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|Spoken in:||Eastern Europe|
|Official language of:||historical: Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth|
Ruthenian was a historic East Slavic language, spoken in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and after 1569 in the East Slavic territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Having evolved from the Old East Slavic language, Ruthenian was the ancestor of modern Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Rusyn. Therefore, it is sometimes also called "Old Belarusian" (Belarusian старабеларуская мова), "Old Ukrainian" (Ukrainian староукраїнська мова) or even "West Russian" (Russian западнорусский язык). As Ruthenian was always in a kind of diglossic opposition to Church Slavonic, it was and still is often called prosta(ja) mova (Cyrillic проста(я) мова, literally 'simple language').
Divergence between Ruthenian and Russian
As Eastern Europe gradually freed itself from the "Tatar yoke" in the later part of the 14th century, there were four princes that adopted the title of Grand Duke. Two of them claimed the legacy of Kievan Rus' and started to "recollect" the East Slavic territories: one in Moscow and one in Vilnius. These activities resulted in two separate mainly East Slavic states, the Grand Duchy of Moscow (Russian Великое Княжество Московское), which eventually evolved into the Russian Empire, and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Belarusian Вялікае Княства Літоўскае, Ukrainian Велике Князівство Литовське), which covered roughly the territories of modern Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania and later united with Roman Catholic Poland to form the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Linguistically, both states continued to use the literary language of Kievan Rus', but due to the immense Polish influence in the west and to the Church Slavonic influence in the east, they gradually developed into two distinct literary languages: Ruthenian in Lithuania and the Commonwealth, and (Old) Russian in Muscovy.
Both languages were usually called рускій 'Rusian' or словенскій 'Slavonic'; only when a differentiation between the language of Muscovy and the one of Lithuania was needed was the former called московскій 'Moscovian' (and, rarely, the latter литвинскій 'Lithuanian').
This linguistic divergence is confirmed by the need for translators during the mid-seventeenth-century negotiations for the Treaty of Pereyaslav, between Bohdan Khmelnytsky, (Bogdan Chmielnicki), ruler of the Cossack Hetmanate, and the Russian state centered in Moscow.
Continuing Polish influence
Since the Union of Lublin in 1569, the southern territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (roughly modern Ukraine) came under direct administration by the Polish Crown, whereas the north (roughly Belarus and Lithuania) retained some autonomy. This resulted also in differences concerning the status of Ruthenian as an official language and the intensity of Polish influence on Ruthenian. However, in both parts of the Commonwealth inhabited by Eastern Slavs, Ruthenian remained a lingua franca, and in both parts it was more and more replaced by Polish as a language of literature, religious polemic, and official documents.
Some scholars take this gradually developing differences as a reason to speak of separate Ukrainian and Belarusian languages as early as about 1600. However, it is really dialect differences that show up in some texts, whereas other texts cannot be localized with certainty, leading to disputes about whether a given text is written in "Old Ukrainian" or in "Old Belarusian". Moreover, in contrast to the Ruthenian-Moscovian differences, "Belarusians" and "Ukrainians" needed no interpreters to understand each other. For instance, Smotrytsky's grammar of Church Slavonic had to be modified to be published in Moscow, but could be used without any modifications in all the Ruthenian lands.
However, during the 18th century there were fewer and fewer texts written in Ruthenian, which was replaced by Polish in the Commonwealth and by Russian in the territories incorporated into the Russian Empire.
New national languages
With the beginning of romanticism at the turn of the 19th century, Belarusian and Ukrainian appeared as two new East Slavic literary languages, descendent from the popular dialects and little-influenced by literary Ruthenian. Meanwhile, Russian retained a layer of Church Slavonic "high vocabulary", so that nowadays the most striking lexical differences between Russian on the one hand and Belarusian and Ukrainian on the other are the much greater share of slavonicisms in the former and of polonisms in the latter.
The interruption of the literary tradition was especially drastic in Belarusian: In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish had largely replaced Ruthenian as the language of administration and literature. In addition, during the 13-year war (1654-1667) about 50% of all Belarusian population (i.e. Ruthenians of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) were killed and the country left smoldering in ashes. The cities, the schools, the education system was destroyed. After that Belarusian only survived as a rural spoken language without almost any written tradition until the mid 19th century.
In contrast to the Ukrainians and Belarusians, a relatively small group of Eastern Slavs who came to live in Austria-Hungary retained not only the name "Ruthenian" but also much more of the Church Slavonic and Polish elements of Ruthenian. For disambiguation, in English these modern Ruthenians are usually called by the native form of their name, Rusyns.
The name Ruthenian language has also sometimes been applied to:
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