Russian (pусский язык) belongs to the East Slavic group of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is the largest of the Slavic languages. Its closest relatives are Belarusian and Ukrainian. Russian is primarily spoken in the Russian Federation and by older people in the other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, as well as in Eastern Europe. According to the 2010 census, there were 137 million speakers of Russian in the Russian Federation, and 166 million worldwide (Ethnologue). In addition, Russian is spoken in Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Greece, India, Israel, and the U.S. It is one of the world’s ten most spoken languages.
Prior to the 14th century, ancestors of the modern Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians spoke varieties of Old East Slavic, a language that was common to all three. Linguists think that it split into what are now Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian at the end of the 14th century. Until the end of the 17th century, the official language in Russia was an East Slavic version of Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church. The political reforms of Peter the Great in the 18th century included a reform of the Russian alphabet and westernization of the language through numerous borrowings from Western European languages. This resulted in a move away from Church Slavonic norms towards spoken norms.
The Revolution of 1917 and the political, social, and economic changes that followed it brought new terminology and greatly increased the number of international words in the Russian vocabulary. The spelling reform of 1918 gave written Russian its modern appearance. Literacy became nearly universal. Accomplishments in military, scientific, technological. and artistic fields as well as space exploration gave modern Russian its world-wide prestige that went along with its superpower image.
→Click here to see where Russian is spoken in the United States.
Until 1917, Russian was the sole official language of the Russian Empire. During the Soviet period, though each of the republics had its own official language, Russian enjoyed a superior status. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, several of the newly independent states have promoted the use of their native languages, partly undermining the privileged status of Russian, though its role as the lingua franca of the region has continued.
Russian is the official language of the Russian Federation, sharing its official status at the regional level with other languages in various ethnic autonomous regions within the Federation, such as Chuvash, Bashkort, Tatar, and Yakut. Russian is also a co-official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. Russian does not have the status of an official language in Ukraine, but it still functions as a regional and minority language, with the Constitution of Ukraine providing guarantees for its protection and use. Education in Russian, as well as choice of Russian as a second language, are still very popular in many of the former Soviet republics.
In the 20th century, Russian was widely taught in the schools of countries that used to be satellites of the USSR, e.g, Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Albania, former East Germany and Cuba. However, today, most young people in these countries know very little or no Russian because it is is no longer mandatory in the school system. Instead of Russian, students in the Eurocentric countries of Eastern Europe prefer to study Western European languages such as English or German.
Linguists generally divide Russian into three major dialect groups: Northern, Central (transitional), and Southern. There are dozens of smaller variants within each major dialect group. Two features that typically distinguish the Northern from Southern dialects are given in the table below. The Central dialect, spoken around the Moscow area, combines the major features of both dialect groups.
|unstressed vowel /o/||[o]||[a]||[a]|
|voiced velar fricative /ɣ/||absent||present||absent|
The standard language is based on, but is not identical to the Moscow dialect.
The sound system of Russian is quite similar to that of Belarusian and Ukrainian. Its description below is based on the standard language.
Russian has 5 vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate the meaning of words. The vowels /o/ and /a/ are distinguished only in stressed positions. Unstressed /o/ becomes /a/. The vowels /i/ and /e/ are also distinguished only in stressed position. In unstressed positions /e/ becomes /i/.
Each vowel is represented by two letters in the orthography.
|Initially and after unpalatalized consonants||After palatalized consonants and /j/|
The language allows a variety of consonant clusters. These are either all voiced or all voiceless. The last consonant in the cluster determines whether the entire cluster is voiced or voiceless. This rule does not apply to nasals, laterals, or rhotics. All bilabial, labio-dental, and dental consonants have palatalized counterparts pronounced with the blade of the tongue coming in contact with the hard palate. Palatalization is indicated by a small [ʲ] after the consonant in the table below.
|Stops||voiceless||p, pʲ||t, tʲ||k|
|voiced||b, bʲ||d, dʲ||g|
|voiced||v, vʲ||z, zʲ||ʒ|
|Nasals||m, mʲ||n, nʲ|
|Rhotic (trill, flap)||r, rʲ|
- /x/ = similar to ch in the German pronunciation of Bach
- /ʃ/ =sh in shape
- /ʒ/ = s in measure
- /tʃ/ = ch in cheat
- /ɾ/ has no equivalent in English; similar to r in Spanish pero
- /j/ = y in yet
Stress is free and mobile, i.e., it can fall on any syllable of a word and its position can change depending on the form of the word. Stress is not marked in normal orthography but is commonly marked in textbooks and dictionaries.
Nouns, adjectives, pronouns
Russian nouns are marked for gender, number, and case. The three are fused into one ending, as is the case in all Slavic languages. Russian nouns have the following grammatical categories:
- gender: masculine, feminine, neuter
- four noun and adjective declensions, largely based on gender
- number: singular and plural, with a few vestiges of dual
- case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, vocative (only a few remaining vocative forms remain)
- animate and inanimate masculine nouns have different endings in the accusative case
- There are no indefinite or definite articles.
- Adjectives are marked for gender and case only in the singular. In the plural, they are marked only for case.
- Adjectives and possessive and demonstrative pronouns precede the nouns they modify and agree with them in gender, number, and case.
- There is a distinction in the second person singular between informal (T) and formal (V) forms.
- Like all Slavic languages, Russian is a pro-drop language, i.e., personal pronouns can be dropped because the verb ending makes the person clear.
Russian verbs agree with their subjects in person and number in the non-past, and in gender and number in the past. They are marked for the following categories:
- three persons: first, second, third
- four conjugations
- two tenses: past, non-past
- Present and future tenses have the same endings.
- two aspects: imperfective and perfective.
- Perfective and imperfective verbs are formed from basic verb roots by adding prefixes and suffixes. Non-past conjugation of perfective verbs indicates future tense, non-past conjugation of imperfective verbs indicates present tense. Imperfective verbs form future tense with the auxiliary verb быть ‘be.’
- three moods: indicative, imperative, conditional
- two voices: active, passive
- Verbs of motion constitute a special subcategory of verbs. They are characterized by a complex system of directional and aspectual prefixes and suffixes.
The neutral word order in Russian is Subject-Verb-Object. However, other orders are possible since inflectional endings take care of clearly marking grammatical relations and roles in the sentence. Word order is principally determined by topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and focus (new information). Constituents with old information precede constituents with new information, or those that carry the most emphasis.
|Sasha ljubit Mashu.
|‘Sasha loves Masha.’
Neutral word order. No part of the sentence is emphasized.
|Mashu ljubit Sasha.
|It is Sasha who loves Masha (as opposed to someone else).|
|Sasha Mashu ljubit.
|Sasha really loves Masha.|
Russian has a very large vocabulary consisting of a mix of native Slavic and borrowings from other languages. It is difficult to determine what percentage of Russian vocabulary is inherently Slavic and what percentage is borrowed from other languages. By some estimates, about half of Russian vocabulary may consist of words borrowed at one time or another from other languages. This is even more true of scientific, technical, and political vocabulary.
Early borrowings into Russian were from Old Church Slavonic, Greek, and Latin, associated with religious sources, and from Altaic languages, associated with the Mongol invasion. Later borrowings came from French, German, Dutch, Italian, and English. Today, the major source of borrowing, particularly in the areas of scientific, political, and technical terminology, is English.
However, most of the basic everyday vocabulary is inherently Slavic. Below are a few common words and phrases.
|Good bye||Дo cвидaния|
|Excuse me, sorry||Извини(тe), пpocти(тe)|
Below are Russian numerals 1-10.
The modern Russian alphabet is a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet. It was introduced into Kievan Rus’ at the time of its conversion to Christianity in 988 or earlier, and has undergone significant changes since then, including major reforms in 1708, during the rein of Peter the Great, and in 1918, after the October Revolution.
The modern Russian alphabet has the following letters given below in their printed form. The longhand, or cursive, form for some letters is quite different.
|А а||Б б||В в||Г г||Д д||E e||Ë ë||Ж ж||З з||И и||Й й|
|К к||Л л||М м||Н н||О о||П п||Р р||С с||Т т||У у||Ф ф|
|Х х||Ц ц||Ч ч||Ш ш||Щ щ||Ы ы||ъ||ь||Э э||Ю ю||Я я|
Take a look at Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Russian.
|Вceoбщaя дeклapaция пpaв чeлoвeкa
Вce люди poждaютcя cвoбoдными и paвными в cвoeм дocтoинcтвe и прaвax. Oни нaдeлeны paзyмoм и coвecтью и дoлжны пocтyпaть в oтнoшeнии дpyг дpyгa в дyxe бpaтcтвa.
|Universal Declaration of Human Rights
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Russian is the language of major poets and writers whose work has been translated into dozens of the world’s languages. Among them are Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorky, Blok, Nabokov, Pasternak, Yevtushenko, and numerous others.
English has borrowed a number of words from Russian. Here are some of them:
|balalaika||Russian name for a triangular-shaped stringed instrument|
|borsch||vegetable and beet soup|
|cosmonaut||anglicization of Russian kosmonavt|
|dacha||country or vacation home|
||policy of openness, from glas ‘voice’|
|gulag||an acronym that means ‘state forced labor camp’|
|duma||Russian national assembly, from duma ‘think’|
||wooden dolls stacked inside one another|
|rouble||unit of currency equivalent to 100 kopecks ‘cents’|
|samovar||‘hot water urn’ literally ‘auto-boiler’ from sam ‘auto-‘ + var- ‘boil’|
||‘artificial satellite, s- ‘with’ + put ‘trip’ + nik ‘masculine suffix’, literally ‘co-traveller’|
||from step’, vast treeless plain of southeastern Eurasia|
||troika ‘three-horse team abreast, or any group of three’|
||tundra ‘Arctic steppe’|
||vodka, from vod– ‘water’ + –ka, a diminutive suffix.|
Russian is considered to be a Category II language in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.