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Have you ever wondered where Russian language came from? Have you ever looked at its strange, unfamiliar words and its strange, unfamiliar letters and thought, “why is Russian so weird?”. In this three part blog series we’ll be trying to answer exactly that question by looking at the origins of spoken Russian and its writing system and how they have both changed and been reformed over time.
In this, the first of our three part blog series, we’ll be looking at how Russians spoke before Russian existed and how writing first appeared in the lands that now make up western Russia.
Древнерусский язык / Old Russian Language
Russian’s history as a distinct language is not as old as you might think. As late as the beginning of the 11th century there was no Russian language; most Slavic tribes – eastern, southern, and western, from Prague to Moscow – all spoke different dialects of what was essentially the same language and could understand each other without needing a translator. These dialects are often broken down further into groups of dialects spoken by the Eastern, Western, and Southern Slavic tribes respectively. Древнерусский, or Old Russian in English, is a term for the dialects spoken by the Eastern Slavs in the Kievan Rus (a loose group of Princedoms from which Russia evolved). Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian all came from this language group but they wouldn’t even start to emerge as individual languages until the 13th/14th century.
This proto-Russian language was missing many of the most common words that we hear in Russian nowadays. For example, if you spoke Old Russian you wouldn’t know the words если (if), например (for example), женщина (woman), or even, god forbid, водка (vodka). There were also no words with the letter “ф” or that began with the letter “a”, all of these words were borrowed later from foreign languages. Old Russian grammar also differed significantly from that of modern Russian. For a start it had an extra case, the vocative, which can still be seen in certain modern Russian phrases such as “боже мой!” (My god!). In addition, sentence structure, noun case endings, and tenses were all different to the Russian you’re learning now.
Despite speaking Old Russian the educated peoples of the Kievan Rus didn’t really use it for writing. The writing system used by Eastern Slavs at this time requires an explanation of it’s own.
Начало русской писменности / The Beginnings of Russian Writing
The history of Russian writing doesn’t begin with the Kievan Rus or with Old Russian language. It starts instead in the Byzantine Empire with a couple of Orthodox Christian monks, the Saints Cyril and Methodius.
Despite what you may have heard, Cyril and Methodius weren’t Russians, they were from Byzantium. In fact, they never even came to Russia, they worked in Macedonia. Also they didn’t create Cyrillic script, they created Glagolic script. Cyril and Methodius’ reason for creating Glagolic script was to create a writing system for southern Slavic dialects which would allow the bible and other religious texts to be translated into those dialects, facilitating the spread of orthodox Christianity amongst the southern Slavs. You can see what the Glagolic alphabet looked like here
The script did gain some initial success, spreading through Bulgaria, Croatia, Bohemia and several other countries, but by the 12th century it was only used in Croatia. The problem was that Glagolic script was incredibly complex. This complexity inspired several of Cyril and Methodius’ students to create a simpler alphabet, which looked closer to Greek but still used a couple of Glagolic letters. The students named this new script “Cyrillic” in honour of their teacher.
As a part of their mission to translate religious texts for the Slavic peoples, Cyril and Methodius also standardized the Old Church Slavonic language (known in Russian as Старославянский язык). Old Church Slavonic is not the same thing as Old Russian. Church Slavonic is a completely different language that was based on the southern Slavic dialects that Cyril and Methodius worked with. This religious language was imported to the Kievan Rus, along with orthodox Christianity, by the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir the Great, at the end of the 10th century. From this point onwards it became the written language of the Kievan Rus. Educated residents of the Rus and of the Muscovite state that succeeded it learnt to speak in one language and write in another, much like how many western Europeans spoke their own languages but wrote primarily in Latin.
Old Church Slavonic was originally used only for religious purposes, specifically for writing and translating religious texts. Eventually however, Russians started to use Church Slavonic outside the religious sphere; they started writing histories, laws, records and general letters. The further the topic shifted away from religious matters the more spoken Russian influenced the text. As a result, if you ever go and look at the birch bark notes which were created in medieval Novgorod, and which are currently on display in the modern city’s central museum, you might just understand some of them. At the same time church Slavonic also influenced spoken Russian, giving it words like, овощ (vegetable), власть (power), время (time), and одежды (clothes); many compound nouns like православие (Orthodoxy, lit. correct glorification) and человеколюбие (humanity, lit. human loving); and participles like горящий (burning). Church Slavonic remained the official written language of Russians up until the 18th century and had a huge impact on Russian language that lasted well beyond that point. In a stunning twist of irony the words and semantic structure of one of the main slogans of the anti-religious Bolsheviks, “Да здравствует советская власть!” (long live Soviet power!”), are all borrowed from Old Church Slavonic.
This is where the first stage of our history of the Russian language ends: inhabitants of the territory that makes up the European part of modern day Russia don’t yet speak in Russian and neither do they write in it! Curious to see how our story continues? Then Join us in the next blog post in this series to find out how Russian and other modern East Slavic languages separated from Old Russian and what finally knocked Church Slavonic off its top spot as the dominant written language