Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
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.
Kievan period and feudal breakup
Up to the 14th century, ancestors of the modern Russians (who likewise called themselves ruskie) spoke dialects of a language, usually termed Old Russian but actually common to all the Eastern Slavs. That tongue was, next to Church Slavonic, a kind of official language of Kievan Rus.
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:
|краткий||Gr bibliotheke via OCS||"library" (archaic form)|
|правописание||/'pʀa.və.pʲi.'sa.nʲjə/||Gr orthographe via OCS calque:|
OCS правыи /'pʀa.vɪi/=orthos "correct",
OCS писати /pʲɪ.'sa.tʲɪ/ =grapho "write"
It should be pointed out that the difference between the language of Kievan Rus' and Modern Russian is not so great as to make impossible comprehension of the 11th-century texts by an educated Russian. This difference is much smaller than, say, the enormous gap between Old English and Modern English.
The Moscovite period (15th-17th centuries)
After the disestablishment of the "Tartar yoke" (татарское иго /tʌ.'taʀ.skə.jə 'i.gə/) 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 Ruthenian (the predecessor of Belarusian 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 Smotrytsky c. 1620, its purity was by then strongly compromised by an incipient secular literature. There was borrowing of vocabulary from Polish, and, through 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 /'o.kə/ = Lat oculus = E eye||"eye"|
|куртка||/'ku.ʀtkə/||P kurta, from Lat curtus||"a short jacket"|
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.
|интерес||/in.tʲɪ.'ʀʲes/||G Interesse/Fr interêt||"interest"|
|библиотека||/bʲɪ.blʲɪ.ʌ.'tʲe.kə/||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 to 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 fashionable during the eighteenth century now passed out of use (for example, виктория /vʲi.'kto.ʀʲɪ.jə/ > победа /pʌ.'bʲe.də/, "victory"), 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.
|антимония||/ʌn.tʲɪ.'mo.nɪ.jə/|| Gk antinomia,|
|"useless debate, argument or quarrel" (dead bookish term)|
|прейскурант|| /pʀʲejs.ku.'ʀant/ (the original unpalatalized|
pronunciation of /pʀɛ-/ is still heard)
| G Preiskurant/ |
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 1930s, and not least the often unexpressed yearning among the literati for the former days ensured a fairly static maintenance of Russian into the 1980s. Though the language did evolve, it changed very gradually. Indeed, while literacy became nearly universal, dialectal differentiation declined, especially 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||/bʌlʲ.ʃə.'vʲik/||R|| "Bolshevik" (lit. "adherent of the maximum programme", |
after the events of the 1903 Party congress,
also taken as "person of the majority".)
|Комсомол||/kəm.sʌ.'mol/|| Abbreviated agglutination: |
Коммунистический Союз Молодёжи
/kə.mə.nʲi.'stʲi.ʧɪ.skʲi.j sʌ.'juz mə.lʌ.'dʲo.ʒɪ/
|"Communist Youth League"|
|рабфак||/ʀʌb.'fak/|| Abbreviated agglutination:
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||/mla.də.'staʀ.ʧɪ.stvə/|| R/CS, agglutination: |
CS младый /'mla.dɪj/ =
R молодой /mə.lʌ.'doj/ "young",
R/CS старец /'sta.ʀʲɪʦ/ = "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.|
|дистрибьютор||/dʲɪ.strʲɪ.'bʲju.təʀ/||E||"distributor" (in marketing)|
|юсфульный||/'jus.fəlʲ.nɪj/||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 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.
c. 1110, from the Laurentian Codex, 1377
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 and Ukrainian not yet fully differentiated. Fall of the yers in progress or arguably complete (several words end with a consonant; кнѧжит "to rule" < кънѧжити, modern княжить). South-western (incipient Ukrainian) features include 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.
Слово о пълку Игоревѣ. c. 1200(?), from the Catherine manuscript, c. 1790.
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".
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 by water, and in sledges half of the way.
- Pure seventeenth-century central Russian vernacular. Phonetical 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.
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)
- 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.
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.
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!
- An example of highly educated modern speech (this excerpt is spoken by Woland). See Russian humor for the essential other end of the spectrum.
- Russian language
- Old East Slavic language
- Russian alphabet
- Russian grammar
- Russian orthography
- Reforms of Russian orthography
- Russian phonetics
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