A Brief History of the Russian Language

A Brief History of the Russian Language


Russian is, frankly speaking, a behemoth of a language. While there are about 150,000 words in the Russian language used today, this number jumps up well into the millions thanks to complicated arrangements of case endings and declensions that change the meaning and position of words. Russian is the language with the most native speakers in Europe, 154 million according to Ethnologue, and an additional 110 million speakers scattered throughout Central Asia and elsewhere in the world.


Russian is the second most commonly used language on the internet after English, and it is an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, a semi-official language in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and an official language at the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and over 20 others. The total population and GDP Nominal of countries with Russian as an official language is 178 million and $1.97 trillion, respectively. These figures jump up to 219 million and $2.01 trillion, respectively, when you add in countries with Russian as a semi-official language.


The Russian language was the main mode of communication in powerful empires throughout history, Kievan Rus’, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union. Despite being an Eastern Slavic language, its reach and influence stretch from Europe to the furthest reaches of Asia, across 11 time zones and covering at its peak 8.8 million square miles. How did the language used across vast stretches of land and turbulent centuries of Russian history come into being?


Spoken Russian


Russian is an Eastern Slavic language and a member of the Indo-European family. The people speaking the proto-Indo-European language, basically the distant ancestor to all Indo-European languages spoken today, migrated to the European continent around 2500-3500 BC, and over time, differences in location and dialect grew into distinct languages. Those living in what is today Eastern Europe developed their form of communication into the precursor for the modern-day Slavic Languages. Today, the total number of Slavic-language speakers ranges from about 265 million native speakers to almost 394 million total speakers. East Slavic languages delivering the majority of these with about 183 million native speakers and almost 302 million total speakers, according to Ethnologue.



Sometime around 500 A.D., rifts began to appear between segments of Slavic languages to slowly, over the course of the subsequent centuries, produce the East, West, and South Slavic languages containing more than 20 separate languages. Old East Slavic emerged with the rise of the Kievan Rus’, the first major Slavic empire, around the turn of the 10th century. And by 1000 AD, the Eastern Slavs commanded the majority of speakers over modern day Russia and Eastern Europe.


When the Kievan Rus’ Empire collapsed around 1100 AD, the diversification of Old East Slav hastened, and Russian broke out from the pack to assume its medieval form. Church Slavonic, a liturgical language used widely across the Eastern Orthodox Church, greatly influenced the development of Russian until the end of the 17th century. Modern Russian became standardized in the 1800s, opening the floodgates to Russian literature.


Written Russian


The earliest written record of Russian originated around the mid-10th century, on an amphora near the Belarus-Russian border. However, Thessalonian Monks Cyril and Methodius created the Glagolitic alphabet in the previous century at the order of the Byzantine Empire to spread Christianity up through Slavic lands.


The Cyrillic alphabet, what is used today for many Slavic languages and Russian in particular, is based on the Greek writing system with influence from the Glagolitic alphabet. Cyrillic was created in the First Bulgarian Empire and named in honor of the Monk Cyril for his work spreading written language to Slavic peoples.


After the fall of the Byzantines to the Ottoman Turks in the mid-14th century, many Balkan scholars and monks immigrated north to the Russian Empire. These scholars worked to reintroduce some older expressions, letters, and pronunciations into the modernizing Russian language. Several centuries later while Peter the Great ruled the empire, he initiated another reform of the Russian language so as to facilitate literacy in his people.


The most recent major reform in the language took place after the fall of the Russian Empire and massive political change with the rise of the Soviet Union. This reform included the spelling of some words, the introduction of new political jargon, and a reshuffling of what was the standard for polite interchange between members of elite classes, contradictory to the ideals of the communist regime.


With so many speakers around the world and such massive economic momentum behind them, Russian is a crucial language for any business looking to make a dent in international markets. And while it has gained a reputation for being a difficult language for English speakers to learn, Ata Translation Agency is there for any Russian translation, interpretation, and localization needs you and your business might have. Give us a call now or send us an email to get a free quote or learn more about our services.

About the Author:

Daniel is based out of Chicago and works as a writer, editor, and translator.

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