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History of Russian Language
July 4, 2012 20:09

The preliterate culture of Russia existed back in the prehistoric and protohistorical periods. In view of the fact that Slavs occupied the Great Russian Plain (aka East European Plain)— the conjunction of old cultures: Ancient Greek (brought here by Ionians), Scythian and Sarmatian — in the 2nd — 1st millennia BC the language represented a complicated and motley group of dialects of various tribes: Baltic, German, Celtic, Turkish-Turkic (Huns, Avars, Bulgarians, Khazars), and Finnish. The pre-Christian Slavic pantheon testifies to the mixed character of language of that period — it consisted of gods, whose names came from different languages: Dazhbog, Mokosh, Perun, Simargla, Stribog, Hors, etc.

In that era the language had three ethnolinguistic versions corresponding to three language groups:

1) South Russian;
2) North Russian (Smolensk, Pskov, Novgorod);
3) East, or Central Russian - this group obviously differed from others with peculiarities of the phonetic and grammatical system of dialects.


The beginning of the Old Russian literary language is considered to coincide with the period of formation of the Kiev state— the 11th century. The Slavic language material by means of high Greek literature and culture promoted the formation of writing language.

Though Russia was under the influence of Orthodoxy, Byzantium did not counteract assimilation by Slavs of wealth of the western culture through the Slavic literary language. Mere use of the Greek alphabet could not convey all features of the Slavic language. The Slavic alphabet was created by the Greek missionary and scientist-philologist Kirill.

The Slavic literary language was promptly developing and soon found itself side by side with Greek, Latin and Jewish. It became the major factor for uniting all Slavic peoples in the 9th-11th centuries. It was used for writing and preaching in Velegrad, Kiev, Novgorod, Okhrid, Preslav, Sazava, in Czechia and the Balkans.

Such literary monuments, as “Tale of Law and Mercy” by metropolitan Illarion, Ostromirovo New Testament and, of course, Tale of Igor's Campaign were created.

The feudalism era, the Tartar Yoke, the Polish-Lithuanian conquests resulted in dissociation of political and economic life and division of language into Great Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian in the 13th-14th centuries.

In the 16th century in the Moscow Russia Moscow written language was brought to a uniform grammatical norm. A peculiarity of syntax of that time was the prevalence of conjunction (parataxis). The tenses category was transformed. The Moscow speech with its characteristic features became the basis for the Russian literary language.

The start of publishing in the 16th century became one of the most considerable events to promote formation of the literary language of the Moscow State.

In the 17th-18th centuries Southwest Russia turned to be a peculiar intermediary between the Moscow Russia and Western Europe. The Polish language became the means of supply of the European scientific, legal, administrative, technical and secular terms.

Political and technical reconstruction of Russia under Peter the Great definitely had its impact on the language. During this period the Russian literary language was released from ideological guardianship of the church. In 1708 a reform of the Russian alphabet brought it closer to samples of European books.

The second half of the 18th century passed under the token of Gallomania — French became the official language of court and aristocratic circles and noble salons. The process of Europeanization of the Russian society gained momentum.

The great Russian scientist and poet Mikhail Lomonosov laid down new foundations of norms of the Russian literary language. He united all versions of the Russian speech: formal language, informal oral speech with its regional dialects, styles of folk poetry — and acknowledged forms of the Russian language as the basis for literature. Lomonosov established the system of three styles of literature: simple, average, and lofty style.

Further on outstanding men of letters of various genres and trends of literature, among them Derzhavin, Novikov, Radishchev, Sumarokov, and Fonvizin became creators and transformers of the Russian language. They discovered new means of expression and new treasures of the living word in literature, and expanded the range of meanings of former words.

They were followed by V. V. Kapnist, Nikolai Karamzin, N.I. Novikov. It is interesting that N. M. Karamzin's language in its quality and style is comparable with the language that Cicero, Horace and Thucydides used for their writings.

A wave of democratic movement didn't disregard the Russian language, which had to become easily accessible to broad masses of population, as progressive intelligentsia of that time expected.

Alexander Pushkin brilliantly played the role of the national poet and resolved the issue of the national norm of the Russian language, which became since Pushkin’s time an equal member of the West European language family. Having outcast stylistic restrictions, combined Europeanisms and significant forms of folk speech, the poet created a vivid picture of the Russian soul and the Slavic world by using all the wealth and depth of palette of the Russian language.

The impulse of Alexander Pushkin was supported and continued by Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolai Gogol.

The Russian of the mid 19th — early 20th centuries had some general tendencies of development: the vocabulary of Russian literary language was enriched with a set of abstract concepts and expressions in accord with the growing public consciousness; under the influence of political life of Russia sociopolitical terms, slogans, aphorisms, and international lexicon became widely spread and grew stronger.

The process of globalization of the late 20th – early 21st centuries enriched Russian with a large quantity of loanwords (mostly from English) in professional, technical vocabulary, Internet communication, politics, mass media, and medicine — practically in all the spheres of modern society.

While changing, Russian remains one of the most widespread and actively developing languages of the world. Russian language ranks fifth (after Chinese, English, Hindi and Spanish) as per the number of people speaking it, and is the most widespread language in Europe — both geographically and in terms of the population of native speakers.


Author: Vera Ivanova

Tags: Russian Language Russian Literature    

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