The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Russian language

Russian (русский язык ) is the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages.

Russian belongs to the group of Indo-European languages, and is therefore related to Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, as well as the modern Germanic, Romance, and Celtic languages, including English, French, and Irish. Written examples are attested from the 10th century onwards.

While it preserves much of its ancient synthetic-inflexional structure and a Common Slavonic word base, modern Russian shares a large stock of the international vocabulary for politics, science, and technology. A language of political importance in the twentieth century, Russian is one of the official languages of the United Nations.

NOTE. Russian is written in a non-Latin script. All examples below are in the Cyrillic alphabet, with transcriptions in IPA.



Russian is a Slavic language, in the Indo-European family.

From the point of view of the spoken language, its closest relatives are Belarusian and Ukrainian, the other two national languages in the East Slavic group.

The basic vocabulary, principles of word-formation, and, to some extent, inflexions and literary style of Russian have been influenced by Church Slavonic, a developed and partly adopted form of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic language used by the Russian Orthodox Church. Many words in modern literary Russian are closer in form to the modern Bulgarian language than the Ukrainian or Belarusian that are heavily polonized. However, the East Slavic forms have tended to remain in the various dialects. In some cases, both the East Slavic and the Church Slavonic forms are in use, with slightly different meanings. For details, see Historical Sound Changes and History of the Russian language.

Outside the Slavic languages, the vocabulary and literary style of Russian have been greatly influenced by Greek, Latin, French, German, and English.

Geographic distribution

Russian is primarily spoken in Russia and, to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics of the USSR. Until 1917, it was the sole official language of the Russian Empire. During the Soviet period, the policy toward the languages of the various other ethnic groups fluctuated in practice. Though each of the constituent republics had its own official language, the unifying role and superior status was reserved for Russian. Following the break-up of 1991, several of the newly independent states have encouraged their native languages, which has partly reversed the privileged status of Russian. Though its role as the language of post-Soviet national intercourse throughout the region has continued, this status may decline in the future because the language is increasingly challenged by English.

In Latvia, notably, its official recognition and legality in the classroom have been a topic of considerable debate in a country with at least a 35% Russian-speaking minority.

The same is true for Estonia, where Russian remains the native language of at least a quarter of its population residing close to the Russian border.

The pressure from the EU committee might soon force these countries' governments to recognize the rights of the Russian speakers.

A much smaller Russian-speaking minority in Lithuania has largely been assimilated during the decade of independence and currently represent less than 1/10 of its total.

In the twentieth century it was widely taught in the schools of the members of the old Warsaw Pact and in other countries that used to be satellites of the USSR, espeially in Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia, and the Czech Republic. However, younger generations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system.

Russian is also spoken in Israel by at least 750,000 ethnic Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (1999 census). The Israeli press and websites regularly publish material in Russian.

Sizeable Russian-speaking communities also exist in North America (especially in large urban centers of the US and Canada such as New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Miami, and Chicago). In the first two of them, Russian-speaking groups total over half a million: they issue their own newspapers, live in their self-sufficient neighborhoods (especially the first generation immigrants who started arriving in the early sixties). It's important to note, however, that only about a quarter of them are ethnic Russians. The overwhelming majority are Russian-speaking Jews, Ukrainians, Armenians, etc.

Significant Russian-speaking groups also exist in Western Europe. These have been fed by several waves of immigrants since the beginning of the twentieth century, each with its own flavour of language. Germany, Britain, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, and Greece have significant Russian-speaking communities totaling, in the case of Germany, 2 million people.

Two thirds of them are actually Russian-speaking descendants of Germans, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, or Ukrainians who either repatriated after the USSR collapsed or are just looking for employment.

Earlier, the descendants of the Russian émigrés tended to lose the tongue of their ancestors by the third generation. Now, when the border is more open, Russian is likely to survive longer, especially when many of the emigrants visit their homelands at least once a year and have also access to Russian websites and TV channels.

Recent estimates of the total number of speakers of Russian:

Source Native speakers Native Rank Total speakers Total rank
G. Weber, "Top Languages",
Language Monthly, 3: 12-18, 1997, ISSN 1369-9733
160,000,000 7 285,000,000 4
SIL Ethnologue 167,000,000 7 277,000,000 5

Official status

Russian is the official language of Russia, and an official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Education in Russian is still a popular choice for many of the both native and RSL (Russian as a second language) speakers in Russia and many of the former Soviet republics.

97% of the public school students of Russia, 75% in Belarus, 41% in Kazakhstan, 24% in Ukraine, 23% in Kyrgyzstan, 21% in Moldova, 7% in Azerbaijan, 5% in Georgia were educated in Russian, although the corresponding percentage of ethnic Russians was 80% in Russia, 10% in Belarus, 27% in Kazakhstan, 17% in Ukraine, 9% in Kyrgyzstan, 10% in Moldova, 1% in Azerbaijan, 1% in Georgia.


Despite levelling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary, a large number of dialects exist in Russia. Some linguists divide the dialects of the Russian language into two primary regional groupings, "Northern" and "Southern," with Moscow lying on the zone of transition between the two. Others divide the language into three groupings, Northern, Central and Southern, with Moscow lying in the Central region. Dialectology within Russia recognizes dozens of smaller-scale variants.

The dialects often show distinct and non-standard features of pronunciation and intonation, vocabulary, and grammar. Some of these are relics of ancient usage now completely discarded by the standard language.

The northern dialects typically pronounce unstressed /o/ clearly (the phenomenon called okanye оканье); the southern palatalize the final /t/ and aspirate the /g/ into /h/. It should be noted that some of these features are also present in modern Ukrainian, indicating a linguistic continuum or strong influence one way or the ot study Russian dialects was Lomonosov in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth, Vladimir Dal compiled the first dictionary that included dialectal vocabulary. Detailed mapping of Russian dialects began at the turn of the twentieth century. In modern times, the monumental Dialectological Atlas of the Russian Language (Диалектологический атлас русского языка /dʲə.ʌ.'lʲe.ktə.lʌ.'gʲi.tʲʆə.skʲəj 'a.tləs 'ru.skə.və jə.zɨ.'ka/), was published in 3 folio volumes 1986-1989, after four decades of preparatory work.

The standard language is based on the Moscow dialect.

Derived languages

  • Fenya or Fenka , a criminal lingo of ancient origin, with Russian grammar, but with distinct vocabulary.
  • Surzhyk is a Ukrainian-Russian pidgin spoken in some rural areas of Ukraine
  • Trasianka is a Belarusian-Russian mix (sort of pidgin) used by a large portion of the rural population in Belarus.
  • Russenorsk is an extinct pidgin language with Russian vocabulary and Norwegian grammar, used for communication between Russians and Norwegians in Svalbard and Kola Peninsula.

Writing system


Russian is written using a modern version of the Cyrillic alphabet, consisting of 33 letters.

The following table gives their majuscule forms, along with IPA values for each letter's typical sound:

/ ʲ/

Old letters that have been abolished at one time or another but occur in this and related articles include ѣ /ě:/ or /e/, і /i/, and ѧ /ja/ or / ʲa/. The yers ъ and ь were originally pronounced as ultra-short or reduced /ŭ/, /ĭ/ (conventional transcription, not IPA).


Main article: Russian orthography

Russian spelling is reasonably phonetic in practice. It is in fact a balance among phonetics, morphology, etymology, and grammar, and, like that of most living languages, has its share of inconsistencies and controversial points.

The current spelling follows the major reform of 1918, and the final codification of 1956. An update proposed in the late 1990's has met a hostile reception, and has not been formally adopted.

The punctuation, originally based on Byzantine Greek, was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reformulated on the French and German models.


Main article: Russian phonetics

The phonological system of Russian is inherited from Common Slavonic, but underwent considerable modification in the early historical period, before being largely settled by about 1400.

The language possesses five vowels, which are given separate letters depending on whether or not they palatalize a preceding consonant. The consonants typically come in pairs, hard and soft (palatalised).

The standard language, based on the Moscow dialect, possesses heavy stress and moderate modulation in pitch (which is not a lexical differentiator). Stressed vowels are somewhat drawled, while unstressed vowels tend to be reduced to an unclear schwa. Consonant clusters tend to be simplified.

The spoken dialects show a very large number of variations.


Main article: Russian grammar

Russian has preserved an Indo-European synthetic-inflexional structure, although considerable levelling has taken place.

Russian grammar encompasses

The spoken language has been influenced by the literary, but continues to preserve characteristic forms. The dialects show various non-standard grammatical features, some of which are archaisms or descendants of old forms since discarded by the literary language.


See History of Russian language for an account of the successive foreign influences on the Russian language.

The total number of words in Russian is difficult to reckon because of the ability to agglutinate and create manifold compounds, diminutives, etc. (see Word Formation under Russian grammar).

The number of listed words or entries in some of the major dictionaries published during the last two centuries, and the total vocabulary of Pushkin, are as follows:

Work Year Words Notes
Academic dictionary, I Ed. 1789-1794 43,257 Russian and Church Slavonic with some Old Russian vocabulary
Academic dictionary, II Ed 1806-1822 51,388 Russian and Church Slavonic with some Old Russian vocabulary
Pushkin opus 1810-1837 21,197 -
Academic dictionary, III Ed. 1847 114,749 Russian and Church Slavonic with Old Russian vocabulary
Dahl's dictionary 1880-1882 195,844 44,000 entries lexically grouped; attempt to catalogue the full vernacular language, includes some properly Ukrainian and Belarusian words
Ushakov's dictionary 1934-1940 85,289 Current language with some archaisms
Academic dictionary 1950-1965 120,480 full dictionary of the "Modern language"
Ozhegov's dictionary 1991 61,458 More or less then-current language
Lopatin's dictionary 2000 c.160,000 Orthographic, current language

Philologists have estimated that the language today may contain as many as 350,000 to 500,000 words.

(As a historical aside, Dahl was, in the second half of the nineteenth century, still insisting that the proper spelling of the adjective русский, which was at that time applied uniformly to all the Orthodox Eastern Slavic subjects of the Empire, as well as to its one official language, be spelled руский with one s, in accordance with ancient tradition and what he termed the "spirit of the language". He was contradicted by the philologist Grot, who distinctly heard the s lengthened or doubled.)

The language of abuse and invective

Apparently, the ability to curse effectively has always been recognized as a form of art not only in certain quarters of society, but even by the more conservative-minded literati. For example, as far back as in the nineteenth-century naval yarns of Staniukovich, "artistic invective" (артистическая ругань /ə.rtʲi.'sʲtʲi.tʲʆə.skə.jə 'ru.gənʲ/) keeps coming out of the sailors' mouths, though it is never spelled out. The ability to agglutinate has produced the so-called "three-decker curse" (трёхэтажный мат /'trʲox.ɛ.'ta.ʒnəj 'mat/).

It is interesting that the modern obscenities appear to have taken on their meaning in the eighteenth century, as euphemisms for words since lost. For example, the word блядь /blʲatʲ/ ("whore"), is today considered extraordinarily offensive. It anciently meant "error, sin", as a concept in the high style, occurs in scripture in that sense, and may perhaps be heard during the liturgy.

Proverbs and sayings

Russian language is replete with many hundreds of proverbs (пословица /pʌ.'slo.vʲi.ʦə/) and sayings (поговоркa /pə.gʌ.'vo.rkə/). These were already tabulated by the seventeenth century, and collected and studied in the nineteenth and twentieth, with the folk-tales being an especially fertile source.

History and examples

See also: Reforms of Russian orthography

The history of Russian language may be divided into the following periods.

See also:

Judging by the historical records, by approximately 1000 AD the predominant ethnic group over much of modern European Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus was the Eastern branch of the Slavs, speaking a closely related group of dialects. The political unification of this region into Kievan Rus, from which both modern Russia and Ukraine trace their origins, was soon followed by the adoption of Christianity in 988-9 and the establishment of Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical and literary language. Borrowings and calques from Byzantine Greek began to enter the vernacular at this time, and simultaneously the literary language began to be modified in its turn to become more nearly Eastern Slavic.

Dialectal differentiation accelerated after the breakup of Kievan Rus' in approximately 1100, and the Mongol conquest of the thirteenth century. After the disestablishment of the "Tartar yoke" in the late fourteenth century, both the political centre and the predominant dialect in European Russia came to be based in Moscow. There is some consensus that Russian and Ukrainian can be considered distinct languages from this period at the latest. The official language remained a kind of Church Slavonic until the close of the seventeenth century, but, despite attempts at standardization, as by Meletius Smotrytsky c. 1620, its purity was by then strongly compromised by an incipient secular literature.

The political reforms of Peter the Great were accompanied by a reform of the alphabet, and achieved their goal of secularization and Westernization. Blocks of specialized vocabulary were adopted from the languages of Western Europe. By 1800, a significant portion of the gentry spoke French, less often German, on an everyday basis. The modern literary language is usually considered to date from the time of Alexander Pushkin in the first third of the nineteenth century.

Reading of excerpt of Pushkin's "Winter Evening" (Зимний вечер), 1825.  Ru-Zimniy vecher.ogg?

The political upheavals of the early twentieth century and the wholesale changes of political ideology gave written Russian its modern appearance after the spelling reform of 1918. Political circumstances and Soviet accomplishments in military, scientific, and technological matters (especially cosmonautics), gave Russian a world-wide if occasionally grudging prestige, especially during the middle third of the twentieth century.

Since the collapse of 1990-91, fashion for ways and things Western, economic uncertainties and difficulties within the educational system have made for inevitable rapid change in the language. Russian today is a tongue in great flux.


The following serve as references for both this article and the related articles listed below that describe the Russian language:

In English:

  • B. Comrie, G. Stone, M. Polinsky, The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century, 2nd. ed. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996
  • W.K. Matthews, Russian Historical Grammar, London, University of London, Athlone Press, 1960
  • T.R. Carleton, Introduction to the Phonological History of the Slavic Languages, Columbus, Ohio : Slavica Publishers, 1991
  • A. Stender-Petersen, Anthology of old Russian literature, New York, Columbia University Press, 1954

In Russian:

  • Иванов В.В. Историческая грамматика русского языка. "Просвещение", М., 1990.
  • Цыганенко Г. П. Этимологический словарь русского языка. Киев, 1970.
  • Т. Н. Михельсон, Рассказы русских летописей XV–XVII веков. М., 1978
  • Н.М. Шанский, В.В. Иванов, Т.В. Шанская. Краткий этимологический словарь русского языка. М. 1961.
  • А. Шицгал, Русский гражданский шрифт, "Исскуство", Москва, 1958, 2-e изд. 1983.
  • Л. П. Жуковская, отв. ред. Древнерусский литературный язык и его отношение к старославянскому.

М., «Наука», 1987.

Many further references are listed in the books above.

Related articles

Language description

Related languages


External links

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