How Russian Developed as a Modern Language

May 15, 2017


With all the talk in the news lately about Russia, we thought we'd jump on the bandwagon and dive into the Russian language. Russian is the eighth most widely spoken language on Earth and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. There are roughly 155 million native speakers and an additional 105 million who speak Russian as a second language. It is also spoken as a lingua franca throughout many parts of Europe and Asia.

Russian is the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages. It, along with the other languages in its tree, all shared a common written language known as Old Church Slavonic, which could be read and understood by most Slavic speakers of the time. Today Russian is still written in Cyrillic script which was developed to write Old Church Slavonic.

Several well-known Russian leaders were responsible for shaping the language into its current modern form. First was Peter the Great. During his rule, 1696 to 1725, he worked to simplify the orthography of the language and increase literacy throughout the country. Peter the Great also made efforts to modernize and Westernize the language as an effort to become more a part of Europe. During his rule French became the spoken language of the upper classes and today there are several French "loan words" found in Russian.

The next notable person to shape Russian was Mikhail Lomonosov who wrote a form of Russian grammar which revolutionized the language by combining the spoken language with the written Old Church Slavonic. In this 1755 text, Mikhail referred to Old Church Slavonic as the "high style" and the spoken vernacular as the "low style." The most important take-away here is that Lomonosov advocated a "middle style" which blended both forms and became useful for writing. Over time this middle style formed the core of what would become Modern Standard Russian.

We'd be remiss to neglect mentioning Alexander Pushkin, known to many as "the father of the modern Russian language." This poet clearly defined the idea of high, middle, and low styles that made the spoken vernacular an official part of the language. The high style soon became reserved for religious ceremonies. Pushkin's work greatly expanded the vocabulary of Russian as he directly translated idioms and phrases from other languages into Russian.

There is more to the rich history of this language than we can write about here. Russian remains one of the most important languages in the world. It is fascinating to learn about, a joy to hear, and a challenge to master.

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