History of the Russian language

History of the Russian language

The history proper of the Russian language dates from just before the turn of the second millennium.

Note. In the following sections, all examples of vocabulary are given in their modern spelling.

Historical development

Kievan period and feudal breakup

Up to the 14th century, ancestors of the modern Russians (who likewise called themselves "ruskiye") spoke dialects of a language, usually termed Old Russian but actually common to all the Eastern Slavs. That tongue was, next to Old Church Slavonic language, a kind of official language of Kievan Rus. The earliest written record of the language is an amphora found at Gnezdovo and tentatively dated to the mid-10th century. Until 15th century Gnezdovo was a part of the independent Smolensk principality.

For the debate concerning derivation of the words "Rus" and "Russia", see Etymology of Rus and derivatives and Rus' (people). For the general history of the language and Old East Slavic literature, see Old East Slavic language.

During the pre-Kievan period, the main sources of borrowings were Germanic languages, particularly Gothic and Old Norse. In the Kievan period, however, loanwords and calques entered the vernacular primarily from Old Church Slavonic and from Byzantine Greek:

Much annalistic, hagiographic, and poetic material survives from the early Muscovite period. Nonetheless, a significant amount of philosophic and secular literature is known to have been destroyed after being proclaimed heretical.

The material following the election of the Romanov dynasty in 1613 following the Time of Troubles is rather more complete. Modern Russian literature is considered to have begun in the seventeenth century, with the autobiography of Avvakum and a corpus of "chronique scandaleuse" short stories from Moscow.

Empire (18th–19th centuries)

The political reforms of Peter the Great were accompanied by a reform of the alphabet, and achieved their goal of secularization and Westernization. Blocks of specialized vocabulary were adopted from the languages of Western Europe. Most of the modern naval vocabulary, for example, is of Dutch origin. Latin, French, and German words entered Russian for the intellectual categories of the Age of Enlightenment. Greek words already in the language through Church Slavonic were refashioned to reflect post-Renaissance European rather than Byzantine pronunciation. By 1800, a significant portion of the gentry spoke French, less often German, on an everyday basis.

The collapse of 1990–91 loosened the shackles. In the face of economic uncertainties and difficulties within the educational system, the language changed rapidly. Fashion for ways and things Western prompted a wave of adoptions, mostly from English, and sometimes for words with exact native equivalents. At the same time, the growing public presence of the Russian Orthodox Church and public debate about the history of the nation gave new impetus to the most archaic Church Slavonic stratum of the language, and introduced or reintroduced words and concepts that replicate the linguistic models of the earliest period.

Russian today is a tongue in great flux. The new words entering the language and the emerging new styles of expression have, naturally, not been received with universal appreciation.


The following excerpts illustrate (very briefly) the development of the literary language. They have been chosen because they are to this day presented in Russian schools and universities as illuminations of linguistic and social history.

NOTE. The spelling has been partly modernized. The translations attempt to be as literal as possible; they are not literary.

Primary Chronicle

c. 1110, from the Laurentian Codex, 1377

: Unicode|Се повѣсти времѧньных лѣт ‧ ѿкуду єсть пошла руская земѧ ‧ кто въ києвѣ нача первѣє кнѧжит ‧ и ѿкуду руская землѧ стала єсть.

: "These [are] the tales of the bygone years, whence is come the Russian land, who first began to rule at Kiev, and whence the Russian land has come about."

Early language; Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian not yet fully differentiated. Fall of the yers in progress or arguably complete (several words end with a consonant; Unicode|кнѧжит 'to rule' < Unicode|кънѧжити, modern княжить). South-western (incipient Ukrainian) features include Unicode|"времѧньнъıх" 'bygone'; modern R временных). Correct use of perfect and aorist: єсть пошла 'is/has come' (modern R пошла), нача 'began' (modern R начал as a development of the old perfect tense.) Note the style of punctuation.

=Song of Igor=

Unicode|"Слово о пълку Игоревѣ". c. 1200(?), from the Catherine manuscript, c. 1790.

: Unicode|Не лѣпо ли ны бяшетъ братіе, начати старыми словесы трудныхъ повѣстій о полку Игоревѣ, Игоря Святъ славича? Начатижеся тъ пѣсни по былинамъ сего времени, а не по замышленію Бояню. Боянъ бо вѣщій, аще кому хотяше пѣснѣ творити, то растекашется мысію по древу, сѣрымъ волкомъ по земли, шизымъ орломъ подъ облакы.

: "Would it not be meet, o brothers, for us to begin with the old words the difficult telling of the host of Igor, Igor Sviatoslavich? And to begin in the way of the true tales of this time, and not in the way of Boyan's inventions. For the wise Boyan, if he wished to devote to someone [his] song, would wander like a squirrel over a tree, like a grey wolf over land, like a bluish eagle beneath the clouds."

Illustrates the sung epics. Yers generally given full voicing, unlike in the first printed edition of 1800, which was copied from the same destroyed prototype as the Catherine manuscript. Typical use of metaphor and simile. The misquote растекаться мыслью по древу ('to effuse/pour out one's thought upon/over wood'; a product of an old and habitual misreading of the word мысію, 'squirrel-like' as мыслію, 'thought-like', and a change in the meaning of the word течь) has become proverbial in the meaning 'to speak ornately, at length, excessively'.

Avvakum's autobiography

1672–73. Modernized spelling.

Таже послали меня в Сибирь с женою и детьми. И колико дорогою нужды бысть, тово всево много говорить, разве малая часть помянуть. Протопопица младенца родила; больную в телеге и повезли до Тобольска; три тысящи верст недель с тринадцеть волокли телегами и водою и саньми половину пути.

"And then they sent me to Siberia with my wife and children. Whatever hardship there was on the way, there's too much to say it all, but maybe a small part to be mentioned. [My wife] ("lit", the archpriest's wife) gave birth to a baby; and we carted her, sick, all the way to Tobolsk; for three thousand versts, around thirteen weeks in all, we dragged [her] by cart, and by water, and in a sleigh half of the way."

Pure seventeenth-century central Russian vernacular. Phonetic spelling (тово всево 'it all, all of that', modern того всего). A few archaisms still used (aorist in the perfective aspect бысть 'was'). Note the way of transport to exile.

Alexandr Pushkin

From "Winter Evening" (Зимний вечер), 1825. Modern spelling. Audio|Ru-Zimniy vecher.ogg|listen

: Буря мглою небо кроет, : Вихри снежные крутя;: То, как зверь, она завоет, : То заплачет, как дитя, : То по кровле обветшалой : Вдруг соломой зашумит, : То, как путник запоздалый, : К нам в окошко застучит.

: Tempest covers sky in haze [s] , : Twisting gales full of snow; : Like a beast begins to howl, : A cry, as if a child, it will let go,: On the worn-out roof it will clamour : Suddenly upon the thatch, : Or as though a traveller tardy : Starts to knock upon our hatch. ("lit.", window)

Modern Russian is sometimes said to begin with Pushkin, in the sense that the old "high style" Church Slavonic and vernacular Russian are so closely fused that it is difficult to identify whether any given word or phrase stems from the one or the other.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

From "Crime and Punishment" ("Преступление и наказание"), 1866. Modern spelling.

: В начале июля, в чрезвычайно жаркое время, под вечер, один молодой человек вышел из своей каморки, которую нанимал от жильцов в С-м переулке, на улицу и медленно, как бы в нерешимости, отправился к К-ну мосту.

: "In early July, during a spell of extraordinary heat, towards evening, a young man went out from his garret, which he sublet in S—— Lane, [entered] the street, and slowly, as though in [the grip of] indecision, began to make his way to K—— Bridge."

Nineteenth century prose. No archaisms. "European" syntax.

Fundamental laws of the Russian Empire

"Основные законы Российской Империи" ("Constitution of the Russian Empire"), 1906. Modern spelling.

: Императору Всероссийскому принадлежит Верховная Самодержавная Власть. Повиноваться власти Его не только за страх, но и за совесть Сам Бог повелевает.

: "To the Emperor of all Russia belongs the Supreme Autocratic Power. To obey His power, not merely in fear but also in conscience, God Himself does ordain."

Illustrates the categorical nature of thought and expression in the official circles of the Russian Empire. Exemplifies the syntactic distribution of emphasis.

Mikhail Bulgakov

From "The Master and Margarita" ("Мастер и Маргарита"), 1930–40

Вы всегда были горячим проповедником той теории, что по отрезании головы жизнь в человеке прекращается, он превращается в золу и уходит в небытие. Мне приятно сообщить вам, в присутствии моих гостей, хотя они и служат доказательством совсем другой теории, о том, что ваша теория и солидна и остроумна. Впрочем, ведь все теории стоят одна другой. Есть среди них и такая, согласно которой каждому будет дано по его вере. Да сбудется же это!

"You have always been a passionate proponent of the theory that upon decapitation human life comes to an end, the human being transforms into ashes, and passes into oblivion. I am pleased to inform you, in the presence of my guests, though they serve as a proof for another theory altogether, that your theory is both well-grounded and ingenious. Mind you, all theories are worth one another. Among them is one, according to which every one shall receive in line with his faith. May that come to be!"

An example of highly educated modern speech (this excerpt is spoken by Woland). See Russian humor for the essential other end of the spectrum.


* Kiparsky, Valentin, "Russische Historische Grammatik", 3 vols., 1963, 1967, 1975.
* Max Vasmer: "Etymological dictionary of the Russian language" ("Russisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch", 4 volumes, Heidelberg, 1950-58; Russian translation 1964-73).
* Terence Wade, "Russian etymological dictionary", Duckworth Publishing, 1996 - ISBN 1-85399-414-6
* Alexander G. Preobrazhensky, "Etymological dictionary of the Russian language", Columbia University Press, 1983 - ISBN 0-231-01889-4
* Serguei Sakhno, "Dictionnaire russe-français d'étymologie comparée: correspondences lexicales historiques - ISBN 2-7475-0219-8
* Paul Clemens and Elena Chapovalova, "Les mots Russes par la racine (Essai de vocabulaire Russe contemporain par l'étymologie)"- ISBN 2-7475-2833-2

ee also

* Russian language
* Old East Slavic language
* Russian alphabet
* Russian grammar
* Russian orthography
* Reforms of Russian orthography
* Russian phonology
* Russian etymology

External links

* [http://www.krugosvet.ru/articles/82/1008212/1008212a1.htm]

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