The Evolution of the Russian Language
Created | Updated Jun 5, 2007
Before talking about the evolution of the Russian language it is worthwhile to look at the whole family of the Slavic languages, the alphabets used by Slavs and of course to make a brief overview of Russian ancient history.
Slavic languages belong to the Eastern branch of Indo-European languages. They are divided into three groups according to the geographical locations where the Slavs live: the South Slavic, among which are Old Church Slavonic, Bulgarian, Serb, Croatian, Slovenian and Macedonian; the Western Slavic languages to which belong: Polish, Czech, Slovak and Sorbian, and the family of Eastern Slavic languages formed by Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian. The main common feature of Slavic languages is the lack of differentiation between the verbal tenses like present and past indefinite, perfect, continuous, etc. Instead of this there are perfective and imperfective verbs, normally they are organised in pairs.
According to the respective religious affiliation the Slavs use one of the following two alphabets: Latin, Cyrillic (and the extinct Glagolitic). Those who are Catholic have got their Bible written with the Latin letters and those who belong or belonged to the circle of Byzantine influence (Orthodox) have inherited the Greek alphabet enriched with some additional letters for their specific sounds. Cyrillic (kirílitsa), which is used nowadays by Bulgarians, Serbians, Macedonians, Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians, is based on capital Greek letters. Glagolitic (glagólitsa)1 is the oldest form of Old Church Slavonic and has evolved from the lower-case Greek letters.
Although Glagolitic has been replaced by Cyrillic, it is still used in Croatia for liturgy. The term 'Cyrillic' is a virtual monument for St. Cyril. He and his brother Methody were Bulgarian monks who went to Russia to Christianise it in the 9th Century. They created the so-called Cyrillic script and translated the Bible and other holy scripts into Old Church Slavonic, which is a kind of ancient Bulgarian. This language had an enormous influence on the ancestor of the modern Eastern Slavic languages, as it has been used for liturgy and as the written language of scholars, much like Latin in Western Europe. The usage of Old Church Slavonic went on until 1917 when religion was officially declared as being 'opium for the people'.
The Russian Language together with Ukrainian and Belarussian came from the ancient Eastern Slavic which had been spoken by the 'Rusy'2 (the native people of the region between Novgorod and Kiev). While modern Ukrainian is the direct descendent of the dialect spoken in the Principality of Kiev, with significant influence of Polish, Russian is derived from the dialect spoken in Moscow.
It is necessary to mention some historical facts to highlight the separation of the Russian language from the ancient Eastern Slavic. Kiev, also named 'Mother of all Russian cities', had been the most important political, economical, religious and cultural centre of Russia until the 13th Century. The principality of Kiev had lost its position as an important trade centre due to the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Tartar-Mongolian invasion which lasted for over 300 years, while Novgorod flourished as a non-official member of the Hanseatic League. It is understandable that ancient Eastern Slavonic language also changed because of this development3.
After some time Novgorod lost political power to the Principality of Moscow (which has a more advantageous, central geographic location), which emerged on the political scene of the 'Rus'. Additionally, the Princes of Moscow managed to make this city an important trade centre by collaborating with the Tartars as efficient tax-collectors. From this point of view it is natural that the language spoken in this region has been (or had to be) accepted as a kind of an official dialect by all other principalities.
The specific feature of the Russian language in contrast to the other East-Slavic languages is the great number of foreign words. The explanation for this phenomenon is quite simple: the territory where the Eastern Slavs lived is a crossing point between North and South, the way from the Varangians to the Byzantines, and between East and West, between the Orient and the Occident. Typically, these crossing points evolve to become a kind of a cultural melting pot. In this process many tribes, along with their languages, intermingled with the Russians, like for example the Turkic-speaking Polovtsy and Pechenegi riders from the steppes in the South and the East, as well as a lot of Ugro-Finnish-speaking Chud', Ves´ and others in the North4.
The oldest foreign words in Russian are of the Greek and Turkic-Tartar origin, e.g. 'skam'ya' (bench), 'almaz' (diamond, raw) and 'den'gi' (money). The newer adoptions took place after Tsar Peter I, the Great, opened Russia towards Western Europe in the 18th Century and brought many experts (mainly German, Dutch and English) to modernise his Empire. Along with that development the Russian language obtained a new boost5. German enriched the military, technical and scientific vocabulary, e.g. 'shlag'baum' (barrier), 'marshrut' (route), 'master' (master). There are also quite many words for daily use brought by craftsmen like 'parikmaher' (hairdresser), 'krendel´' (a kind of pretzel) and 'buterbrot' ('bread and butter'). Dutch and English were mainly used for naval and for technical stuff, eg, 'botsman' (boatswain) and 'voksal' (train-station, from Vauxhall). Later the francophile Russian aristocracy brought most of the French vocabulary into their mother tongue, eg. 'trotuar' (sidewalk), 'krem' (crème), 'shaten' (dark blond). Nowadays as in most other languages American English has the predominant influence (for business and newer technology), e.g. 'kompyuter' (computer), 'biznesmen' (businessman), 'baksy' (bucks).
Until the 18th Century there was no or very little maintenance of the language. There was no standard grammar and orthography. Some organisation, however, was again mainly concentrated around religious and aristocratic affairs, but every circle speaking its own jargon. In the midst of that mixed language salad, soon it became apparent that some serious order was necessary. In 1807, the Russian alphabet was simplified and adapted to West-European printing standards. The opening towards Western Europe brought secularisation and reduced the importance of the Church Slavonic. The necessary linguistic order was brought in the 18th Century by many scientists, authors and poets, the most important among them were Tredyakovskiy, Lomonossov, Karamsin. They ended up with the division between spoken and the written Russian language, organized different literary styles, laid down the semantic and orthographic rules.
The father of the so-called modern literary Russian is Alexandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837), a great poet and writer, whose work is comparable in its importance for the language with those of Shakespeare for English or Goethe for German. On the one hand he made the Russian popular speech socially acceptable by proving its originality and vitality. On the other hand, he ordered and reformed the syntax of the Russian language. The reforming process didn't stop until the beginning of the 20th Century as the Russian alphabet was simplified yet again. This change was elaborated by the 'orthographic committee' in 1904, but could be put into practise only after 1917. Today another orthographical reform is being debated, its aim is to further regulate the spelling.