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Russian language
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Russian language

Russian (русский язык/russk'ij jaz1k/) is the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages.

(русский язык)
Spoken in: Russia and many adjacent countries
Region: Eastern Europe and Asia
Total speakers: 280 million
Ranking: 4-7
 Satem phylum
   East Slavic
Official status
Official language of: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, United Nations
Regulated by: --
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ru
ISO 639-2 rus

Russian belongs to the group of Indo-European languages, and is therefore related to Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, as well as the modern Germanic, Romance, and Celtic languages, including English, French, and Gaelic. Written examples are extant from the tenth century C.E. onwards.

While it preserves much of its ancient synthetic-inflexional structure and a Common Slavonic word base, modern Russian shares a large stock of the international vocabulary for politics, science, and technology. A language of political importance in the twentieth century, Russian is one of the official languages of the United Nations.

NOTE. Russian is written in a non-Latin script. All examples below are in the Cyrillic alphabet, with transcriptions in SAMPA (without regard to the reduction of unstressed vowels). For this reason, the properly linguistic description begins with Writing System, and History is given as the concluding section, to give the reader a better opportunity to become familiar with the elements of the contemporary language before reading an account on how it got to be what it is.

Table of contents
1 Classification
2 Geographic distribution
3 Writing system
4 Sounds
5 Grammar
6 Vocabulary
7 History
8 Examples
9 References
10 Related articles
11 External links


Russian is a Slavic language, in the Indo-European family. Its closest relatives are Ukrainian and Belarusian, the other two national languages in the East Slavic group.

The basic vocabulary, principles of word-formation, and, to some extent, inflexions and literary style of Russian have been influenced by Church Slavonic, a developed and partly adopted form of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic language used by the Russian Orthodox Church.

The vocabulary and literary style of Russian have been greatly influenced by Greek, Latin, French, German, and English.

Geographic distribution

Russian is primarily spoken in Russia and the other countries that were once constituent republics of the USSR. Until 1917, it was the sole official language of the Russian Empire. 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 was reserved for Russian. Following the breakup of 1991, several of the newly independent states have strongly discouraged Russian. It has clung to its role as the language of common intercourse throughout the region. In the face of nationalism and shifting political alliances throughout the CIS, this status may decline in the future.

In the twentieth century, it was widely taught in the schools of the members of the old Warsaw Pact, and in other countries influenced by the USSR.

Russian is also spoken in Israel by 750,000 ethnic Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (1999 census). The Israeli press and websites regularly publish material in Russian.

Sizable Russian-speaking communities (totalling in the hundreds of thousands) also exist in North America, and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe. These have been fed by several waves of emigrants since the beginning of the twentieth century, each with its own flavour of language. The descendants of the Russian emigrés, however, have tended to lose the tongue of their ancestors by the third generation.

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 7 285,000,000 4
SIL Ethnologue 167,000,000 7 277,000,000 5

Official status

Russian is the official language of Russia, and an official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.


Despite levelling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary, a large number of dialects exists in Russia. Some linguists divide the dialects of the Russian language 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. 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 dialects typically pronounce unstressed /o/ clearly (the phenomenon called okanye оканье); the southern palatalize the final /t/ and aspirate the /g/ into /h/.

Among the first to study Russian dialects was Lomonosov in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth, Vladimir Dahl compiled the first dictionary that included dialectal vocabulary. Detailed mapping of Russian dialects began at the turn of the twentieth century. In modern times, the monumental Dialectological Atlas of the Russian Language (Диалектологический атлас русского языка /dial'ektolog'itSesk'ij atlas russkovo jaz1ka/), was published in 3 folio volumes 1986-1989, after four decades of preparatory work.

The standard language is based on the Moscow dialect.

Derived languages

Russenorsk is a pidgin language combining Russian and Norwegian. Russian sign language allows deaf people to communicate.

Writing system


Main article: Russian alphabet

Russian is written using a modern version of the Cyrillic alphabet, consisting of 33 letters.

The following table gives their majuscule forms, along with SAMPA values for each letter's typical sound:


Old letters that have been abolished at one time or another but occur in this article include /ě:/ or /e/, i /i/, and /ja/ or /'a/. The yers ъ and ь were originally pronounced as ultra-short or reduced /ŭ/, /ĭ/.


Main article: Russian orthography

Russian spelling is reasonably phonetic in practice. It is in fact a balance between phonetics, morphology, etymology, and grammar, and, like that of most living languages, has its share of inconsistencies and controversial points.

The current spelling follows the major reform of 1918, and the final codification of 1956. An update proposed in the late 1990's has met a hostile reception, and has not been formally adopted.

The punctuation, originally based on Byzantine Greek, was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reformulated on the French and German models.



The modern standard language has five non-allophonic vowels:

ая /a/ — /ja/ or /'a/
эе /e/ — /je/ or /'e/
ыи /1/ or /i/ — /'i/ or /i/ (see below)
oё /o/ — /jo/ or /'o/
ую /u/ — /ju/ or /'u/

The second letter in each row denotes the sound that is iotated (when initial, see Semi-vowel) or softening (when preceded by a consonant, see Consonants).

The vowels ы and и (/1/ and /i/) are considered allophonic. Their isolated pronunciation is distinct. The vowel /1/ is more tense than the /i/, and the position of the tongue differs: neutrally flat for /1/, slightly raised (without tension) for /i/. However, the two sounds tend to merge when unstressed or when following the sibilant consonants ж /Z/, ш /S/, щ /S'/, ч /tS'/. See Consonants for details.

The pronunciation of Russian vowels greatly depends on the dialect. Standard speech pronounces vowels clearly only under stress. In the unstressed (weak) position, vowels are reduced to a neutral vowel, more or less a schwa /@/. This reduction is weakest in the syllable immediately before the one stressed. Russian orthography does not reflect vowel reduction.


Russian possesses one semi-vowel: й /j/, equivalent to the English [y] in yes. The /j/ always immediately precedes or follows a vowel. If it follows, as in русский /russkij/, it is denoted in writing with й. If it precedes (iotation), it is incorporated in writing with the following vowel sound in the iotated/softening series of vowels given above: ем /jem/ "I eat". In some foreign words, however, the й is also written before the vowel: йога /joga/ "yoga" (the non-existent word *ёга would be pronounced identically). If the /j/ immediately follows a consonant and precedes a vowel sound, it is separated from the consonant in writing by the hard sign ъ (after a prefix, the sole remaining usage for the letter ъ in Russian), or by the soft sign ь (in all other cases): съездить /sjezdit'/, "to have driven/ridden/travelled"; панъевропейский /panjevrop'ejsk'ij/ "pan-European"; пью /p'ju/ "I drink"; пьеса /p'jesa/ "a theatrical play".


Hard and soft consonants

Russian consonants are of two types: hard (твёрдый /tv'ord1j/) and soft (мягкий /m'axk'ij/). The hard pronunciation is the basic one, and is achieved in general by keeping the tongue as low as possible. For the soft pronunciation or palatalization, the mouth is slightly more open in a horizontal slit, and the tongue is drawn slightly back, almost as though to pronounce an /i:/ that is not there.

Consonants with both hard and soft varieties

The consonants б /b/, в /v/, г /g/, д /d/, ж /Z/, з /z/, к /k/, л /l/, м /m/, н /n/, п /p/, р /p/, с /s/, т/t/, ф /f/, х /x/ have both a hard and a soft pronunciation. Except for ж /Z/, their softness is indicated in writing:

The soft pronunciation of ж is indicated in writing by doubling: жж /Z'/ (as in жжёшь /Z'oS/ "you (sg) burn"). Otherwise, the consonant ж /Z/ is always hard, except in isolated cases of consonant assimilation (see below): жаба /Zaba/ "toad". There is exactly one unassimilated exception: жюри /Z'uri´/ "jury". In feminine nouns and in some inflexional forms, a soft sign ь is written by historical tradition after the undoubled ж /Z/ at the end of the word, but there is no softening: рожь /roZ/ "rye". Similarly, a е /(')e/, ё /(')o/, or и /(')i/ or /1/ written after the undoubled ж does not imply a soft pronunciation: также /takZe/ "also", жёлтый /Zolt1j/ "yellow", жить /z1t'/ "to live". The soft pronunciation of жж has in the twentieth century lost ground to the hard. Nonetheless, it continues to be standard in broadcasting, etc.

Consonants that are always either hard or soft

The consonants ш /S/ and ц /ts/ are always hard. In writing, the soft sign ь historically follows ш for feminine nouns and in some inflexional forms at the end of the word.

The consonants щ /S'/ and ч /tS'/ are always soft. In writing, the soft sign ь historically follows them for feminine nouns and in some inflexional forms at the end of the word.

Supplementary notes

The hard х /x/ is a guttural similar to the German [ch] in ach. The soft хь /C/ is a soft sibilant similar to the German soft [ch] in ich.

The hard л /l/, т /t/, and д /d/ are dental, with the tongue kept much lower than for the English /l/, /t/, /d/. The soft ль /l'/, ть /t'/, and дь /d'/ are much closer to the English /l/, /t/, /d/ than the hard Russian /l/, /t/, /d/.

Both the hard р /r/ and the soft рь /r'/ are trilled.

The hard ж /Z/ is similar to the English [s] in pleasure, but is harder (the tongue is lower). The soft жж /Z'/ is close to the English [s] in pleasure.

The hard ш/S/ is similar to the English [sh] in ship, but is considerably harder. The soft щ /S'/ is close to the English [sh] in ship, but is somewhat softer. The consonant щ is sometimes pronounced /S'tS'/, but such precision may sound affected to many Russians.

Assimilation of consonants

In continuous speech, the pronunciation of consonants shows systematic transformations not reflected in the Russian orthography:

The historic transformation of /g/ into /v/ in the genitive case (and also the accusative for animate entities) of masculine singular adjectives and pronouns is not reflected in the modern Russian orthography: его /jevo/ his, him; белого /b'elovo/ "(of the) white"; синего /s'in'evo/ "(of the) blue".


Stress, rather than pitch or vowel length, lexically determines Russian accentuation. The stress may fall on any syllable, and may shift within an inflexional paradigm: дóма /dóma/, of the house; домá /domá/, houses.


The Moscow standard features: In contrast, the pronunciation in St. Petersburg has traditionally been more staccato, monotonic, and more faithful to the written appearance of native words and to the original pronunciation of borrowed ones.

The regions show a very large number of variations. As in many other languages, mass communications have considerably levelled the regional differences.

Historical sound changes

Like all Slavic languages, Russian was originally a language of open syllables. All syllables ended in vowels (as in Japanese), and consonant clusters, in far lesser variety than today, existed only at the start of a syllable.

By the time of the earliest records, Old Russian already showed characteristic divergences from Common Slavonic. Major features of this stage include:

Major phonological processes in the last thousand years have included:


Main article: Russian grammar

NOTE. In the discussion below, various terms are used in the meaning they have in the standard Russian discussions of historical grammar. In particular, aorist, imperfect, etc. are considered verbal tenses rather than aspects, because ancient examples of them are attested for both perfective and imperfective verbs.

Russian has preserved an Indo-European synthetic-inflexional structure, although considerable levelling has taken place.


Nominal declension is subject to six cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental and locative or prepositional), in two numbers (singular and plural), and obeying absolutely grammatical gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter). A vocative form is preserved for words and names of religious import, as Боже/boZE/ "God", etc. The adjectives, pronouns, and the first two cardinal numbers further vary by gender. Old Russian also had a third number, the dual, but except for its use in the nominative and accusative cases with the number two (два стула/dva stula/, "two chairs", recategorized today as a genitive singular), it has been lost.


Verbal conjugation is subject to three persons in two numbers and two simple tenses (present/future and past), with periphrastic forms for the future and subjunctive, as well as imperative forms and present/past participles, distinguished by adjectival and adverbial usage. There are two voices, active and middle/passive, which is costructed by the addition of a reflexive enclitic -ся/сь/-s'a/-s'/ to the active form. An interesting feature is that the past tense is actually made to agree in gender with the subject, for it is the participle in an originally periphrastic perfect tense formed with the present of быть /b1t'/,"to be", which is now omitted except for archaic effect (откуда есть пошла русская земля/otkuda jest' poSla russkaja zeml'a/, "whence is come the Russian land", a slight modernization of the opening of the Primary Chronicle). Verbal inflection today is considerably simpler than in Old Russian. The ancient aorist, imperfect, and (periphrastic) pluperfect tenses have been lost, though the aorist sporadically occurs in secular literature as late as the second half of the eighteenth century, and survives as an odd form in direct narration (а он пойди да скажи/a on pojdi da skaZ1/, etc., exactly equivalent to the English colloquial "so he goes and says"), recategorized as a usage of the imperative. The loss of three of the former six tenses has been offset by the development, as in other Slavic languages, of verbal aspect. Verbs come in pairs, one with imperfective or continuous connotation, the other with perfective or completed, usually formed with a (prepositional) prefix, but occasionally using a different root.

The present tense of the verb быть/b1t'/, "to be", is today normally used only in the third-person singular, and, very formally, in the third person plural. As late as the nineteenth century, the full conjugation, which today is used only for extreme effect, was somewhat more natural: forms occur in the Synodal Bible, in Dostoevsky and in the bylinas (былины/b1l'in1/) or oral folk-epics, which were transcribed at that time. The paradigm shows as well as anything else the Indo-European affinity of Russian:

English Russian SAMPA Latin
"I am" есмь /jes'm'/ sum
"thou art" еси /jes'i/ es
"he, she, it is" есть /jes't'/ est
"we are" есмы /jesm1/ sumus
"you are" есте /jes't'e/ estis
"they are" суть /sut'/ sunt

Word formation

Russian has on hand a set of prefixes, prepositional and adverbial in nature, as well as diminutive, augmentative, and frequentative suffixes and infixes. All of these can be stacked one upon the other, to produce multiple derivatives of a given word. Participles and other inflexional forms may also have a special connotation. For example:

''мысль /m1sl'/ "thought"
мыслишка /m1sl'iSka/ "a petty or cute thought"
мыслище /m1sl'iS'e/ "a thought of fundamental import"
мысление /m1sl'en'je/ "thought; abstract thinking, ratiocination"
мыслить /m1sl'it'/ "to think (as to cogitate)"
смысл /sm1sl/ "meaning"
осмыслить /osm1sl/it'/ "to comprehend; to rationalize"
переосмыслить /p'er'eosm1sl'it'/ "to reassess"
переосмысливать /p'er'eosm1sl'ivat'/ "to be in the process of reassessing (something)"
переосмысливаемый /p'er'eosm1sl'ivajem1j/ "(something) in the process of being considered in a new light"
бессмыслица /b'essm1sl'itsa/ "nonsense"
обессмыслить /ob'essm1sl'it'/ "to render meaningless"
бессмысленный /b'essm1sl'enn1j/ "meaningless"
обессмысленный /ob'essm1sl'enn1j/ "rendered meaningless"
необессмысленный /n'eob'essm1sl'enn1j/ "not yet rendered meaningless"

Russian has also proved friendly to agglutinative compounds. As an extreme case:

металлоломообеспечение /m'etallolomoob'esp'etS'en'je/ "provision of scrap iron"
металлоломообеспеченный /m'etallolomoob'esp'etS'enn1j/ "well supplied with scrap iron"

Purists (as Ushakov in the preface to his dictionary) frown on such words. But here is the name of a street in St. Petersburg:

Каменноостровский проспект /kamennoostrovsk'ij prosp'ekt/ "Stone Island Avenue"

Some linguists have suggested that Russian agglutination stems from Church Slavonic. In the twentieth century, abbreviated components appeared in the compound:

управдом /upravdom/=управляющий домом /upravl'ajuS'ij domom/ "residence manager"


The basic word order, both in conversation and the written language, is subject-verb-object. Because the relations are marked by declension, however, a certain latitude is allowed, and all the permutations can be used. Primary emphasis tends to be initial, with a slightly weaker emphasis at the end.


Unlike English, Latin, and various other languages, Russian allows multiple negatives, as in никто никогда никому ничего не прощает /n'ikto n'ikogda n'ikomu n'itS'evo n'e proS'ajet/ "No-one ever forgives anything to anyone" (literally, "no-one never to no-one nothing not forgives").


Common coordinating conjunctions include:

The distinction between и and а is important. The и implies a following complemental state that does not oppose the antecedent. The а implies a following state that acts in opposition to the antecedent, but more weakly than но "but".

, 1790's]]

они уехали,
и мы уезжаем
/on'i ujexal'i
i m1 ujeZ'ajem/
they have departed
and we are departing
они уехали,
а мы уезжаем
/on'i ujexali
a m1 ujeZ'ajem/
they have departed,
while (but) we are (still) departing
они уехали,
но мы приезжаем
/on'i ujexal'i
no m1 pr'ijeZ'ajem/
they have departed,
but we are arriving

The distinction between и and а developed after the mediaeval period; originally, и and а were closer in meaning. The unpunctuated ending of the Song of Igor illustrates the potential confusion. The final five words in modern spelling, князьям слава а дружине аминь /knaz'jam slava a druZine am'in'/ can be understood either as "Glory to the princes and to their host! Amen." or "Glory to the princes, and amen (R.I.P.) to their troops". Although majority opinion is definitely with the first interpretation, there is no full consensus. The psychological difference between the two is quite obvious.


Subordinating conjuctions, adverbs, or adverbial phrases include:

In general, there are fewer subordinate clauses than in English, because the participles (причастие /pr'itSas't'je/) and adverbial participles (деепричастие /d'ejepr'itSas't'je/)) often take the place of a relative pronoun/verb combination. For example:

Вот человек,
потерявший надежду
/vot tS'elov'ek
pot'er'avSij nad'eZdu/
Here (is) a man
who has lost (all) hope.
[lit. having lost hope]
Гуляя по городу, всегда
останавливаюсь у Ростральных колонн
/gul'aja po gorodu vs'egda
ostanavl'ivajus' u rostral'n1x kolonn/
When I go for a walk in the city, I always
pause by the Rostral Columns.
[lit. Walking in the city, I...]

Absolute construction

Despite the inflexional nature of Russian there is no equivalent in the modern language to the English nominative absolute or the Latin ablative absolute contruction. The old language had an absolute construction, with the noun put into the dative. Like so many other archaisms, it is retained in Church Slavonic. Among the last known examples in literary Russian occurs in Radishchev's Journey from Petersburg to Moscow (Путешествие из Петербурга в Москву /put'eSestv'ije iz p'et'erburga v moskvu/), 1790:


See the History section for an account of the successive foreign influences on the Russian language.

The total number of words in Russian is difficult to reckon because of the ability to agglutinate and create manifold compounds, diminutives, etc. (see Word Formation).

The number of listed words or entries in some of the major dictionaries published during the last two centuries, and the total vocabulary of Pushkin, 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
Pushkin opus 1810-1837 21,197
Academic dictionary, III Ed. 1847 114,749 Russian and Church Slavonic with Old Russian vocabulary
Dahl's dictionary 1880-1882 195,844 44,000entries lexically grouped; attempt to catalogue the full vernacular language, includes some properly Ukrainian and Belarusian words
Ushakov's dictionary 1934-1940 85,289 Current language with some archaisms
Academic dictionary 1950-1965 120,480 full dictionary of the "Modern language"
Ozhegov's dictionary 1991 61,458 More or less then-current language
Lopatin's dictionary 2000 c.160,000 Orthographic, current language

Philologists have estimated that the language today may contain approximately 350,000 to 500,000 words.

The language of abuse and invective

Apparently, the ability to curse effectively has always been recognized as a form of art not only in certain quarters of society, but even by the more liberal-minded literati. For example, as far back as in the nineteenth-century naval yarns of Staniukovich, "artistic invective" (артистическая ругань /artistitS'eskaja rugan'/) keeps coming out of the sailors' mouths, though it is never spelled out. The ability to agglutinate has produced the so-called "three-decker curse" (трёхэтажный мат /tr'oxEtaZn1j mat/).

It is interesting that the modern obscenities appear to have taken on their meaning in the eighteenth century, as euphemisms for words since lost. For example, the word блядь /bl'ad'/ ("whore"), is today considered extraordinarily offensive. It anciently meant "error, sin", as a concept in the high style, occurs in scripture in that sense, and may perhaps be heard during the liturgy.


Main article: List of Russian proverbs

The spoken language is replete with many hundreds of proverbs (пословица/poslov'itsa/) and set phrases (поговоркa/pogovorka/). These were already tabulated by the seventeenth century, and collected and studied in the nineteenth and twentieth. Many have entered the literature, with the folk-tales being an especially fertile source. Unlike English, in which many clichés and sayings appear to have gone from the literary to the vernacular, the tendency in Russian has been in the other direction.

The received opinion is that the proverbs and set phrases show something of the fatalistic nature of the people. Here are a few of them:


Main article for literature : Russian literature

Main article for orthographic history : Reforms of Russian orthography

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


The question of the ethnic origins of the modern Russians is charged with politics and revanchism. The very name Russia (Россия/ross'ija/), or, in its older form, Rus (Русь/rus'/), does not have an uncontested etymology. Nevertheless, judging by the historical records, by approximately 900 AD the predominant ethnic group over much of modern European Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus was the Eastern branch of the Slavs, speaking a closely related group of dialects that had emerged following the breakup of Common Slavonic in approximately the middle third of the first millennium. Whether or not this ethnic group is autochthonous is a matter of scientific debate. So too are the degrees and timelines of its mixing or coalescence with other tribes that have shared the geographical space or have come into it. But the history proper of Russia, its dominant people, and their language begins more or less at the turn of the tenth century C.E. Prior tradition, as recognized already by the Russian historian Karamzin (c. 1800), is dark, or, at least, not well preserved.

There are references, in Arab and Byzantine sources, that pre-Christian Slavs in European Russia used some form of writing. Despite some suggestive archaelogical finds and a corroboration by the tenth-century monk Khrabr that ancient Slavs wrote in "strokes and incisions" (черты и резы/tSert1 i r'ez1/), the exact nature of this system is not known. Recent amateur investigations in Russia have proposed that this was a syllabic system that may have survived, possibly into the twentieth century, in cryptography (тайнопись/tajnop'is'/), but scholars have reached no consensus beyond undecidability.

The Book of Veles, said to have been found during the Russian civil war and to have disappeared in WWII, would, if genuine, provide about the only surviving pre-Christian Russian literary monument. Since the account of its find and eventual fate (several photographs are claimed to survive) has not been confirmed, and its language deviates from the accepted reconstruction, most professional linguists have so far dismissed the book's authenticity.

The Kievan period (9th-11th centuries)

The political unification of this region into the state called Kievan Rus, from which both modern Russia and Ukraine trace their origins, accurred approximately a century before the adoption of Christianity in 988 and the establishment of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical and literary language. Documentation of the language of this period is scanty, making it difficult at best fully to determine the relationship between the literary language and its spoken dialects. It is known, however, that borrowings and calques from Byzantine Greek began to enter the vernacular at this time, and that simultaneously the literary language in its turn began to be modified towards Eastern Slavic.

краткий /kratk'ij/ OCS "brief"
короткий /korotk'ij/ ESl "short"
вивлиофика /v'ivl'iof'ika/ Gr bibliotheke via OCS "library" (archaic form)
правописание /pravop'isan'je/ Gr orthographe via OCS calque правыи:
/prav1i/=orthos "correct", писати/p'isat'i/=grapho "write"
"spelling, orthography"

Although the Glagolitic alphabet was briefly introduced, as witnessed by church inscriptions in Novgorod, it was soon entirely superseded by the Cyrillic. The samples of birch-bark writing excavated in Novgorod have provided crucial information about the pure tenth-century vernacular in North-West Russia, almost entirely free of church influence.

Surviving literary monuments from this period include the Русская правда/russkaja pravda/, the legal code of Yaroslav the Wise (1072), and a corpus of hagiography and homily, which are usually included in a survey of Russian because characteristic divergences from Old Church Slavonic are already evident.

Feudal breakup, the Vladimir period, Mongol hegemony (12th-14th centuries)

Dialectal differentiation in the language spoken by the Eastern Slavs is apparent from the earliest period, but accelerated after the breakup of Kievan Rus' and the incorporation of its western regions into Lithuanian and Polish states after periods of local independence, and was assisted by the conquest of its eastern regions by the Mongols in the twelth century. Nonetheless, the vernacular language of the conquered remained firmly Slavic. The borrowings from the language of the distant hegemons relate mostly to commerce and the military:

товар /tovar/ Turk.-Altaic "commercial goods"
лошадь /loSad'/ Turk.-Altaic "horse"

The modern phonological system of Russian was established during this period after the fall of the yers (see Historical phonology).

Literary monuments from this period include the epic Song of Igor (Слово о полку игореве /slovo o polku igor'ev'e/) and the earliest surviving manuscript of the Primary Chronicle (Повесть временных лет /pov'est' vrem'enn1x l'et/), the Laurentian codex (Лаврентьевский список /lavr'ent'jevskij sp'isok/) of 1377.

The Moscovite period (15th-17th centuries)

After the disestablishment of the "Tartar yoke" (татарское иго /tataskoje igo/) in the late fourteenth century, both the political centre and the predominant dialect in European Russia came to be based in Moscow. A scientific consensus exists that Russian and Ukrainian had definitely become distinct by this time at the latest (according to some linguists and historians, even earlier). The official language in Russia remained a kind of Church Slavonic until the close of the seventeenth century, but, despite attempts at standardization, as by Meletius Smotritsky c. 1620, its purity was by then strongly compromised by an incipient secular literature. There was borrowing of vocabulary from Polish, and, though it, from German and other Western European languages. At the same time, a number of words of native (by overall consent of the Russian etymologists) coinage or adaptation appeared, at times replacing or supplementing the inherited Indo-European/Common Slavonic vocabulary.

глаз /glaz/ R; supplements ComSl око /oko/ = Lat oculus = E eye "eye"
жупан /Zupan/ P župan "a kind of cloak"
брак /brak/ G Brack "a reject product"

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.

мачта /matSta/ D mast "mast"
интерес /int'eres/ G Interesse/Fr interêt "interest"
библиотека /b'ibl'iot'eka/ Gr bibliotheke via Fr. bibliothèque "library" (modern form)

At the same time, there began explicit attempts to fashion a modern literary language as a compromise between Church Slavonic, the native vernacular, and the style of Western Europe. The writers Lomonosov, Derzhavin, and Karamzin made notable efforts in this respect, but, as per the received notion, the final synthesis belongs Pushkin and his contemporaries in the first third of the nineteenth century.

During the nineteenth century, the standard language assumed its modern form; literature flourished. Spurred perhaps by the so-called Slavophilism, some Westernisms (виктория /v'iktorija/ > победа /pob'eda/, "victory") fashionable during the eighteenth century now passed out of use, and formerly vernacular or dialectal strata entered the literature as the "speech of the people". Borrowings of political, scientific and technical terminology continued. By about 1900, commerce and fashion ensured the first wave of mass adoptions from English.

социализм /sots'ializm/ Intl/G Sozialismus "socialism"
конституция /konst'itutsija/ Intl/Lat constitutio "constitution"
антимония /ant'imonija/ Gk antinomia,
"useless debate, argument or quarrel"
брекфаст /brekfast/
(note unpalatalized /bre-/ in 19th c.
E "breakfast" (dead fashionable slang)
прейскурант /pr'ejskurant/
(the original unpalatalized pronunciation of /pre-/ is still heard)
G Preiskurant/
Fr prix-courant
"price list"

Soviet period and beyond (20th century)

The political upheavals of the early twentieth century and the wholesale changes of political ideology gave written Russian its modern appearance after the spelling reform of 1918. Reformed spelling, the new political terminology, and the abandonment of the effusive formulae of politeness characteristic of the pre-Revolutionary upper classes prompted dire statements from members of the emigré intelligentsia that Russian was becoming debased. But the authoritarian nature of the regime, the system of schooling it provided from the 1930's, and not least the often unexpressed yearning among the literati for the former days ensured a fairly static maintenance of Russian into the 1980's. Though the language did evolve, it changed very gradually. Indeed, while literacy became nearly universal, dialectal differentiation declined, expecially in the vocabulary: schooling and mass communications ensured a common denominator. Political circumstances and the undoubted accomplishments of the superpower in military, scientific, and technological matters (especially cosmonautics), gave Russian a world-wide if occasionally grudging prestige, most strongly felt during the middle third of the twentieth century.

большевик /bol'Sev'ik/ R "Bolshevik" (lit. "person of the majority",
after the events of the 1903 Party congress)
Комсомол /komsomol/ Abbreviated agglutination:
Союз коммунистической молодёжи
/sojuz kommun'ist'itS'eskoj molod'oZ1/
"Communist Youth League"
рабфак /rabfak/ Abbreviated agglutination:
рабочий факультет
/rabotS'ij fakul't'et/
"trade school"

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.

младостарчество /mladostartS'estvo/ R/CS, agglutination:
CS младый /mlad1j/ =
R молодой /molodoj/ "young",
R/CS старец /star'ets/ = "old man with spriritual wisdom"
term applied (in condemnation) by the Russian Orthodox Church to the phenomenon of immature newly-ordained priests assuming an unwarranted excessive control over the private life of the members of the congregation.
юсфульный /jusful'n1j/ E "useful" (live fashionable slang)

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 approbation. Time will show which way the language will go.


The following excerpts illustrate (very briefly) the development of the literary language. They have been chosen because they are to this day taught in Russian schools 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

Се пов&#сти врем&#ньнъıх лт . Откуду єсть пошла руска зем . кто въ києв нача первє кнжити . и откуду руска земл 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.

Song of Igor

Слово о пълку Игорев. c. 1200(?), from the Catherine manuscript, c. 1790.

Не лпо ли ны бяшетъ братіе, начати старыми словесы трудныхъ повстій о полку Игорев, Игоря Святъ славича? Начатижеся тъ псни по былинамъ сего времени, а не по замышленію Бояню. Боянъ бо вщій, аще кому хотяше псн творити, то растекашется мыслію по древу, срымъ 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 effuse his thoughts upon wood, like a grey wolf over land, like a bluish eagle beneath the clouds.

Avvakum's autobiography

1672-1673. 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 the carts, and in boats, and in sledges half of the way.

Alexander Pushkin

From "Winter Evening" (Зимний вечер), 1825. Modern spelling.

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 whirls [in driven] snow,
Like a beast begins to howl,
Like a child it wails [anew].
On the worn-out roof it clamours
Suddenly upon the thatch,
Then, as though a traveller tardy
Starts to knock upon our hatch. (lit., window)

Feodor 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.

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.

Mikhail Bulgakov

From The Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита), 1930-1940

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!


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