Getting to Know the Russian Language History
As the most widely spoken language on the European continent, Russian is a Slavic language that is currently spoken by about 164 million people worldwide. Like its fellow Slavic languages, Russian has its roots in Old Church Slavonic, an ancient language that served as the basis for many modern-day Slavic languages.
It wasn't until 2 C.E. that a definitive form of Russian, known as Old Russian, started to form.
The beginning of Russian language history, which is known as the pre-Kievan period, dates from about 2 C.E. to around 1400 C.E. While various dialectical forms of Old Russian (also known as Old East Slavic or Old Ruthenian) were spoken throughout this period, the earliest written records of Russian texts have been dated around the mid-900s.
These early records of Russian language history were found on amphoras, thin-necked vases used to store and ferment wines.
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However, as centuries progressed and the Russian peoples came into contact with other cultures, the language began adopting new linguistic features, which primarily came from:
- Altaic languages (particularly Mongolian when the Mongols invaded the area during the 1300s)
- Byzantine Greek
- Gothic (an extinct language is spoken by the ancient Goths)
- Old Norse languages (which became the foundations for modern-day Danish and Swedish)
Despite these changes to the spoken forms of Old Russian, the primary written language throughout this period continued to be Old Church Slavonic, codified in the Cyrillic alphabet during the 800s C.E. Constantine and Methodius are the two missionaries credited with inventing the Cyrillic alphabet.
Their initial motivation for coming up with a written standard of Old Russian came from their desire to spread Christianity and Biblical texts to the people of Moravia.
Interestingly, Cyrillic letters were initially written largely in non-cursive. This, however, changed with the rule of Peter the Great, who adopted the cursive style of writing and purged the Cyrillic alphabet of definitively Greek letters.
The next era in the history of the Russian language dawned when the Russian peoples overthrew the ruling Mongols in the late 1300s and moved their capital to Moscow.
While the primary language of the region continued to be Church Slavonic until about the mid-1700s, Russian dialects were still incorporating linguistic features of other languages, including:
- Various Western European languages
Tragically, much of the philosophical and secular writings up until the 1600s were destroyed at that time when the Church declared them heretical.
Consequently, experts date the era of modern Russian literature to have started in the mid-1600s with the autobiography of Awakum (a revolutionary religious figure), as well as with a compilation of short stories set in Moscow.
By the 1800s, the rule of Peter the Great had ushered in a series of political, religious and linguistic changes – all of which were geared towards secularizing and westernizing the Russian culture.
During this period, the Russian language incorporated features of:
- Dutch, particularly with the adoption of naval terms
Greek vocabulary already included in the Russian language was altered to reflect a post-Renaissance era (rather than its distinct Byzantine features).
As literature continued to flourish during this time, it incorporated ever more dialectical features (instead of simply the standard forms of the language).
By the 20th Century, the Russian language had begun incorporating various features of English, as interaction and competition with the U.S. linguistically (as well as politically, scientifically and technologically) influenced Russian.
Although the modern Russian language is still in flux today, Russia's status as a world superpower makes the Russian language a prominent tongue in both political and non-political circles.