A Brief History of the Russian Language

“Where do you come from?” was a question I heard often during the nearly two years I spent living in Russia. “I’m from America,” I would always answer, but this reply rarely satisfied the innate “Russian curiosity” of the inquirer. “Yes,” they would say, “but where are your roots?” I would then explain that my ancestors came from various countries of Northern Europe. For most Russians, this was enough: “So you are a Northern European,” they would say knowingly, “now we can talk.”

Just as many Russians felt that they could not understand me as a person until they knew where I came from, we also cannot fully understand a language until we learn about its history and origin. I would like to examine the roots of the Russian language in order to gain a better understanding of this beautiful and complex system of communication. Much that seems confusing, arbitrary, or strange in the modern Russian language becomes clearer as we become familiar with the processes of change throughout the historical development of Russian.

In this paper I will give a brief overview of the origins of Russian as well as summarize some of the major areas of change in the history of the language. I will focus on the areas of the writing system, the phonological and phonetic systems, and historical reflexes in the modern lexicon. Although I will be able to give only a concise overview of some of the basic processes of change, I hope that this paper will offer a solid basis on which an interested reader may build in further study of Russian.

A Brief Overview of Origins

Much of what we know about the origins of the Russian language is rooted in the efforts of historians and linguists to delve into the mystery of the past. Sometime around 3500 to 2500 BC the people who spoke the language known as Indo-European began gradually to form dialect communities and separate from each other. As the Indo-European tribes moved “to the West and to the East . . . the Slavic tribes became separated from the mass of other tribes and developed their own language, which is called Common-Slavonic or Proto-Slavonic” (Sokolsky 19). These tribes settled in the heart of present-day eastern Europe and continued to use mutually intelligible dialectal forms for centuries.

In approximately 500 AD the Common-Slavonic speaking peoples separated into Western, Eastern, and Southern groups, with the Eastern Slavs eventually finding their home near the Dnieper River in the area of present-day Ukraine (Sokolsky 19). The date cannot be specified for certain, because, as Kiparsky reminds us, “our first precise historical information concerning the East Slavs dates from the 9th cent[ury]” (13) due to the lack of written records. At this time, according to ancient records from various sources, the Eastern tribes of Slavs were known as the Antes people. The origin of the terms “Slavic” and “Slavonic” has not been determined (Kiparsky 13).

Sometime between this separation of the three branches of Slavs and the present day, the Eastern Slavic or Old Russian language divided into three additional major dialect groups, known today as Ukrainian, Byelorussian, and Russian. Kiparsky states that, although several differing hypotheses exist as to the chronology of these changes, he believes that evidence based on written records points to the emergence of Ukrainian as being sometime after 950 AD (17). Due to various political complications, however, it was not until 1906 that Ukrainian was officially recognized as a separate language (18).

The date of Byelorussian being considered a language in its own right is more straightforward. As Kiparsky mentions, it “is not spoken of as an independent language until after the Russian Revolution of 1917” when the people of Byelorussia consciously declared themselves “‘independent’ and created for themselves a literary language based on the south-western dialects of the Minsk area” (18-19).

Although these two dialects of Old Russian are today recognized as distinct languages, hundreds of other dialects are still considered part of the vast geographic area where Russian is spoken. This territory “now extends from Koningsberg [Kaliningrad] to the Diomedes in the Bering Strait and from the North Pole (observation posts) to the Persian frontier” (Kiparsky 20). This enormous language tradition spanning a large part of the globe represents centuries of linguistic change. As I discuss a few of these changes in further detail, I hope to give some sense of the complexity and rich history of Russian.

The Written Language

The evolution of the writing system used by the Eastern Slavs has a history of planned language change and reform. This process of change from the beginnings of written language to the present-day writing system can be explained by citing four important events. These include the “birth” of the Cyrillic alphabet in 862 A. D., a set of 13th Century reforms known as the Second Southern Slavic Influence, Peter the Great’s reforms of the 18th Century, and the Communist reforms of 1917.

Although various people have asserted otherwise, Sokolsky notes that the Eastern Slavs apparently did not have a written language and were not widely literate. The first attempt at a writing system was developed in 862 AD by the Thessalonian Monks Cyril and Methodius. Charged by the Byzantine Emperor to bring the gospel to the Slavic population, these missionaries began by translating the Bible and other religious books into the language of the people. Cyril and Methodius, familiar with the dialect of Slavonic spoken in Macedonia, created an alphabet based on the phonemic properties of this form of Slavonic (26-28). For this reason, the ancestor of Old Church Slavonic (OCS, the oldest written form of Common Slavonic) was the Macedonian dialect (Matthews 75).

Despite some disagreement in the past, most scholars now believe that the writing system created by Cyril and Methodius was the complex Glagolitic alphabet (see Appendix B). The origin of the Cyrillic system (see Appendix C), a much simpler alphabet based largely on the orthography of Greek, Hebrew, and Coptic, is less certain. Sokolsky postulates that this system was created by another person after the deaths of Cyril and Methodius, perhaps Bishop Clement (30). Matthews, however, claims that Cyril himself “must have devised it [the Cyrillic system] before his departure with . . . Methodius” from their missionary journeys to the lands of the Slavs (68). Apart from the question of who created the Cyrillic alphabet, however, the bulk of the system has remained to the present day and serves as the orthographic basis of several languages of the world in addition to Russian, including Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Mongolian.
Throughout the history of the Russian language and its predecessors, several drastic revisions have taken place in the written form of the language, inpart due to a constant tension between the written and spoken languages. As Sokolsky relates, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, a large number of Byzantine and Bulgarian scholars emigrated to Moscow. Noticing the inconsistencies and rampant “russification” of religious texts and records originally written in OCS, these scholars attempted to standardize the written language. Their goal was to counter the “corruption” of the original language. The major effects of these reforms, know as “The Second Southern-Slavic Influence” (the first being the influence of the Macedonian dialect) were to restore many archaic expressions that had been modernized, reintroduce the phonemes /d / and /ts/, and to counteract the replacement of OCS ” ” (major jus, pronounced /u/ with Russian “y,” which had come to symbolize the phoneme /u/ (102-3).

Another example of planned language change took place in the 18th Century under the reign of Peter the Great. According to Sokolsky, Peter wanted to “spread literacy among the populace. With this purpose in mind he introduced in 1708-1710 a new, simpler and easier alphabet” known as the “civil alphabet” (grazhdanskij shrift). His changes included eliminating a few of the Greek letters, writing ”

” (/i/) as “i,” and doing away with accent marks and titly, which were superscript marks indicating abbreviations (Sokolsky 117). Although the OCS alphabet remains the official alphabet of the Russian Orthodox Church, the changes in the orthographic system instituted by Peter the Great have, generally, been unchanged in non-religious writings to this day.
Sokolsky also notes that some minor orthographic changes to simplify and modernize Peter’s grazhdanskij shrift were instituted by the Communist government in 1917. The jat, originally pronounced approximately as /ie:/, had also merged with the phoneme /je/ (“e”), causing confusion in spelling conventions. Thus, the jat character was eliminated and all instances of phonological /je/ were represented orthographically as “e” (Sokolsky 141).
Thus, despite the desire of the 13th century scholars and others to keep the Russian writing system consistent with OCS, their efforts have been counteracted more recently by movements toward simplification and attempts to keep the written and spoken languages more closely related. Due to this fact and the Church’s retaining the traditional OCS, Russia today has essentially two distinct written languages that are not mutually intelligible. Both of the writing systems, however, have served as valuable sources for clues about the history of the Russian language.

The Phonological and Phonetic Systems

Although a great number of changes have occurred in the phonological and phonetic systems of the Russian language since its early origins in Indo-European, I must restrict my discussion to a few of the more principle sound shifts. The most interesting and important sound changes occur between Common Slavonic and Old Russian. These include the loss of voiceless vowels known as jers, the rise of “akan’je” (a change in unstressed vowel pronunciation), and the palatalization of velars.
The Common Slavonic language had two voiceless vowels known as “jers” (Russian glukhije).

As Kiparsky notes, we can tell by analyzing texts dating from the second half of the tenth century that these letters were already changing, being “frequently interchanged . . . frequently omitted in certain positions” (97). Eventually, in certain environments, the jers grew so weak that they were not pronounced at all in word final position or interconsonantally in certain syllables. In other places, the change was more gradual. As Kiparsky states, the “loss of medial weak and did not begin before 1100 but was completed by some time in the 13th cent[ury].” The “strong” or accented jers did not disappear, but were transformed into /o/ and /e/ respectively (102). Although the weak jers are no longer pronounced in modern Russian, the “soft sign” is still written in many words, indicating the “softness” or palatalized nature of the preceding consonant. The or “hard sign” was done away with in most words as a result of the 1917 orthographic reforms (Sokolsky 117), but remains in a few isolated words.

In Old Russian, the phoneme /o/ was pronounced as [o] in every environment. Sometime during the 13th and 14th centuries, however “the unstressed ‘o’ began to be pronounced like ‘a’” (Sokolsky 54). Matthews states that this change spread gradually, beginning as a dialectal variation found in central Russia (apparently looked down upon as “provincial”) and moving slowly through the populace until it became a part of the standard dialect. In the 17th Century, “there was for a time no accepted norm of pronunciation” of unstressed /o/ in the Moscow dialect (168). By the 18th century, however, even Peter the Great was pronouncing unstressed /o/ as /a/, as witnessed by his “private letters [which] are written in a not too careful spelling” (170). By the late 18th Century and early 19th, Lomonosov’s extremely conservative Academy Grammar contained a pronunciation rule for akan’je: “The letter o, when unstressed, is pronounced in many words like the letter a in ordinary conversation, in order to soften articulation (Matthews 174). Today, /o/ is pronounced as // in most unstressed syllables, “with variants, depending on the pre- or post-tonic position of the unstressed syllable” (Kiparsky 142).
The palatalization of the velar consonants /k/, /g/, and /x/ is another important change in the phonological history of Russian. As Matthews points out, “the Common Slavonic velars were hard [i.e. not palatalized] . . . and the beginnings of their palatalization in Old Russian may be observed sporadically in the eleventh century” (156). Evidence for this change comes from texts where the character ” ” (/ /), formerly written after these velar consonants, began to be replaced by the front vowel ”

” (/i/), showing the palatalization of the preceding consonant (156). This change moved gradually through the language from the 11th to the 14th centuries, when “it is usually assumed that . . . the process was complete and the use of for had become traditional” (Matthews, 163). In Modern Russian, velar consonants are exclusively followed by front vowels, indicating the completion of the process of palatalization.
Of course this is far from an exhaustive discussion of all of the phonological and phonetic changes in the history of Russian. I hope, however, that it will serve as a sampling of some of the sound changes that have occurred between Common Slavonic and Old Russian, as well as a basis for further exploration of this topic.
Historical Reflexes in the Modern Lexicon

The history of the words that make up the modern Russian language is extremely complex. The intricate web of lexical items reflects the complicated history of the Eastern Slavs themselves, with roots in the past as well as the present. Sokolsky divides the Russian lexicon into four groupings, which I would like to discuss briefly: “Common-Slavonic words, Eastern-Slavonic, pure Russian words, and words borrowed from other languages” (85).

Sokolsky cites the Russian linguist Trubachev, who apparently claims that a particular Russian dictionary contains 3191 words of Common-Slavonic origin. These words reflect themes of nature, body, social relationships, and work, and seem to have cognates across Slavic languages (86-7). They reflect unchanging elements of a speaker’s world passed down from parent to child through centuries, so that a Russian today would use a very similar form for words such as “earth,” “rain,” “heart,” “neighbor,” and “grain” as his pre-5th century Slavic ancestors (Sokolsky 85-6).
Another group of words that Sokolsky indicates as making up part of the modern Russian lexicon is of Eastern Slavic (Old Russian) origin. These words are common to the Russian, Byelorussian, and Ukrainian languages of the present day, but are absent from the Western and Southern groups of Slavic languages. These words include family relationships, animals, colors, and time reference words such as “today,” “after,” and “now” (88).

The bulk of the words in modern Russian, however, are considered to be “pure” Russian (Sokolsky 88). Many of these include words coined during the Soviet era, particularly contractions and compounds which flourished in an age of bureaucratic language (143).

Many words in Russian have been borrowed from various other languages at different stages in history. The first princes of the government known as Rus’ were Vikings from Scandinavia, who ruled for centuries. Although a few little used words like “knut” for whip come from the language of the Vikings, most of the Scandinavian influence remains only in given names such as “Igor,” “Ol’ga” and “Oleg” (Sokolsky 89). From the Tartar invasion and control of Rus’ (which lasted from 1240 to 1480), more remnants are apparent. The words for “brick,” “guard,” and “money,” among others, survive in the Russian language today (Sokolsky 89).

When Prince Vladimir “baptized” Rus’ into Orthodox Christianity in 988, a significant number of Greek words for religious ideas and objects such as “gospel,” “icon,” “monastery,” and “angel” were also adopted (Sokolsky 89). Another important source of borrowing that Sokolsky indicates came at the time of Peter the Great’s cultural reforms. Because a great number of books on subjects new to Russia were being introduced, translators often chose to simply copy the foreign words instead of finding suitable counterparts in Russian. This led to “a battle . . . against the excessive use of foreign words. Even Peter the Great himself was forced to order one of his ambassadors to limit his use of foreign words” (122). Especially admired was the French language, which began in the 18th and 19th centuries to be seen as fashionable and superior to Russian. This “Gallomania” has left its traces in such words as “story (of a building),” and “train car,” as well as many others (128).

Of course Russian has borrowed words from countless other languages, but these are the main influences. Together, these words of Common-Slavonic, Eastern Slavonic, pure Russian, and foreign origin come together in a rich and complex lexicon – what I believe to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the modern Russian language.

As I have tried to look more closely at the history and origins of the Russian language, I feel that I have come to a better understanding of this intricate and intriguing piece of the Russian culture. Although I have discussed only a few aspects of the writing system, phonological and phonetic change, and historical reflexes in the modern lexicon, I have only begun to scratch the surface of the history of this language. I hope that my brief overview will at least spark the interest of the reader to find out more about the roots of the Russian language in order to come to understand it more fully.

Works Cited

Kiparsky, Valentin. Russian Historical Grammar: The Development of the Sound System. Ann Arbor: J. I. Press (Ardis), 1979.

Matthews, W. K. Russian Historical Grammar. London: Athlone Press, 1960.

Sokolsky, A. A. A History of the Russian Language. Madrid: Self-Published, 1965.

Tarasine A. Buck
Midterm Report
Linguistics 450
Dr. Cynthia Hallen
24 February 1998


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