is leading to the decline of Russian.

Official statusEdit

Russian is the official language of Russia, although it shares the official status at regional level with other languages in the numerous ethic autonomies within Russia, such as Chuvashia, Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, and Yakutia.  It is also a co-official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and a co-official language of the unrecognized country of Transnistria and partially recognized countries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  In Ukraine the Russian language lacks the status of a state language, but still enjoys an extensive protection as a regional and minority language with some official functions.  Education in Russian is still a popular choice for both Russian as a second language (RSL) and native speakers in Russia as well as many of the former Soviet republics.  Russian is still seen as an important language for children to learn in most of the former Soviet republics.

Russian-language schooling is also available in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania.  However, due to recent high school reforms in Latvia (whereby the government pays a substantial sum to a school to teach in the national language), the number of subjects taught in Russian has been reduced in the country.  The language has a co-official status alongside Romanian in the autonomies of Gagauzia and Transnistria in Moldova.  In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in Ukraine, Russian is recognized as a regional language alongside Crimean Tatar.  According to a poll by FOM-Ukraine, Russian is the most widely spoken language in Ukraine understood literally by everyone.  However, despite its widespread useage, pro-Russian Crimean activists complain about the (mandatory) use of Ukrainian in schools, movie theaters, courts, on drug perscriptions and its use in the media and for government paperwork.

The Russian language is also one of two official languages aboard the International Space Station - NASA astronauts who serve alongside Russian cosmonauts usually take Russian language courses - this goes back to the Apollo-Soyuz mission which first flew in 1975.

Russian as an international languageEdit

Russian is one of the official languages (or has similar status and interpretation must be provided into Russian) of the United Nations, International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, UNESCO, World Intellectual Property Organization, International Telecommunication Union, World Meteorological Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Dvelopment, International Criminal Court, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, Universal Postal Union, World Bank, Commonwealth of Independent States, Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Eurasian Economic Community, Collective Security Treaty Organization, Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, International Organization for Standardization, GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development.

In March 2013, it was announced that Russian surpassed German as language No. 2 on the web and Russian is now the second most used language on the web, behind English.  Russian is used on 5.9% of all websites, slightly ahead of German and far behind English.  Russian is used not only on 89.9% of .ru sites, but also on 88.7% of the former Soviet Union domain.su.  Russian is also the most used language in several countries that belonged to the Soviet Union.  Russian is only somewhat less used on top sites, and is only language 6 on the top 1000 sites, behind English, German, Chinese, French, and Japanese.  According to trends in past years, it's likely that Russian will stay at the second rank.  Chinese is the next logical candidate for the spot, but researchers sayy statistics have not yet displayed this.

DialectsEdit

Despite leveling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary and phonetics, a number of dialects still exist in Russia.  Some linguists divide the dialects of Russian into two primary regional groupings, "Northern" and "Southern", with Moscow lying on the zone of transition between the two.  Others divide the language into three groupings, Northern, Central, and Southern, with Moscow lying in the Central region.  All dialects also divided in two main chronological categories: the dialects of primary formation (the territory of the Eastern Rus' or Muscovy, roughly consists of the modern Central and Northwestern Federal districts); and secondary formation (other territory).  Dialectology within Russia recognizes dozens of smaller-scale variants.  The dialects often show distinct and non-standard features of pronunciation and intonation, vocabulary and grammar.  Some of these are relics of ancient usage now completely discarded by the standard language.

The Northern Russian dialects and those spoken along the Volga river typically pronounce unstressed /o/ clearly.  Besides the absence of vowel reduction some dialects have high or dipthongal in the place of Proto-Slavic in unstressed closed syllables instead of Standard Russian.  In morphology it has an interesting feature as a post-posed definite article -to, -ta, -te similarly existing in Bulgarian and Macedonian.

In the Southern Russian dialects unstressed /e/ and /a/ following palatalized consonants and preceding a stressed syllable are not reduced to [I] (like the Moscow dialect), being instead pronounced /a/ in such positions.  Consonants include a fricative /y/, a semivowel /w~u/ and /x~xy~xw/, whereas the Standard and Northern dialects have the consonants /g/, /v/, final /I/ and /f/, respectively.  In morphology, it has a palatized final /t/ in 3rd person forms of verbs.  Some of these features such as akanye/yakanye, a debuccalized or lenited /g/, a semivowel /w~u/ in 3rd person forms of verbs are also present in modern Belarussian and some dialects of Ukrainian (Eastern Polenesian), indicating a linguistic continuum.

The city of Veliky Novgorod has historically displayed a feature called chokanye/tsokasnaye, where /tɕ/ and /ts/ were confused.  Also, the second palatalization of velars did not occur there, so the so-called e2 did not cause /k,g,x/ to shift to /ts,dz,s/.

Among the first to study Russian dialects was Lomonosov in the 18th century.  In the 19th century, Vladimir Dal compiled the first dictionary that included dialectal vocabulary.  Detailed mapping of Russian dialects began at the turn of the 20th century.  In modern times, the monumental Dialectological Atlas of the Russian Language was published in three folio volumes 1986-1989, after four decades of preparatory work.

Derived languagesEdit

  • Balachka - a dialect spoken primarily by Cossacks, in the regions of Don, Kuban and Terek, which uses Russian grammar but borrows a lot of Ukrainian vocabulary.
  • Fenya - a criminal argot of ancient origin, with Russian grammar but distinct vocabulary.
  • Medny Aleut language - nearly extinct mixed language spoken on Bering Island that is characterized by its Aleut nouns and Russian verbs.
  • Padonkaffsky jargon - slang language developed by padonki of Runet.
  • Quelia - a pseudo pidgin of German and Russian.
  • Runglish - Russian-English pidgin.  This word is also used by English speakers to describe the way in which Russian speakers attempt to speak English using Russian morphology and/or syntax.
  • Russenorsk - extinct pidgin language with mostly Russian vocabulary and mostly Norwegian grammar, used for communication between Russian and Norwegian traders in the Pomor trade in Finnmark and the Kola Peninsula.
  • Suzhyk - variety of Ukrainian, which uses Ukrainian grammar and syntax, but borrows a lot of Russian vocabulary.  It is used by a large portion of the rural population of Ukraine, especially in the eastern and central areas of the country.
  • Trasianka - heavily russified variety of Belarusian used by a large portion of the rural population in Belarus.

​AlphabetEdit

Russian is written using a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet.  The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters.  The following table gives their uppercase formes, along with IPA values for each letter's typical sound:

А

/a/

Б

/b/

В

/v/

Г

/ɡ/

Д

/d/

Е

/je/

Ё

/jɔ/

Ж

/ʐ/

З

/z/

И

/i/

Й

/j/

К

/k/

Л

/l/

М

/m/

Н

/n/

О

/ɔ/

П

/p/

Р

/r/

С

/s/

Т

/t/

У

/u/

Ф

/f/

Х

/x/

Ц

/ts/

Ч

/tɕ/

Ш

/ʂ/

Щ

/ɕɕ/

Ъ

/-/

Ы

/ɨ/

Ь

/ʲ/

Э

/ɛ/

Ю

/ju/

Я

/ja/

TransliterationEdit

220px-Azbuka 1574 by Ivan Fyodorov

A page from Azbuka (Alphabet book), the first Russian printed textbook. Printed by Ivan Fyodorov in 1574.

Because of many technical restrictions in computing ans also because of the unavailablility of Cyrillic keyboards abroad, Russian is often translated using the Latin alphabet.  Once commonly used by the majority of those living outside Russia, transliteration is being used less frequently by Russian speaking typists in favor of the Unicode character encoding, which fully incorporates the Russian alphabet.  Free programs leveraging this Unicode are available which allow users to type Russian characters, even on western 'QWERTY' keyboards.

ComputingEdit

The Russian alphabet has many systems of character encoding.  KOI8-R was designed by the government and was intended to serve as the standard encoding.  This encoding was and still is widely used in UNIX-like operating systems.  Nevertheless, the spreak of MS-DOS and OS/2 (IBM866), traditional Macintosh (ISO/IEC 8859-5) and Microsoft Windows (CP1251) created chaos and ended by establishing different encodings as defacto standards, with Windows-1251 becoming a defacto standard in Russian internet and email communication during the period of roughly 1995-2005.

But nowadays all the obsolete 8-bit encodings are rarely used in the communication protocols and text exchange data formats, being mostly replaced with UTF-8.  A number of encoding conversion applications were developed.  "iconv." is an example that is supported by most versions of Linux, Macintosh and some other operating systems; bu you rarely still need those converters, unless accessing texts created more than a few years ago.

In addition to the modern Russian alphabet, Uncode encodes the Early Cyrillic Alphabet, as well as all other Slavic and non-Slavic but Cyrillic-based alphabets.

OrthographyEdit

Russian spelling is reasonably phonemic in practice.  It is in fact a balance among phonemics, morphology, etymology and grammar; and, like that of most living languages, has its share of inconsistencies and controversial points.  A number of rigid spelling rules introduced between the 1880s and 1910 have been responsible for the former whilst trying to eliminate the latter.

The current spelling follows the major reform of 1918 and the final codification of 1956.  An update proposed in the late 1990s has met a hostile reception, and has not been fully adopted.  The punctuation, originally based on Byzantine Greek, was in the 17th and 18th centuries reformulated on the German and French models.

According to the Institute of Russian Language of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and optional accute accent may, and sometimes should be used to mark stress.  For example, it is used to distinguish between otherwise identical words, especially when contest does not make it obvious: замо́к/за́мок (lock/castle), сто́ящий/стоя́щий (worthwhile/standing), чудно́/чу́дно (this is odd/this is marvelous), молоде́ц/мо́лодец (attaboy/fine young man), узна́ю/узнаю́ (I shall learn it/I recognize it), отреза́ть/отре́зать (to be cutting/to have cut); to indicate the proper pronunciation of uncommon words, especially personal and family names (афе́ра, гу́ру, Гарси́я, Оле́ша, Фе́рми), and to express the stressed word in the sentence (Ты́ съел печенье?/Ты съе́л печенье?/Ты съел пече́нье? – Was it you who ate the cookie?/Did you eat the cookie?/Was it the cookie that you ate?). Stress marks are mandatory in lexical dictionaries and books for children or Russian learners.

PhonologyEdit

The phonological system of Russian is inherited from Common Slavonic, but underwent considerable modification in the early historical period, before being largely settled around the year 1400.

The language possesses five vowels (or six, under the St. Petersburg Phonological School), which are written with different letters depending on whether or ot the preceding consonant is palatalized.  The consonants typically come in plain v. palatalized pairs, which are traditionally called hard or soft.  The standard language, based on the Moscow dialect, possesses heavy stress and moderate variation in pitch.

The Russian syllable structure can be quite complex with both initial and final consonant clusters of up to 4 consecutive sounds.  Using a formula with V standing for the nucleus (vowel) and C for each consonant the structure can be described as follows:\

(C)(C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C)

Labials Dental &

Alveolar

Post- alveolar Palatal Velar
Nasal hard /m/ /n/
soft /mʲ/ /nʲ/
Plosive hard /p/   /b/ /t/   /d/ /k/   /ɡ/
soft /pʲ/   /bʲ/ /tʲ/   /dʲ/ /kʲ/   [ɡʲ]
Affricate hard /ts/       
soft     /tɕ/   
Fricative hard /f/   /v/ /s/   /z/ /ʂ/   /ʐ/ /x/   [ɣ]
soft /fʲ/   /vʲ/ /sʲ/   /zʲ/ /ɕː/   /ʑː/ [xʲ]   [ɣʲ]
Trill hard /r/
soft /rʲ/
Approximant hard /l/
soft /lʲ/ /j/

Russian is notable for its distinction based on palatalization of most of the consonants.

Russian has preserved an Indo-European synthetic-inflectional structure, although considerable levelling has taken place.  Russian grammar encompasses:

  • a highly fusional morphology
  • a syntax that, for the literary language, is the conscious fusion of three elements:
    • a polished vernacular foundation
    • a Church Slavonic inheritance
    • a Western European style

The spoken language has been influenced by the literary one, but continues to preserve characteristic forms.  The dialects show various non-standard grammatical features, some of which are archaisms or descendents of old forms since discarded by the literary language.

VocabularyEdit

Number of words in RussianEdit

The total number of words in Russian is difficult to ascertain because of the ability to agglutinate and create manifold compounds, diminuitives, etc.  The number of listed words or entries in some of the major dictionaries published during the last two centries, and the total vocabulary of Alexader Pushkin (who is credited with greatly augmenting and codifying literary Russian) are as follows:

Work Year Words Notes
Academic dictionary, I Ed. 1789–1794 43,257 Russian and Church Slavonic with some Old Russian vocabulary.
Academic dictionary, II Ed 1806–1822 51,388 Russian and Church Slavonic with some Old Russian vocabulary.
Dictionary of Pushkin's language 1810–1837 >21,000 The dictionary of virtually all words from his works was published in 1956–1961. Some consider his works contain 101,105.[70]
Academic dictionary, III Ed. 1847 114,749 Russian and Church Slavonic with Old Russian vocabulary.
Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language (Dahl's) 1880–1882 195,844 44,000 entries lexically grouped; attempt to catalogue the full vernacular language. Contains many dialect, local and obsolete words.
Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language (Ushakov's) 1934–1940 85,289 Current language with some archaisms.
Academic Dictionary of the Russian Language (Ozhegov's) 1950–1965
1991 (2nd ed.)
120,480 "Full" 17-volumed dictionary of the contemporary language. The second 20-volumed edition was begun in 1991, but not all volumes were finished until now.
Lopatin's dictionary 1999–2011 ≈180,000 Orthographic, current language, several editions
Great Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language 1998–2009 ≈130,000 Current language, the dictionary has many subsequent editions from the first one of 1998.

Proverbs and sayingsEdit

The Russian language is replete with many hundreds of proverbs and sayings.  These were already tabulated by the 17th century and collected and studied in the 19th and 20th, with folk tales being especially fertile sources.

History and examplesEdit

The history of the Russian language may be divided up into the following periods:

  • Kievan period and feudal breakup
  • The Moscow period (15th-17th centuries)
  • Empire (18th-19th centuries)
  • Soviet period and beyond (20th century)

Judging by the historical records, by approximately 1000 AD the predominant ethnic group over much of modern European Russia, Ukraine, Belarus was the Eastern branch of the Slavs, speaking a closely related group of dialects.  The political unification of this region into the Kievan Rus' in about 880, from which modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus trace their origins, established Old East Slavic as a literary and commercial language.  It was soon followed by the adoption of Christianity in 988 and the introduction of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical and official language.  Borrowings and calques from Byzantine Greek began to enter the Old East Slavic and spoken dialects at this time, which in their turn modified the Old Church Slavonic as well.

250px-Ostromirovo

The Ostromir Gospels of 1056 is the second oldest East Slavic book known, one of many illuminated medieval manuscripts preserved in the Russian National Library.

Dialectical differentiation accelerated after the breakup of the Kievan Rus' in approximately 1100.  On the territories of modern Belarus and Ukraine emerged Ruthenian and in modern Russia medieval Russian.  They definitely became distinct since the 13th century, i.e. following the division of that land between the Great Duchy of Lithuania, Poland, and Hungary in the west and independent Novgorod and Pskov feudal republics plus numerous small duchies in the east.

The official language in Moscow and Novgorod, and later in the growing Muscovy, was Church Slavonic, which evolved from Old Church Slavonic and remained the literary language for centuries, until the Petrine age, when its usage became limited to biblical and liturgical texts.  Russian developed under a strong influence of Church Slavonic until the close of the 17th century; afterwards the influence reversed, leading to corruption of liturgical texts.

The political reforms of Peter the Great were accompanied by a reform of the alphabet, and achieved their goal of secularizatino and Westernization.  Blocks of specialized vocabulary were adopted from the languages of Western Europe.  By 1800 a significant portion of the gentry spoke French daily, and German sometimes.  Many Russian novels of the 19th century contain entire paragraphs and even pages in French with no translation given, with an assumption that educated readers will not need one.

The modern literary language is usually considered to date from the time of Alexander Pushkin in the first third of the 19th century.  Pushkin revolutionized Russian literature by rejecting archaic grammar and vocabulary in favor of grammar and vocabulary found in the spoken language of the time.  Even modern readers of younger age may only experience slight difficulties understanding some words in Pushkin's texts, since relatively few words used by Pushkin have become archaic or changed meaning.  In fact, many expressions used by Russian writers of the early 19th century, including Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Aleksander Griboyedov, became proverbs or sayings which can be frequently found in even modern Russian colloquial speech.

Бу́ря мгло́ю не́бо кро́ет, [ˈburʲə ˈmɡloju ˈnʲɛbə ˈkroɪt]

Ви́хри сне́жные крутя́; [ˈvʲixrʲɪ ˈsʲnʲɛʐnɨɪ kruˈtʲa]

То, как зверь, она́ заво́ет, [to kag zvʲerʲ ɐˈna zɐˈvoɪt]

То запла́чет, как дитя́, [to zɐˈplatɕɪt, kag dʲɪˈtʲa]

То по кро́вле обветша́лой [to pɐˈkrovlʲɪ ɐbvʲɪˈtʂaləj]

Вдруг соло́мой зашуми́т, [vdruk sɐˈloməj zəʂuˈmʲit]

То, как пу́тник запозда́лый, [to kak ˈputnʲɪg zəpɐˈzdalɨj]

К нам в око́шко застучи́т. [knam vɐˈkoʂkə zəstuˈtɕit]

The political upheavals of the 20th century and the wholesale changes of political ideology gave written Russian a worldwide prestige, especially during the mid 20th century.

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