Russian Language



The Russian language has a vibrant cultural past. It is the language of the famous writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of the celebrated composer Prokofiev, and of the great Russian tsars of the past.

Today, Russian has a significant global presence. It not only is spoken as a primary language by more than 170 million people around the world, but also serves as one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Classification of the Russian Language

Map of Russia

In the 6th century AD, the Slav people migrated from old Poland, coming to occupy much of the Balkan region. By the 10th century, three primary Slavic language groups had arisen – Southern, Western, and Eastern.

It is believed that the Russian language was born from the Eastern Slavic language of the 10th century, along with Ukranian (also referred to as Little Russian or Ruthenian) and Belorussian (also known as White Russian), making it an Eastern Slavic language belonging to the Indo-European language family.

The shared grammatical features of these Eastern Slavic languages initially allowed them to use a shared writing system known as Church Slavonic, or Old Church Slavonic.

Early Development of the Russian Language: High, Middle, and Low

Until about the 17th century, the religious and cultural language of the Russian peoples remained Church Slavonic, or Old Church Slavonic. In an attempt to standardize the written language, M.V. Lomonosov (for whom the Moscow State University is named) developed three distinct styles of the written Russian language in the middle 18th century: High, Middle, and Low.

The High Style, referred to as Old Church Slavonic, was used primarily in poetics and religion. The Middle Style was used for science writing, prose, and lyric poetry. Finally, the Low Style was used in personal correspondence.

From Old Church Slavonic to a Unique Russian Language

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin contributed to efforts to move the Russian language further away from its Old Church Slavonic heritage, helping to develop a more uniquely Russian literary language.

After the revolution of 1917, further reforms were undertaken to simplify Russian language writing and grammar, making for the modern Russian language we know today. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the language loosened its gates, allowing for more borrowed words from English and other languages.

Development of the Cyrillic Alphabet

The Cyrillic alphabet, upon which modern written Russian is based, was initially developed in the 9th century by the Byzantine missionaries Methodius and Constantine (who later changed his name to Cyril). The two men wanted to write the scriptures in Old Church Slavonic so that they could preach Christianity to Slavic-speaking peoples.

In order to write down the scriptures, Constantine and Methodius developed the Cyrillic alphabet, which is closely based on the Greek alphabet, adding extra figures to represent those sounds not heard in the Greek language.

The Russian language’s use of the Cyrillic alphabet underwent significant developments in the early 18th century under Peter the Great, who undertook to simplify and standardize the Cyrillic alphabet. More modern developments were made in the written language after the 1917 revolution.

Use of the Russian Language Today

There are over an estimated 170 million native speakers of the Russian language around the world. Russian also remains an unofficial language in many of the former Soviet republics – where an additional estimated 100 million people speak it as a second language – making it a valuable communication tool throughout the Caucasus.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian language has become increasingly important, notably in the fields of business and trade, as Russia has reintegrated into the global sphere and strengthened ties with its European neighbors and Asia.

Dialects of the Russian Language

Flag of Russia

A variety of dialects exist within Russia. Linguists have not agreed on a strict classification system for Russia’s dialects. Some divide Russia’s dialects into two regional groupings – Northern and Southern – with Moscow serving as a zone of division between the two areas. Other linguists prefer a three-part division of Northern, Southern, and Central, where Moscow is located.

Smaller-scale dialects can be found throughout Russia, in addition to the dialects spoken in those areas outside of Russia. Dialects include differences in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Pronunciation of the Russian Language

Russian pronunciation can be difficult for non-native speakers to master because the accent is free, meaning that the stress may be put on any syllable. As there are no specific rules for stress in the Russian language, the accent and pronunciation of every word must be learned on an individual basis.

This can be quite a daunting undertaking for the Russian-language student, especially because some words which are spelled alike can be told apart only by their different accents.

Russian Language Grammar: Three Tenses plus Aspects

An intriguing aspect of Russian language grammar is the fact that verbs have only three tenses: past, present and future. Instead of relying on tenses, the Russian language also makes use of aspect – a verbal categorization which conveys whether or not an action has been completed.

Using aspect, the Russian language is able to attribute many subtle shades of meaning to its verbs. In fact, some of these subtle meanings can not be expressed in English.

Russian Language Formalities

The Russian language includes a certain formal structure intended for use specifically when meeting strangers. This involves combining a person’s first name with a version of his or her father’s first name plus the suffixes –ovich (for a male) or –ovna (for a female). For example, a woman named Natasha, whose father’s name is Ivan, would be called Natasha Ivanovna – daughter of Ivan.

Light Blue and Dark Blue, but Not Just Blue

Another interesting fact about Russian is that the language lacks a word for blue, but has specific words for light blue (pronounced “goluboy”) vs. dark blue (pronounced “siniy”).

An MIT study reported in The New Scientist showed that this linguistic oddity may affect color perception in Russian language speakers, who were shown to discriminate differently between light and dark blue than English speakers. Russian language speakers participating in the study proved to be 10% faster at distinguishing different shades of blue than English speakers.

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