Russian language

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Русский язык Russkiy yazyk
Spoken in: Russia, former Soviet republics, Mongolia, Svalbard, and Israel.
Total speakers: primary language: about 145 million
secondary language: 110 million (1999 WA, 2000 WCD) 
Ranking: 8 (native)
Language family: Indo-European
    East Slavic
Writing system: Cyrillic alphabet 
Official status
Official language of: Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, United Nations, Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Gagauzia.
Regulated by: Russian Academy of Sciences
Language codes
ISO 639-1: ru
ISO 639-2: rus
ISO/FDIS 639-3: rus 
Countries of the world where Russian is spoken.

Russian (Russian: русский язык, russkiy yazyk, [ˈru.skʲɪj jɪˈzɨk] listen ) is the most widely spoken language of Eurasia and the most widespread of the Slavonic languages.

Russian belongs to the family of Indo-European languages. Within the Slavic branch, Russian is one of three living members of the East Slavic group, the other two being Belarusian and Ukrainian.

Written examples of East Slavonic are attested from the 10th century onwards. While Russian preserves much of East Slavonic synthetic-inflectional structure and a Common Slavonic word base, modern Russian exhibits a large stock of borrowed international vocabulary for politics, science, and technology. A language of great political importance in the 20th 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 Ukrainian and Belarusian, the other two national languages in the East Slavic group. (Some academics also consider Rusyn an East Slavic language; others consider Rusyn just a dialect.) In many places in Ukraine and Belarus, these languages are spoken interchangeably, and in certain areas traditional bilinguism resulted in language mixture, e.g. Surzhik in central Ukraine.

The basic vocabulary, principles of word-formation, and, to some extent, inflections and literary style of Russian have been heavily 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 to Ukrainian or Belarusian. However, the East Slavic forms have tended to remain in the various dialects that are experiencing a rapid decline. In some cases, both the East Slavic and the Church Slavonic forms are in use, with slightly different meanings. For details, see Russian phonology and History of the Russian language.

Russian phonology and syntax (especially in northern dialects) have also been influenced to some extent by the numerous Finnic languages of the Finno-Ugric subfamily: Merya, Moksha, Muromian, the language of the Meshchera, Veps etc. These languages, some of them now extinct, used to be spoken right in the centre and in the north of what is now the European part of Russia. They came in contact with Eastern Slavic as far back as the early Middle Ages and eventually served as substratum for the modern Russian language. The Russian dialects spoken north, north-east and north-west of Moscow have a considerable number of words of Finno-Ugric origin.

Outside the Slavic languages, the vocabulary and literary style of Russian have been greatly influenced by Greek, Latin, French, German, and English. Modern Russian also has a considerable number of words adopted from Tatar and some other Turkic languages.

According to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, Russian is classified as a level III language in terms of learning difficulty for native English speakers, requiring approximately 780 hours of immersion instruction to achieve intermediate fluency. It is also regarded by the United States Intelligence Community as a "hard target" language, due to both its difficulty to master for English speakers as well as due to its critical role in American foreign policy.

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.

In Latvia, notably, its official recognition and legality in the classroom have been a topic of considerable debate in a country where more than one-third of the population is Russian-speaking, consisting mostly of post-World War II immigrants from Russia and other parts of the former USSR (Belarus, Ukraine). Similarly, in Estonia, the Soviet-era immigrants and their Russian-speaking descendants constitute about one quarter of the country's current population.

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 the country's overall population. Nevertheless, around 80% of the population of the Baltic states are able to hold a conversation in Russian and almost all have at least some familiarity with the most basic spoken and written phrases. The Russian occupation of Finland in 1809-1918, however, has left few Russian speakers to Finland. There are 33400 Russian speakers in Finland, amounting to 0.6% of the population. 5000 (0.1%) of them are late 19th century and 20th century immigrants, and the rest are recent immigrants, who have arrived in the 90's and later.

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. In particular, these countries include Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Albania. However, younger generations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system. It was, and to a lesser extent still is, widely taught in Asian countries such as Laos, Vietnam, and Mongolia due to Soviet influence. Russian is still used as a lingua franca in Afghanistan by a few tribes. It was also taught as the mandatory foreign language requisite in the People's Republic of China before the Sino-Soviet Split.

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 U.S. and Canada such as New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, and the Cleveland suburb of Richmond Heights. In the former two Russian-speaking groups total over half a million. In a number of locations they issue their own newspapers, and live in their self-sufficient neighborhoods (especially the generation of immigrants who started arriving in the early sixties). It is important to note, however, that only about a quarter of them are ethnic Russians. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of Russophones in North America were Russian-speaking Jews. Afterwards the influx from the countries of the former Soviet Union changed the statistics somewhat. According to the United States 2000 Census, Russian is the primary language spoken in the homes of over 700,000 individuals living in the United States.

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, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Brazil and Turkey have significant Russian-speaking communities totaling 3 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 temporary employment. But many are well-off Russian families acquiring property and getting an education.

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 also have 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 8 285,000,000 5
World Almanac (1999) 145,000,000 8          (2005) 275,000,000 5
SIL (2000 WCD) 145,000,000 8 255,000,000 5-6 (tied with Arabic)
CIA World Factbook (2005) 160,000,000 8

Official status

Russian is the official language of Russia, and an official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the unrecognized Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. 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, 25% in Ukraine, 23% in Kyrgyzstan, 21% in Moldova, 7% in Azerbaijan, 5% in Georgia and 2% in Armenia and Tajikistan receive their education only or mostly in Russian, although the corresponding percentage of ethnic Russians is 78% in Russia, 10% in Belarus, 26% in Kazakhstan, 17% in Ukraine, 9% in Kyrgyzstan, 6% in Moldova, 2% in Azerbaijan, 1.5% in Georgia and less than 1% in both Armenia and Tajikistan.

Russian-language schooling is also available in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, despite the government attempts to reduce the number of subjects taught in Russian.

Russian has co-official status alongside Romanian in seven Romanian communes in Tulcea and Constanţa counties. In these localities, Russian-speaking Lipovans, who are a recognized ethnic minority, make up more than 20% of the population. Thus, according to Romania's minority rights law, education, signage and access to public administration and the justice system are provided in Russian, alongside Romanian.


Despite levelling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary, a 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. Also cf. Moscow pronunciation of "-чн-", e.g. булошная (buloshnaya - bakery) instead of булочная (bulochnaya).

The northern Russian dialects and those spoken along the Volga River typically pronounce unstressed /o/ clearly (the phenomenon called okanye оканье). East of Moscow, particularly in Ryazan Region, unstressed /e/ and /a/ following palatalized consonants and preceding a stressed syllabus are not reduced to [ɪ] (unlike in the Moscow dialect) and are instead pronounced as /a/ in such positions (e.g. несли is pronounced as [nʲasˈlʲi], not as [nʲisˈlʲi]) - this is called yakanye яканье; many southern dialects palatalize the final /t/ in 3rd person forms of verbs and debuccalize the /g/ into [ɦ]. However, in certain areas south of Moscow, e.g. in and around Tula, /g/ is pronounced as in the Moscow and northern dialects unless it precedes a voiceless plosive or a silent pause. In this position /g/ is debuccalized and devoiced to the fricative [x], e.g. друг [drux] (in Moscow's dialect, only Бог [box], лёгкий [lʲoxʲkʲij], мягкий [ˈmʲaxʲkʲɪj] and some derivatives follow this rule). Some of these features (e.g. the debuccalized /g/ and palatalized final /t/ in 3rd person forms of verbs) are also present in modern Ukrainian, indicating either a linguistic continuum or strong influence one way or the other.

The town of Velikiy Novgorod has historically displayed a feature called chokanye/tsokanye (чоканье/цоканье), where /ʨ/ and /ʦ/ were confused (this is thought to be due to influence from Finnish, which doesn't distinguish these sounds). So, цапля ("heron") has been recorded as 'чапля'. Also, the second palatalization of velars did not occur there, so the so-called ě² (from the Proto-Slavonic diphthong *ai) did not cause /k, g, x/ to shift to /ʦ, ʣ, s/; therefore where Standard Russian has цепь ("chain"), the form кепь kepʲ is attested in earlier texts.

Among the first to 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 [dʲʌʌˌlʲɛktəlʌˈgʲiʨɪskʲɪj ˈatləs ˈruskəvə jɪzɨˈka]), was published in 3 folio volumes 1986-1989, after four decades of preparatory work.

The standard language is based on (but not identical to) the Moscow dialect.

Derived languages

  • Fenya, a criminal argot of ancient origin, with Russian grammar, but with distinct vocabulary.
  • Surzhyk is a language with Russian and Ukrainian features, spoken in some rural areas of Ukraine
  • Trasianka is a language with Russian and Belorusian features used by a large portion of the rural population in Belarus.
  • Quelia, a pseudo pidgin of German and Russian.
  • Russenorsk is an extinct pidgin language with mostly Russian vocabulary and mostly Norwegian grammar, used for communication between Russians and Norwegian traders in the Pomor trade in Finnmark and the Kola Peninsula.
  • Runglish, Russian-English pidgin. This word is also used by English speakers to describe the way in which Russians attempt to speak English using Russian morphology and/or syntax.

Writing system


Meletius Smotrytsky presented the Cyrillic alphabet in this 1619 publication describing the "Slavonic" language.
Meletius Smotrytsky presented the Cyrillic alphabet in this 1619 publication describing the "Slavonic" language.

Russian is written using a modified version of the Cyrillic (кириллица) alphabet, consisting of 33 letters.

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


Old letters that have been abolished at one time or another but occur in this and related articles include ѣ /ie/ or /e/, і /i/, ѳ /f/, ѵ /i/ and ѧ that merged into я. The yers ъ and ь were originally pronounced as ultra-short or reduced /ŭ/, /ĭ/, actually [ɪ], [ɯ] or [ə̈], [ə̹].


Russian spelling is reasonably phonemic in practice. It is in fact a balance among phonemics, 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.


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 written with different letters depending on whether or not the preceding consonant is palatalized. The consonants typically come in plain vs. palatalized pairs, which are traditionally called hard and soft. (The hard consonants are often velarized, especially before back vowels, although in some dialects the velarization is limited to hard /l/). The standard language, based on the Moscow dialect, possesses heavy stress and moderate variation in pitch. Stressed vowels are somewhat lengthened, while unstressed vowels tend to be reduced to near-close vowels or an unclear schwa. (See also: akanye.)

The Russian syllable structure can be quite complex with both initial and final consonant clusters of up to 4 consecutive sounds. Using a formula with V standing for the nucleus (vowel) and C for each consonant the structure can be described as follows:



  Bilabial Labio-
Dental &
Palatal Velar
Nasal hard /m/   /n/      
soft /mʲ/   /nʲ/      
Plosive hard /p/   /b/   /t/   /d/     /k/   /g/
soft /pʲ/   /bʲ/   /tʲ/   /dʲ/     /kʲ/*   [gʲ]
Affricate hard     /ʦ/           
soft         /tɕ/       
Fricative hard   /f/   /v/ /s/   /z/ /ʂ/   /ʐ/   /x/     
soft   /fʲ/   /vʲ/ /sʲ/   /zʲ/ /ɕː/*   /ʑː/*   [xʲ]     
Trill hard     /r/      
soft     /rʲ/      
Approximant hard     /l/      
soft     /lʲ/   /j/  

Russian is notable for its distinction based on palatalization of most of the consonants. While /k/, /g/, /x/ do have palatalized allophones [kʲ, gʲ, xʲ], only /kʲ/ might be considered a phoneme, though it is marginal and generally not considered distinctive (the only native minimal pair which argues for /kʲ/ to be a separate phoneme is "это ткёт"/"этот кот"). Palatalization means that the centre of the tongue is raised during and after the articulation of the consonant. In the case of /tʲ/ and /dʲ/, the tongue is raised enough to produce slight frication (affricate sounds). These sounds: /t, d, ʦ, s, z, n and rʲ/ are dental, that is pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the teeth rather than against the alveolar ridge.


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

Russian grammar encompasses

  • a highly synthetic morphology
  • a syntax that, for the literary language, is the conscious fusion of three elements:
    • a polished vernacular foundation;
    • a Church Slavonic inheritance;
    • a Western European style.

The spoken language has been influenced by the literary one, 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.


This page from an "ABC" book printed in Moscow in 1694 shows the letter П.
This page from an "ABC" book printed in Moscow in 1694 shows the letter П.

See History of the 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 (who is credited with greatly augmenting and codifying literary Russian), 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 1950s-1960s 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).

Proverbs and sayings

The Russian language is replete with many hundreds of proverbs (пословица [pʌˈslo.vʲɪ.ʦə]) and sayings (поговоркa [pə.gʌˈvo.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

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

  • Kievan period and feudal breakup
  • The Moscovite period (15th-17th centuries)
  • Empire (18th-19th centuries)
  • Soviet period and beyond (20th century)

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. Many Russian novels of the 19th century, e.g. Lev Tolstoy's "War and Peace" contain entire paragraphs and even pages in French with no translation given, with an assumption that educated readers won't need one.

The modern literary language is usually considered to date from the time of Aleksandr Pushkin in the first third of the nineteenth century. Pushkin revolutionized Russian literature by rejecting archaic grammar and vocabulary (so called "высокий штиль" - "high style") in favour of grammar and vocabulary found in the spoken language of the time. Nevertheless, modern readers, especially of younger age may experience slight difficulty fully understanding Pushkin's texts, since many words used by Pushkin became archaic or changed meaning. E.g. "Бразды пушистые взрывая, Летит кибитка удалая" ("dashing carriage flies plowing fluffy furrows [in the snow]") may be misunderstood by modern reader as "[Unknown object] flies and blows up fluffy reins").

  • Winter Evening —
    • Reading of excerpt of Pushkin's "Winter Evening" (Зимний вечер), 1825.

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.

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