East Slavic languages

East Slavic languages

Infobox Language family
name = East Slavic

map_caption = legend|#008000|Countries where an East Slavic language is the national language
region = Eastern Europe
familycolor = Indo-European
fam1 = Indo-European
fam2 = Balto-Slavic
fam3 = Slavic
child1 = Belarussian
child2 = Russian
child3 = Rusyn
child4 = Ukrainian
child5 = Old East Slavic†
child6 = Ruthenian
The East Slavic languages constitute one of three regional subgroups of Slavic languages, currently spoken in Eastern Europe. It is the group with the largest numbers of speakers, far out-numbering the Western and Southern Slavic groups. Current East Slavic languages are Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Rusyn (a small language spoken in Eastern Slovakia, South Eastern Poland, Eastern Hungary and South Western Ukraine and regarded by some Ukrainian linguists as a Ukrainian dialect).

* Indo-European languages
** Balto-Slavic
*** Slavic languages
**** East Slavic
***** Old East Slavic language
****** Vladimir-Suzdal dialect †
******* Russian language
****** Ruthenian language
******* Ukrainian language
******* Belarusian language
******* Rusyn language
***** Old Novgorod dialect

Current status

All these languages are nowadays separate in their own right. Until the 17th century it was usual to call Belarussian ("White Russian"), Ukrainian ("Little Russian"), Russian ("Great Russian") dialects of one common "Russian" language (the common languages of Eastern Slavic countries). Despite the vast territory occupied by the East Slavs, their languages are astonishingly similar to one another, with transitional dialects in border regions. All these languages use the Cyrillic alphabet, but with particular modifications.


When the common Old East Slavic language became separated from the ancient Slavic tongue common to all Slavs is difficult to ascertain (6th–11th century).

The history of the East Slavic languages is a very 'hot' subject, because it is interpreted from various political perspectives by the East Slavs "like all mortals, wishing to have an origin as ancient as possible" ("sicut ceteri mortalium, originem suam quam vetustissimam ostendere cupientes"), as Aeneas Sylvius observed in his "Historia Bohemica" in 1458.

Therefore, a crucial differentiation has to be made between the history of the East Slavic "dialects" and that of the "literary languages" employed by the Eastern Slavs. Although most ancient texts betray the dialect their author(s) and/or scribe(s) spoke, it is also clearly visible that they tried to write in a language different from their dialects and to avoid those mistakes that enable us nowadays to locate them.

In both cases one has to keep in mind that the history of the East Slavic languages is of course a history of written texts. We do not know how the writers of the preserved texts would have spoken in every-day life, let alone how an illiterate East Slavic peasant spoke to his family.

Influence of Church Slavonic

After the conversion of the East Slavic region to Christianity the people used service books borrowed from Bulgaria, which were written in "Old Bulgarian" or Old Church Slavonic. They continued to use this language, or rather a variant thereof, usually called (Middle) Church Slavonic, not only in liturgy, but also generally as the language of learning and written communication. This left a large imprint even on the rare secular texts.

Throughout the Middle Ages (and in some way up to the present day) there existed a duality between the Church Slavonic language used as some kind of 'higher' register (not only) in religious texts and the popular tongue used as a 'lower' register for secular texts. It has been suggested to describe this situation as diglossia, although there do exist mixed texts where it is sometimes very hard to determine why a given author used a popular or a Church Slavonic form in a given context. Church Slavonic was a major factor in the evolution of modern Russian, where there still exists a "high stratum" of words that were imported from this language.


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