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Number of Speakers: 160,000,000 (Campbell) to 300,000,000 (Beyer 2001)

Key Dialects: Moscow, Northern, Southern

Geographical Center: Russian Federation

Russian is spoken by about 145,000,000 people in Russian Federation. Large communities of Russian speakers exist in the US, Israel, China, Canada, Germany, and the former Soviet republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Moldova, Ukraine, etc.). Russian is used as a lingua franca between different ethnic minorities in Russian Federation. In the past it was widely used as a lingua franca also in the former Soviet republics, but it is gradually being replaced by English.

Russian belongs, with Belarusian and Ukrainian, to the East Slavic group of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. The Slavic group has three main subdivisions: South Slavic, West Slavic, and East Slavic. The three East Slavic languages, Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian, share a common linguistic history.

There is no true consensus about the classification of Russian dialects. Most scholars tend to divide them into two major groups: the Northern dialects and the Southern dialects, but there are also several alternative theories. According to another widespread opinion, Russian dialects are divided into three groups: Northern, Southern and Central (Filin 1998 and many others), whereas some other scholars make a distinction between Western, Northern and Southern dialectal groups (see Avanesov 1965). The differences between the dialects are mostly phonetic/phonological, but there are morphological, syntactical and lexical differences, too. The most prominent distinctive feature, common to all Northern dialects, is the okanje, pronunciation of o in those positions where Southern dialects pronounce a (respectively, a distinctive feature of the Southern dialects is akanje, a-pronunciation). The dialects of Moscow region have features of both Northern and Southern dialectal groups (e.g. the Southern akanje on the one hand, and the plosive pronunciation of /g/, which is characteristic of the Northern dialects), and therefore are distinguished as a separate, Central, group by some scholars (cf. Filin 1998).

Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet was based on the Greek alphabet, with the addition of several letters from the Glagolitic alphabet. Glagolitic was a writing system developed for Slavic languages in the mid-eighth century in the Southern Slavic territories, but was used only for a short period for Russian. The oldest extent document from the Northern territories, Ostromir’s Gospel, is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, though there are documents dating from about the same time in Glagolitic as well.

The Russian Cyrillic alphabet consists of 21 consonants, 10 vowels, and 2 additional letters designed to indicate palatalization or lack of palatalization.

Russian has 33 consonants and 5 vowels phonemes plus 4 allophones. In Russian, the distinction of “soft” and “hard” consonants is important, as it is phonemic. Before front vowels, consonants are generally soft, but most consonants can be both soft or hard before non-front vowels. Three consonants (š, ts, ž) are hard before both front and non-front vowels, whereas č and long š are always soft. Assimilation and final devoicing are regular in Russian. Vowels do not have the distinction of length. There are no diphthongs in Russian. The stress is free, and its location can vary also within the paradigm of the same word, cf. nébo ‘sky’, nebesá, nebés. When unstressed, vowels are reduced. The rules of vowel reduction can be described by a single formula, deduced by the Ukrainian-Russian linguist A. A. Potebnia (1835–1891). According to his theory, vowel reduction can take three steps: the first step corresponds to the strongest degree of reduction, the second step corresponds to the medial degree of reduction, and the third step means “no reduction”. The stressed syllable takes the third step of reduction and is considered to be in the “third position”. The syllable which immediately precedes it, takes the second step of reduction, and stands in the “second position”. The syllables which precede the second position and/or immediately follow the third position, take the strongest degree of reduction, and stand in the “first position”. Schematically Potebnia’s formula looks as follows: ...1 + 1 + 2 + 3 + 1...

Russian has a rich morphological system. The noun has the categories of gender, case and number. There are 3 genders and 2 numbers in Russian Russian is usually said to have 6 cases, although some scholars suggest more. In some dialects the noun also has the category of definiteness, but the standard Russian dialect, based on the dialect of Moscow, does not have it. Compound nouns are common, e.g. pylesós ‘vacuum cleaner’ (lit. ‘dust-sucker’), paroxód ‘steam-boat’ (lit. ‘steam-goer’), myšelóvka ‘mouse-trap’, etc. Often the members of compounds undergo shortening, e.g. univer-mág ‘shopping mall’ for universál’nyj magazín, kol-xóz ‘collective farm (from the Soviet era)’ for kollektívnoje xoziáistvo, Mos-fílm, Moscow Film Corporation’ for Moskóvskij Fíl’m, etc. The verb has the categories of person, number, tense, gender, aspect and mood. The verb system of Russian is quite asymmetric, and there exist complex relationships between different categories, e.g. past tense verbs are inflected by gender and number but not by person, whereas in the present tense there is a three-person inflection. However, in the present tense gender is not distinguished. Active perfective verbs with present tense inflection usually have future meaning, and in order to acquire present meaning, they have to become non-perfective, cf. otkryváju ‘I am opening’ (present, imperfective) vs. otkróju ‘I shall open’ (future, perfective). To form the non-perfective future, analytical formations are used.

The word order in Russian is free, but SVO is the most common.

Russian has a number of loanwords from various languages. During the Middle Ages Russian borrowed vocabulary from the neighboring Turkic languages, from Mongolian and Chinese, whereas in the more recent times more words entered Russian from the language of western Europe, mostly French, German and English.

Russian is the official language of the Russian Federation. In some autonomous regions within the Russian Federation it is the second official language, and is commonly used as the language of communication between various ethnic minorities. During the Soviet era Russian was the official language of the Soviet Union, and it was widely understood in the neighboring eastern European countries (Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, etc.). After the fall of the Soviet Union, in those countries, as well the post-Soviet Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), Russian slowly gave way to English and German.

The question of the homeland of the Slavic peoples remains obscure. A large number of theories have been put forward, but none of them has been proven (for a brief on-line discussion of several theories see The earliest linguistic data, that can be called Eastern Slavic, date back to the 10th century AD. These were religious texts, written on wax tablets and on other materials. As an individual language, Russian is said to have evolved in the course of the 14th and the 15th centuries, after Eastern Slavic (also called Old Russian or Rusian) had split into three major branches: Russian proper, Belarusian and Ukrainian (Filin 1998). During the 16th and the 17th centuries the grand duchy of Muscovy arose as a major political power. Along with it, the dialect of Moscow gained prominence over other dialects, eventually becoming the basis for standard Russian.

Avanesov, R. I.; Orlova, V. G. (editors). 1965. “Russkaja dialektologija”. Izdatel’stvo “Nauka”, Moskva.

Beyer, Thomas R. 2001. “Russian”. In “Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopaedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present”. Edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. The H. N. Wilson Company, New York and Dublin.

Campbell, G. L. 2000. “Compendium of the World's Languages”. Vol. 2. Ladakhi to Zuni. Second edition. First published 1991. Routledge, London and New York.

Filin, F. P. 1998. “Russkij jazyk”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. Pp. 429 – 30.

Kniazevskaja, O. A. 1998a. “Kirillitsa”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. P. 222.

______1998b. “Russkij alfavit”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. Pp. 429.

Lunt, Horace G. 1965. “Old Chuch Slavonic Grammar”. Slavistische drukken en herdrukken uitgegeven door C. H. van Schooneveld. III vol. Mouton & Co.

Schenker, Alexander M. 1995. “The Dawn of Slavic”. Yale University Press, New Haven.

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