Russian is an East Slavic language, and an official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and many other minor territories. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, and to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics of the Soviet Union and former participants of the Eastern Bloc. By number of native speakers, it is the eighth most spoken language in the world, with 144 million native speakers in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia and the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages. In March 2013 it was announced that Russian is now the second-most used language on the Internet after English. People use the Russian language on 5.9% of all websites, slightly ahead of German and far behind English (54.7%).
Russian is an official language of bodies including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Health Organization, UNESCO, the International Olympic Committee, the World Bank and more. Interestingly, the Russian language is also one of two official languages aboard the International Space Station – NASA astronauts who serve alongside Russian cosmonauts usually take Russian language courses. This practice goes back to the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which first flew in 1975.
Interpreting: We recently provided interpreters for a two-day event in London with a visiting delegation of Russian businessmen. We arranged for three pairs of native-speaking interpreters to work in shifts to cover the conference, and also provided the necessary equipment to facilitate effective participation between all attendees. We also regularly provide Russian interpreters to the NHS, the Department for Work and Pensions and more.
History of the Russian Language
Russian is a Slavic language of the Indo-European family. All Indo-European languages are descendants of a single prehistoric language, reconstructed as Proto-Indo-European, spoken sometime in the Neolithic era. Up to the 14th century, ancestors of the modern Russians (who likewise called themselves ruskiye spoke dialects of the Old East Slavic language, related to the dialects of other East Slavs. This spoken tongue and the literary Old Church Slavonic language operated throughout Kievan Rus. The earliest written record of the language, an amphora found at Gnezdovo, may date from the mid-10th century. During the pre-Kievan period, the main sources of borrowings were Germanic languages, particularly Gothic and Old Norse. In the Kievan period, however, loanwords and calques entered the vernacular primarily from Old Church Slavonic and from Byzantine Greek. After the Mongol invasion of Rus in the 13th century the vernacular language of the conquered peoples remained firmly Slavic. Turko-Mongol borrowings in Russian relate mostly to commerce and the military.
In Russia, Church Slavonic – which evolved from Old Church Slavonic – remained the literary language until the Petrine age (1682–1725), when its usage shrank drastically to biblical and liturgical texts. Legal acts and private letters had been, however, already written in pre-Petrine Muscovy in a less formal language, more closely reflecting spoken Russian. The first grammar of the Russian language was written by Vasily Adodurov in the 1740s, and a more influential one by Mikhail Lomonosov in 1755.
After the disestablishment of the “Tartar yoke” in the late 14th century, both the political centre and the predominant dialect in European Russia came to be based in Moscow. A scientific consensus exists that Russian and Ruthenian (the predecessor of Belarusian and Ukrainian) had definitely become distinct by this time. The official language in Russia remained a kind of Church Slavonic until the close of the 18th century, but, despite attempts at standardisation, as by Meletius Smotrytsky, its purity was by then strongly compromised by an incipient secular literature. Vocabulary was borrowed from Polish, and, through it, from German and other Western European languages. At the same time, a number of words of native (according to a general consensus among etymologists of Russian) coinage or adaptation appeared, at times replacing or supplementing the inherited Indo-European/Common Slavonic vocabulary.
The political reforms of Peter the Great were accompanied by a reform of the alphabet, and achieved their goal of secularization and modernization. Blocks of specialized vocabulary were adopted from the languages of Western Europe. Most of the modern naval vocabulary, for example, is of Dutch origin. Latin, French, and German words entered Russian for the intellectual categories of the Age of Enlightenment. Greek words already in the language through Church Slavonic were refashioned to reflect post-Renaissance European rather than Byzantine pronunciation. By 1800, a significant portion of the gentry spoke French, less often German, on an everyday basis.
During the 19th century, the standard language assumed its modern form; literature flourished. Spurred perhaps by the so-called Slavophilism, some terms from other languages fashionable during the 18th century now passed out of use, and formerly vernacular or dialectal strata entered the literature as the “speech of the people”. Borrowings of political, scientific and technical terminology continued. By about 1900, commerce and fashion ensured the first wave of mass adoptions from German, French and English.
The political upheavals of the early 20th century and the wholesale changes of political ideology gave written Russian its modern appearance after the spelling reform of 1918. Reformed spelling, the new political terminology, and the abandonment of the effusive formulae of politeness characteristic of the pre-Revolutionary upper classes prompted dire statements from members of the émigré intelligentsia that Russian was becoming debased. But the authoritarian nature of the regime, the system of schooling it provided from the 1930s, and not least the often unexpressed yearning among the literati for the former days ensured a fairly static maintenance of Russian into the 1980s. Though the language did evolve, it changed very gradually. Indeed, while literacy became nearly universal, dialectal differentiation declined, especially in the vocabulary: schooling and mass communications ensured a common denominator. The political collapse of 1990–1991 loosened the shackles. In the face of economic uncertainties and difficulties within the educational system, the language changed rapidly. There was a wave of adoptions, mostly from English, and sometimes for words with exact native equivalents. At the same time, the growing public presence of the Russian Orthodox Church and public debate about the history of the nation gave new impetus to the most archaic Church Slavonic stratum of the language, and introduced or re-introduced words and concepts that replicate the linguistic models of the earliest period.
Russian today is a tongue in great flux. The new words entering the language and the emerging new styles of expression have, naturally, not been received with universal appreciation.