Russian Language - Encyclopedia

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RUSSIAN LANGUAGE. For the characteristics which this special branch of the Slavonic family shares with the rest, for a table showing the Russian alphabet and the transliterations of it used in this and in other (non-linguistic) articles of the Encyclopaedia, and for the points which distinguish Russian alike from the Southern (Balkan) and from the North-Western (Polish, Čech, &c.) branches of Slavonic, see Slavs. These latter points, fully treated under corresponding sections of the article Slavs, are here summarized:

I. Proto-Slavonic (Proto-Sl.) half vowels ŭ and ĭ have disappeared as such: ŭ (ъ), though still written at the ends of words, is mute; it serves but to show that the foregoing consonant is "hard." See V. below for "hard" and "soft" (denoted by ʹ) consonants, not the "hard"=surd, tenuis, "soft"=sonant, media of Eng. usage. Where a vowel was indispensable to help out a group of consonants, ŭ has been replaced by o or e, but these vowels sometimes appear without such justification (e.g. ogonĭ, Lat. ignis); ĭ when so needed becomes e, otherwise it disappears or else leaves a trace in the "softness" of the preceding consonant, in which case it is still written: Old Slavonic (O.S.), sŭnŭ, "sleep"; dĭnĭ, "day"; R. sonŭ (ŭ mute), denĭ(dʹenʹ).

II. Proto-Sl. y survives in R. and Polish. The sound is a "high-mixed-narrow i," pronounced with the lips as for i and the tongue as for u, not unlike Eng. y in "rhythm." After labials there is a distinct w sound before the vowel. After gutturals it has become i.

III. Treatment of Liquids: retention of instead of the ř of N.W. Slav.; retention as in Polish of hard l (between l and w, not unlike Eng. l in "milk," "people"); helping out of sonant r and l by a vowel put in before the r or l; especially the so-called full vocalism by which, e.g. Proto-Sl. *gordŭ, "town," became R. gorodŭ, O.S. gradŭ, Polish, gród; Proto-Sl. *melko, "milk," R. moloko, O.S. mlěko, Polish, mleko.

IV. Proto-Sl. nasals: ą. (Fr. on), became R. u; ę (Fr. in), R. ʹa, ja: O.S. pątĭ, "way"; pętĭ, "five," R. putĭ, pʹatĭ.

V. Softening (Palatalization, &c): Proto-Sl. tj, dj gave R. č, ž, Proto-Sl. *svĕtja, "candle"; *medja, "boundary"; R. svěča, mʹeža. Proto-Sl. pj, bj, vj, mj gave R. and S. Slav. pl, bl, vl, ml, e.g. R. zʹ emlʹa; Polish, ziemia, "land." Before Proto-Sl. soft vowels e, ě, ę, i, ĭ consonants were affected, the tongue being raised in anticipation of the narrow vowel, and so not making so clean a contact with the palate. Then what amounted to a new j developed in R., as ĭ became practically j; e and ě (orig. ē) came to sound as je, ę as ja at the beginning of a syllable, and all together with i began very much to soften the preceding consonant in literary R.; however, this new j never broke down the consonant into a palatalized sibilant or affricate, though it had this effect in White Russian (Wh. R.) and Polish.

The result is that almost every consonant in Russian can be pronounced "hard" or "soft," a distinction which is very difficult for a foreigner to make, as his tendency is to overdo the softness and pronounce a full j after the consonant instead of the palatal element melting into it. This is encouraged by the alphabetic system by which the letters е (ѣ), ю, я, stand for je, ju, ja at the beginning of a syllable, but after a consonant merely indicate that the consonant is soft, the vowel being the same as in э, у, а (e, u, a), e.g. т я stands for tʹ-a rather than for t-ja. A soft consonant in its turn narrows the vowel before it, e.g. the vowel in jelĭ, "fir," is like a in "Yale"; that in jělŭ, "ate," like e in "yell": e and ѣ (ě) are now indistinguishable, except that accented e before a hard consonant has a tendency to be pronounced jo, e.g. sʹ elŭ, "of villages," is pronounced sʹ ol, but sělŭ, "sat," sʹ el: е =jo is sometimes denoted by ё.

VI. Great Russian has kept g where Little Russian (Lit. R.) and Wh. R., like Čech and High Sorb, now have h.

VII. A specially Russian point is that Proto-Sl. je and ju beginning a word, appear in R. as o and u; O.S. jedinŭ, "one," jutro, "morning," R. odinŭ, utro.

VIII. Russian has lost the distinctions of quantity which survive in Čech and S. Slav., but its accent is free as in S. Slav. The accent is extremely capricious, often falling differently in different cases of the same noun, or persons of the same tense, also it is an expiratory accent, so strong that the unaccented syllables are much slurred over and their vowels dulled. In learning Russian it is therefore most important to pay great attention to the accent, and at first to read accented texts.

The above phonetic peculiarities have marked Russian as far back as we can trace it. In the earliest documents it appears with an apparatus of grammatical forms practically identical with that ascribed to primitive Slavonic. The history of the language is not so much that of its phonetic decay as that of its morphological simplification and syntactic development. The tracing of this process is rendered difficult by the fact that O.S. was the ecclesiastical and literary language until the 17th century, and though in the end the O.S. texts suffer modifications, producing the Russian form of Church Slavonic, it is only by accident that the Russian forms appear in them. Russian is better represented in additions made by the scribe, as in the colophon of the Ostromír gospel (A.D. 1056/57), the oldest dated O.S. MS. In a certain number of legal documents dating from the 12th century onwards Russian forms definitely predominate, but the subject-matter is too limited to offer much material.

* marks a hypothetical form


The effect of the Church language upon Russian has been very strong, comparable to that of Latin upon French or English: O.S. forms of words and suffixes, betrayed by their phonetic peculiarities though pronounced more or less � la russe, have in some cases ousted the native forms, in other cases the two exist side by side; the Slav. form generally has the more dignified or metaphorical, the Russian the simpler and more direct sense: even some of the grammatical terminations (e.g. pres. part. act.; certain forms of the adj., &c.) are Slavonic; but speakers are quite unconscious of using anything that is not Russian (see S. Bulič, Church Slavonic Elements in Modern Russian, St P., 1893), and not till the 18th century did even grammarians understand the difference. Less important elements have been the Tatar which gave names for many Oriental things such as weapons, jewels, stuffs, garments and some terms concerned with government, and the Polish, which during the 17th century supplied many terms needed to express European things and ideas. In the 18th century such importations were made from Latin and all the Western European languages, in Peter's time mostly from German and Dutch (for nautical terms, English supplied some), in Catherine's rather from French, which had become the language of the aristocracy. During the first quarter of the 19th century modern Russian found itself and discarded superfluous Slavonic and European borrowings alike. Since then fresh loan-words have mostly belonged to the international quasi-Greek terminology, though like German R. sometimes prefers analogous compounds made from its own roots.

Literary Russian as spoken by educated people throughout the empire is the Moscow dialect (see below) modified by these influences. It is still a highly inflected language, comparable in that respect rather to Latin and Greek than to the languages of western Europe, though during historic time it has lost many of the grammatical forms whose full development we can study in O.S., and whose presence we can assert in the scanty remains of Old R. This process has relieved it of the dual number, save for certain survivals; in the nouns, of the vocative case (save for certain ecclesiastical forms), and many of the distinctions between the declensions, especially in the plural, the oblique cases of the simple, and the more cumbrous forms of the compound, adjective; in the verbs, of the supine, the imperfect, the aorist and the conditional (now reduced to a particle); but this simplification leaves it with six cases, Nom., Acc., Gen., Dat., Instrumental and Locative, three genders, three substantival declensions, -a, -o, -i, and traces of -u and consonantal stems, a special pronominal declension with many tricky forms, an adjective which takes its place between them, and a system of numerals in which a compromise between grammar and logic has produced a kind of maze. The forms of the verb are easier, as only the present indic. has three persons, the imperat. has but the 2nd, and the past is a participle, which, having discarded the copula, distinguishes only gender and number. The infinitive and four participles offer no special difficulty, but the gerundives or verbal adverbs, from the old masc. nom. sing., are troublesome. The curious mechanism by which these few verbal forms are by means of the aspects made to express most of our tenses and other shades of meaning of which even English is incapable, is briefly explained under Slavs. On the whole the syntax is simple, the periods which imitation of Latin and German once brought into fashion having given place to the shorter sentences of French and English models.

Such a language, though less difficult than it is generally supposed, is learned much better if some preliminary study is devoted to the accidence, before the student launches out into conversation, as otherwise the habit may be acquired of disregarding the terminations and speaking very incorrectly.


Russian dialects fall into two main divisions - Great (Velikorusskij), including White (Bělorusskij) Russian, and Little Russian (Malorusskij). The latter is spoken in a belt reaching from Galicia and the Northern Carpathians (see Ruthenians) through Podolia and Volhynia and the governments of Kíev, Chernígov, Poltáva, Khárkov and the southern part of Vorónezh to the Don and the Kubán upon which the Dněpr Cossacks were settled. To the south of this belt in "New Russia" the population is much mixed, but Little Russians on the whole predominate. In all there must be about 30,000,000 Little Russians.

The Great Russian division includes all other Russian speakers - the main body to the N. and E. of the Little Russians, the settlers in Siberia, the Caucasus and along the southern coast, the educated classes, officials and many townsmen throughout the empire, probably not less than 70,000,000 speakers exclusive of White Russians. On the whole it is very conservative, and therefore, in spite of its vast extent, is wonderfully uniform. It falls into two main dialect groups—the northern or o group and the southern or a group. The line between them runs roughly E.S.E. from Pskov to the Oka and then eastwards to the Urals. The northern group is the more conservative and pronounces very nearly according to the spelling, unaccented o remaining o, but o is in general rather like u, while e before hard consonants is apt to be jo and before soft consonants i. The southern part of this group, comprising most of the governments of Vladímir and Yaroslávl with adjoining parts of Tver and Kostromá, are alone free from a further peculiarity, a tendency to mix up c and č which can be traced in the ancient documents of Nóvgorod and has spread with the Nóvgorod colonists across the whole of N. Russia to the Urals and Siberia. These distant dialects have adopted many words from the Ugro-Finnish natives. The southern or a group of dialects pronounces unaccented o, e and even i as a or ja; with this goes a tendency to pronounce g as h, and to mix up u and v. The Moscow dialect, which is the foundation of the literary language, and White Russian, are both best classed with the a dialect.

The Moscow dialect really covers a very small area, not even the whole of the government of Moscow, but political causes have made it the language of the governing classes and hence of literature. It is a border dialect, having the southern pronunciation of unaccented o as a, but in the jo for accented e before a hard consonant it is akin to the North and it has also kept the northern pronunciation of g instead of the southern h. So too unaccented e sounds like i or ji.

White Russian, in the governments of Vitébsk, Mohilëv and Minsk, and adjoining parts of Pskov, Smolénsk, Chernígov and Vílna (some 10,000,000 speakers), appears at first so different from Great Russian that it was long classed as a separate division. It was the official language of the Lithuanian principality afterwards merged in Poland and hence was under strong Polish influence. Little R. was under somewhat similar influence, so that the two dialects have approximated in some respects; but originally White Russian was not much nearer Lit. R. than was any other south Gt. R. dialect. In its main characteristic Wh. R. approximates to Polish, but this likeness goes deeper than the surface Polonisms above referred to, as it falls into its natural place in the classification of Slavonic languages by the phenomena of "softening." Accordingly t and d, when soft or before soft v, become ć and dź, e.g. R. tʹělo, "body," dʹělo, "deed," mʹedvʹědĭ, "bear," Wh. R. ćelo, dźelo, mʹadźvʹedzʹ, Polish ciało, dzieło, niedźwiedź. Other special points which distinguish Wh. R. from the other a dialects are a tendency to confuse u and v and to pronounce either of them as a w, the same sound also taking the place of hard l closing a syllable; r is always hard; f, a sound essentially non-Slavonic, appears as ch or chv, e.g. chrancuz, R. francuz, "a Frenchman," Chvʹodar, R. Fʹodor, "Theodore."

In accidence we may note the preservation of the vocative; of the sibilants before case terminations where R. has restored gutturals by analogy, e.g. locatives nazě, rucě, sasě, R. nogě, rukě, sochě, from nogá, "foot," ruká, "hand," sochá, "plough"; and of the 3rd sing. pres. ind. in ć for tʹ, or without any t. Vʹadzʹeć or vʹadzʹe for R. vedʹotŭ, "leads."

On the boundary between Wh. R. and the Novgorod dialect the former has the latter's confusion of c and č.

The best account of Wh. R. is E. Karskij, Sketch of the Sounds and Forms of Wh. R. Speech (Moscow, 1886); there is a dictionary by Nosovič (St P., 1875). Bersonov, Wh. R. Songs (Moscow, 1871), and P. V. Schein in a whole series of publications give good specimens of the dialect.

The Little Russian dialect claims to be a literary language; it has established this claim in Galicia (see Ruthenians), but its use as such is much restricted in Russia. The Little Russians differ from the Great Russians not only in language but in physical type, customs, domestic architecture and folk-lore; but though Russophobes have tried to prove that this is due to the Finnish element in the Great Russians, it cannot be substantiated, and the Little Russians, especially the descendants of the Cossacks, have no small Tatar element in them. For the last three centuries they have been under strong Polish influence, and this has had great effect upon the vocabulary but not much on phonetics or morphology. Little Russian is divided into three main groups of dialects: those of Hungary, which show an approximation to Slovak; those of Galicia, which rather recall Polish; and those of the Ukrain and other districts in Russia, which gradually shade into South Great Russian and White R., though the love of the sound a is noticeably absent. Little Russian is rather characterized by itacism; for original y and original i have coincided in a sound between i and y not unlike the Eng. short i, and original ě, also e and even o after having been lengthened in compensation for lost semi-vowels are now represented by i.

Further, Little Russian has reduced the common Russian softening, only keeping it before a and o and i for ě and o, and hardening the consonant before e and original i. In common with Wh. R. it has h for g, a vocative case, gutturals made sibilant before i (for ě) in oblique cases, 3rd sing. without the t, 1st plur. in -mo and -me instead of mŭ, nn for nj, ll for lj, tt for tj, w for u, v and hard l, but all these occur more or less throughout S. Russian and only tend to a superficial resemblance.

These phonetic peculiarities are not universal, but the presence of the narrowed ě, e and o is sufficient to mark a dialect as Little Russian. The Russian alphabet is modified for Little Russian use as г=h and hence ґ=g; є is used for the e which does not soften the preceding vowel, и for the thick and і for the pure i.


Dictionaries: Dict. of the R. Language, published by the Second Section of the Imperial Academy of Sciences (4 vols., St Petersburg, 1847; new ed., 1891—); V. I. Dahl, Explanatory D. of Living Great R. Language (Moscow, 1880), re-ed. by J. Baudouin de Courtenay (1906); I. I. Sreznevskij, Materials for a Dict. of Old R. Language (to T.) (St P., 1903); Attempt (Opytŭ) at a Great R. Provincial Dict. (Supplement to the old Dict. of the Acad.) (St P., 1852); A. Alexandrow, R.-Eng. and Eng.-R. Dict. (2 vols., St P.); J. Pawlowsky, R.-Deutsches Wörterbuch (Riga, 1900).

Little Russian Dictionary: Eug. Żelechowski, Ruthenisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch (Lemberg, 1886).

Grammars: Th. Buslaev, Historical Grammar of the R. Language (Moscow, 1875); A. Sobolevskij, Lectures on the History of the R. Language (St P., 1891); id., Attempt at R. Dialectology, pt. i. (Gt. and Wh. R.) (St P., 1897); W. R. Morfill, R. Grammar (Oxford, 1887); P. Motti, R. Conversation Grammar (London, 1890); C. R. Reiff, R. Grammar (London, 1883); O. Asbóth, Kurze R. Grammatik (Leipzig, 1900); R. Abicht, Die Hauptschwierigkeiten der R. Sprache (Leipzig, 1897); P. Boyer, M. Speranski and S. Harper, Russian Reader (Chicago, 1906).

Little Russian Grammar: St. Smal'-Stockyi and Fed. Gartner, Ruska Grammatyka (Lemberg, 1893); see also Miklosich, Vergl. Gram. d. Slav. Sprachen, passim (Vienna, 1875-83).

Many accented texts are published by R. Gerhard, Leipzig. Th. Buslaev, Historical R. Chrestomathy (Moscow, 1861), gives specimens of Russo-Slavonic, Old R. and Dialects. The chief periodicals containing scientific papers on the R. language are the Sbornik (Miscellany) and Izvestia (Bulletin) of the Second Section of the St P. Academy, and the Zapiski (Transactions) of the Philological Faculties of the Russian universities. Old Russian Texts are published mostly by the Obščestvo Lʹubitelej Drevnej Pisʹmennosti (Soc. of Lovers of Ancient Literature) in St Petersburg. (E. H. M.)

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