Although American-Russian relations aren’t in a particularly rosy place, more and more American students are once again choosing to study the language of Tolstoy.
St. Petersburg has become a popular cultural destination, and the number of international marriages is on the rise.
The Russian language (Русский) is very different from English and Romance languages in general.
To a Westerner listening to a Russian, the language usually leaves an impression of sweetness, warmth, and a singsong tone.
Russian is also associated with an accent that, in French as in English, remains particularly touching and charming. At least when it is delivered in a feminine accent, the filmmakers seem to think it creates a femme fatale!
But isn’t Russian just so cheerful and pleasant to listen to? (Despite the fact it’s coupled with a baffling alphabet - just like Arabic - but looks like a work of art?)
In this article, we will go back through the centuries to follow developments in Russian linguistics step by step... And discover Russia as it should!
The ethnic origins of the Russians
In the famous work ‘What do I know?’ (PUF), The history of the Russian language by Charles-Jacques Veyrenc remains a key source of information.
The Slavs formed a vast ethnocultural and linguistic group in ancient Europe, made up of a wide variety of different people.
In his writings, Homer made reference to the Eneas, which the linguist Raymond Delattre has identified as possible Slavs in his essay Languages and Origins of the Peoples of Ancient Europe: Influences on Present Languages.
This same historian has traced the origin of the Slavic ethnic groups to the upper Dnieper valley, in the north of Ukraine and in Belarus.
It was from these origins that the modern Russian language gradually developed, as found by Jean Breuillard and Stéphane Viellard in their History of the Russian Language from its origins in the 18th century.
This book is highly recommended for any students studying Russian in college. In addition to very beautiful illustrations of authentic documents, it also discusses the language’s syntax, its lexicon, and vocabulary, etc.
The melting pot of Slavic languages and the rise of Old Russian
The language which is known as "Old Slavic" is the common root of all Slavic languages in use today.
The Slavic and Balto-Slavic subgroups are themselves members of the central group of Indo-European languages, which makes them cousins with Greek and Thracian.
Old Russian comes from Old Slavonic, and like Slavonic is a kind of outgrowth, or at least a parallel dialect, which also exhibits powerful external influences.
Linguists place its appearance in the tenth century and trace its use until the fourteenth century when it gradually begins to evolve into a more modern Russian.
Old Russian is part of a subgroup of western Slavic languages, which are spoken across Ukraine, Belarus, and European Russia.
It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t until much later in the modern, even contemporary period, that the tsars made a move towards the east and annexed Serbia!
The Cyrillic Alphabet…and the Russian one
The two holy monks and brothers Cyril and Methodius left the Byzantine Empire and entered Slavic countries as missionaries.
Naturally, to carry out their project, they had to interact and communicate with the natives.
However the Slavs didn’t really have their own form of writing, so the two monks re-transcribed the sounds they heard (in this case, a Macedonian dialect) using letters derived from the Greek alphabet.
The Cyrillic spelling is phonetic above all, with variations depending on the genre, the case, and the number.
Their quest to Christianise the Slavs was posthumously successful, with the baptism of Prince Vladimir I († 1015), who had been reigning over Kiev since about 980.
Professor Roberto de Mattei, an Italian scholar, explains in The Church in turmoil that the term "rus" (Russkaya Zemlye) was used to describe all the territories who were ruled by Kiev and those who converted after them.
The Chronicles of the origin of Russia (or of past times) written by monks in the twelfth century, tell us the story of the birth of the Russian nation, its identity, and the related linguistics.
The Cyrillic alphabet (with its 33 letters) has of course undergone many changes over the centuries.
These transformations have been so many that we now speak of a Russian alphabet instead of a Cyrillic one.
With the Internet, it is easy to become familiar with the main sounds and accents of Russian.
In fact, even after the Cyrillic script stopped developing, the spoken language continued to evolve, and the written and spoken forms of the language drifted further and further apart.
It was necessary to readjust all the morphologies and the sounds of words which had changed a lot over time.
Nowadays, the Russian alphabet is not generally written in the same way that it is pronounced in Russian class.
Russian language and religion
Although the Slavic languages existed before the introduction of the Cyrillic alphabet, its development allowed for the translation and publication of Christian religious texts in the local language.
This ancient translation remains even today the sacred language of the Moscow Patriarchate, but also of the (small) Russian Catholic Church.
This old translation is in Slavonic, sometimes called "Church" or the "Old Slavonic liturgical texts". Once translated, these versions of the holy texts has hardly changed since the Christianization of these countries a millennium ago!
Slavonic was created in the 9th century for a church that was at the time still unified and predated the split between Catholic Rome and the Orthodox faith.
It was only in the 10th century that the use of writing really spread to the Russians.
Ecclesiastical Russian is more revered and prized than the vernacular version of the language, commonly spoken by less educated people.
The Slavonian version of the language kept its literary and intellectual pre-eminence right up until the seventeenth century. Just as Latin lost ground in Western Europe after the Middle Ages, the Russian ecclesiastical language gave up its place to modern Russian.
Classical Russian Literature
It was during the cultural climax of the French language in Western Europe that literary Russian was born: in the 18th century.
The Tsar Peter the Great († 1725) was the man responsible for this change, as he fought to westernize his empire.
Not only did he restrict ancient Slavon to liturgy, but he also oversaw a modernization of the Russian administrative language then in use, which also bore a strong resemblance to Old Russian.
Modern Russian is a mix between Lomonosov's grammar (1711-1765) and Slavonic. It was spoken by the elites of this period.
Various great writers have also further confirmed modern Russian’s place. It was used by Pushkin (1799-1837), Gogol (1809-1852), Dostoevsky (1821-1881), and other authors who made our list of the top 10 Russian celebrities, Chekhov (1860-1904) ...
In the Revue des Etudes Slaves (1965, Volume 44, No. 1, pp. 19-28), Boris O. Unbegaun reminds us that modern Russian literature does not really begin until the eighteenth century, and has little to do with earlier Muscovite productions.
But he adds that this supposed "rupture" between modern and previous efforts was highly exaggerated, even given the mutations that the language had undergone.
The elements that stayed the same were infinitely more numerous than those that changed: without that, old-Russian would not have given way to Russian ... but to a totally different linguistic system - CQFD!
What was unique about classical Russian is that it was not formed from a particular dialect that became universal over time (which was the case of other Slavic languages, but also Spanish or how Florentine become Italian), but instead it is a hybrid creature of old Russian and Slavonic.
This same nineteenth-century period was a time of great territorial conquests by the tsars who marched their armies to the east, all the way to Alaska!
In fact, this diffusion of the Russian classical language reached its climax with the USSR: Russian served as an international lingua franca for all the various satellite and allied states, but also of course for the Soviet republics inside the iron curtain.
The Russian speaking world in the 21st century
Today, Russian is spoken by more than 145 million people as their mother tongue and by another 135 million as a second language.
Russian is one of the most spoken languages in Europe.
It belongs to the Slavic group of the Indo-European language family. The Slavic language group is divided into Western Slavs (Czech, Slovak, Polish and Sorbian), South Slavic (Bulgarian, Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian and Slovene) and Eastern Slavs (Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian).
Russian is one of the five official languages of the United Nations and ranks as one of the main world languages, alongside Chinese, English, Spanish and Hindi.
It is the mother tongue of 142 million citizens of the Russian Federation, the largest country in the world.
Check out our complete guide to travelling to Russia.
There are also many other Russian-speaking countries, many of whom are concentrated in the northern half of Asia and the eastern end of Europe.
Abkhazia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Transnistria, Gagauzia, South Ossetia, the Russian Federation and the CIS have all made Russian their official language.
Although there is an official form of Russian (governed by the Russian Academy of Sciences), there are also several Russian dialects, divisible into three major groups:
- Northern Russian, with a different pronunciation for o, g, and t;
- Central Russian, a mix of the other two dialects
- Southern Russian, wetter, fricative and less accentuated.
All good things to study before traveling to Russia! With all this new information, searching for Russian language course London produces the best internet results but find the best local Russian teacher on Superprof.
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