History of the Russian Language

Understanding the origins of the Russian language is not only an important step in understanding the language itself, but can also offer a wealth of insight into the culture of the peoples who speak it. With a rich lexicon that is built around an intricate grammatical system, Russian is characterised by the same nuances of complexity that define the country’s long and detailed history. Something that is also characteristic of both is the prominence of change – the primary force which has driven the growth of Russian from its millennia-old roots into the language it is today. In this article I will explore this evolution further, providing a brief history of the Russian language.

The Origins of the Russian Language

The roots of Russian can be traced back about 4000 – 6000 years ago. At this time, the language known as Indo-European was beginning to split, with various communities of speakers migrating away from their homeland in the areas of modern-day Ukraine and Southwest Russia, forming their own dialects in the process. As these communities moved further West, the Slavic tribes remained as a separate group in Eastern Europe and subsequently developed their own language, known as Proto-Slavonic. Eventually, the speakers of Proto-Slavonic separated into three branches – Southern, Western and Eastern – around the year 500AD. Not long after, there followed further separation of the Eastern branch (speakers of so-called Old Russian) which ultimately gave rise to the formation of three distinct languages – Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian. Although the latter two are both dialects of Old Russian, they have come to be considered over time as independent languages in their own right.

The Origins of the Writing System

Monument to Cyril and Methodius

The first key event in the development of the written language was the formation of the Cyrillic alphabet, something which occurred in the late 800s. According to the history, the writing system was originally developed by two Thessalonian monks Cyril (for whom the alphabet is named) and Methodius, who were tasked by Byzantium with bringing Christian Orthodoxy to the Slavic peoples. As Cyril and Methodius were both familiar with Macedonian Slavonic, it is this dialect on which they based the written and spoken language. However, it is a common misconception that Cyril created Cyrillic – the alphabet developed by Cyril and Methodius is actually the Glagolithic alphabet, a far more complicated writing system. Cyrillic is a simpler system based on the Greek, Hebrew and Coptic (Egyptian) writing systems. While some still attribute Cyrillic to Cyril, the exact origins are more uncertain.

The Evolution of Written and Spoken Russian

Both the Russian writing and speaking systems have undergone a number of stages of evolution, primarily as a result of state reforms. The first of these was the Second Southern-Slavonic Influence, when Byzantine and Bulgarian scholars who came to Moscow after the fall of Byzantium introduced reforms to prevent the ‘corruption’ of Old Church Slavonic, including the reintroduction of older expressions and of a number of phonetics.

The second major reform took place under Peter the Great between the years 1708-1710. Peter sought to simplify the writing system as a means of broadening literacy among the general populace, removing a number of Greek letters and eliminating accent marks.

Finally, there were the reforms of the Communist government in 1917, which included the effective elimination of the ‘hard sign’ Tvyordy znak (ъ) as well as the removal of the letter Yat (Ѣ).

History, Reflected in the Language

Peter the GreatThe Russian lexicon often carries the mark of various events in Russian history. Russian maintains a large number of original Slavonic words shared by other Slavic languages, which tend to refer to those aspects of life that have remained largely unchanged amongst Slavic societies since these communities first appeared. There are also a number of words from Old Russian which are common only to the languages of the Eastern Slavonic branch. Then there are words borrowed from the Scandinavian languages – primarily names – from the time when the Vikings ruled the ancient kingdom of Kievan Rus’. A number of words of Greek origin can also still be seen, which made their way into the Russian language following the introduction of Christian Orthodoxy in the late 900s. And a number of words of German and particularly French origin still remain from when Peter the Great first began his project of Westernisation.

So there you have it – a very brief history of the Russian language. While there are many more layers still to this complex and detailed story, I nonetheless hope this article has captured the key points and has provided you with useful and interesting information to help you on your journey to understand Russia.

Citations

Hallen, C.L., Buck, T.A. (1998, February 24). “A brief history of the Russian language”. Available at: http://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/Ling450ch/reports/russian.html

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