Facts Sheets of Major World Languages Russian

About the major world language Russian, history, number and location of speaker, samples, trivia, words used in English, and more.



Sample of Language: Sotsialnoye sorievnovaniye po-o-shchryayetsya pravitielstvom, tak kak ano znachitielno povishayet. ("Socialist competition is encouraged by the government, because it raises production considerably.")

How Many Speakers: 240 million

Where Spoken: The U.S.S.R. Natively, in European Russia and most of Siberia.

History: Russian and English are both descended from the same language, but Russian and the other Slavic tongues have remained closer to the original, highly inflected Indo European than have either the Germanic or Romance languages. This is due to the stabilizing influence of Old Church Slavonic, which became the religious and literary language of the Slavs from their conversion to Christianity until the 17th century, some 800 years later. All the while, the local spoken Russian of Kiev was fighting for supremacy, and even the earliest chronicles employed a language that was a mixture of Russian and Old Slavonic. In the 14th century, Moscow displaced Kiev as a cultural center, and its local speech began to predominate. By the end of the 18th century, Russian was normalized according to the Moscow idiom. Today, though it is spoken in an area that covers one sixth of the earth's land surface, there are few dialectical differences. This is partially due to the recent spread of Russian through colonization. The language has also been a great borrower of words from both East and West, especially under Peter the Great and the present Soviet government.

Russian is an extremely rich language, and by virtue of its structure, is capable of expressing subtle nuances of thought. This same feature tends to make it somewhat difficult to learn. More highly inflected than Latin, it abounds in prefixes and, particularly, suffixes. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and numbers are declined in six cases; the verb has two aspects, each with a separate infinitive and imperfective; there are three genders, with a different declensional pattern for each, plus a fourth one for the plural. Stress is nearly impossible to predict in unfamiliar words.

The writing system, however, is much simpler. The Cyrillic alphabet was invented by Saints Cyril and Methodius, missionary brothers from Constantinople, who brought Christianity to the Slavs in the 9th century. To put Russian speech into writing, they stretched the Greek alphabet as far as it would go, borrowed one or two letters from Hebrew, and coined the rest. Revised slightly by Peter the Great and the Bolsheviks, the present alphabet contains 32 letters and is completely phonetic. It is used not only in Russian, but also by those Slavic nations which followed the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russian today is prominent worldwide, and is one of the U.N.'s official languages. It is the first foreign language studied in the satellite countries of the Soviet bloc. In the West, it is learned both by scientists who wish to read the numerous technical publications and by devotees of one of the world's greatest literatures.

Oddities: Russian is notorious for its long personal and place name, such as Sheremetyevskiy and Dneprodzerzhinsk, and for long words like upotreblenie, "use," and dostoprimechatelnosti, "sights." It has many unusual consonant clusters, such as vzvod, "platform," vstrecha, "meeting," and tknut, "shoved." There are no articles, definite or indefinite, and no word for "to have." Atheistic Russia's two expressions for "thank you" literally mean "God save" and "I bless you." The morning greeting is "Be healthy!" Red is the color of beauty. In fact, the words for "beauty" and "red" are both derived from the same root in Russian. The widely used term tovarishch, "comrade," is actually Turkish in origin and formerly meant "merchant's apprentice." There is no native term for business, but Russian has borrowed the English word to mean "black market." The word for toilet means "adornment place." Hearing a strange tongue, the Russians say, "That's Chinese to me!"

Words Now Used in English: vodka, czar, samovar, ruble, pogram, troika, soviet, sputnik, steppe, tundra, babushka, borscht.

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