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Russian (Russian: русский язык, russkiy yazyk, ['ru.skʲɪj jɪ.'zɨk]) is the most widely spoken language of Eurasia and the most widespread of the Slavic languages.

Russian belongs to the family of Indo-European languages. Within the Slavic family, Russian is one of the three East Slavic languages, 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-inflexional 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 Belarusian and Ukrainian, the other two national languages in the East Slavic group. In many places in Ukraine and Belarus, these languages are spoken interchangeably.

The basic vocabulary, principles of word-formation, and, to some extent, inflexions 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 History of the Russian language.

Outside the Slavic languages, the vocabulary and literary style of Russian have been greatly influenced by Greek, Latin, French, German, and English.

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.

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, especially in Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. However, younger generations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system. It was, and still is, to a lesser extent, widely taught in Asian countries such as Laos, Vietnam and Mongolia due to Soviet influence, and is still used as a lingua franca in Afghanistan by various tribes.

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 US and Canada such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, Miami, and Chicago). In the first two of them, 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 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 was reported as language spoken at home by 1.50% of population, or about 4.2 million, placing it as #10 language 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, Britain, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, and Greece 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 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 (Ukraine) and the unrecognized Moldovan Republic of Transnistria. 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, 24% in Ukraine, 23% in Kyrgyzstan, 21% in Moldova, 7% in Azerbaijan, 5% in Georgia received their education only or mostly in Russian, although the corresponding percentage of ethnic Russians was 80% in Russia, 11% in Belarus, 27% in Kazakhstan, 17% in Ukraine, 9% in Kyrgyzstan, 6% in Moldova, 2% in Azerbaijan, 1.5% in Georgia.


Despite levelling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary, a large 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 dialects typically pronounce unstressed /o/ clearly (the phenomenon called okanye оканье); the southern palatalize the final /t/ and aspirate the /ɡ/ into /h/. It should be noted that some of these features are also present in modern Ukrainian, indicating a linguistic continuum or strong influence one way or the other.

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 /dʲəʌˈlʲektəlʌˈɡʲiʨəskʲəj ˈatləs ˈruskəvə jəzɨˈka/), was published in 3 folio volumes 1986-1989, after four decades of preparatory work.

The standard language is based on the Moscow dialect.

Derived languages

Writing system


File:Meletius Smotrisky Cyrillic Alphabet.PNG
Meletius Smotrytsky presented the Cyrillic alphabet in this 1619 publication describing the "Slavonic" language.
Main article: Russian alphabet

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/, and ѧ /ja/. The yers ъ and ь were originally pronounced as ultra-short or reduced /ŭ/, /ĭ/.

For information on an informal approach on transliterating Russian into English, see the article Transliteration of Russian into English.


Main article: Russian orthography

Russian spelling is reasonably phonetic in practice. It is in fact a balance among phonetics, 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.


Main article: Russian phonology

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, some dialects only velarize /l/ in such positions). The standard language, based on the Moscow dialect, possesses heavy stress and moderate variation in pitch. Stressed vowels are somewhat lengthened, while unstressed vowels (except /u/) tend to be reduced to an unclear schwa.

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:



  Labial Dental &
Palatal Velar
Plosives p
  k ɡ
Affricates   ʦ
Fricatives f
Nasals m
Trills   r
Approximants     ɫ

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. Palatalization means that the center 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). /t, d, ʦ, s, z, n and r/) are dental, that is pronounced with the tongue against the teeth rather than against the alveolar ridge.


Main article: Russian grammar

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

Russian grammar encompasses

The spoken language has been influenced by the literary, 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.


File:1694 Russian ABC book page.GIF
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 1991 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).

The language of abuse and invective

Main article: Mat (language)

Apparently, the ability to curse effectively has always been recognized as a form of art not only in certain quarters of society, but even by the more conservative-minded literati. For example, as far back as in the nineteenth-century naval yarns of Staniukovich, "artistic invective" (артистическая ругань /ər.tʲɪ.ˈsʲtʲi.ʨə.skə.jə ˈru.ɡənʲ/) keeps coming out of the sailors' mouths, though it is never spelled out. The ability to agglutinate has produced the so-called "three-decker curse" (трёхэтажный мат /ˈtrʲo.xɛˈta.ʐnəj ˈmat/).

Proverbs and sayings

Main article: Russian proverbs, Russian sayings

Russian language is replete with many hundreds of proverbs (пословица /pʌ.'slo.vʲi.ʦə/) and sayings (поговоркa /pə.ɡʌ.'vo.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

Main article: History of the Russian language

See also: Reforms of Russian orthography

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

See also:

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. The modern literary language is usually considered to date from the time of Alexander Pushkin in the first third of the nineteenth century.


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.

Since the collapse of 1990-91, fashion for ways and things Western, economic uncertainties and difficulties within the educational system have made for inevitable rapid change in the language. Russian today is a tongue in great flux.


The following serve as references for both this article and the related articles listed below that describe the Russian language:

In English

  • Carleton, T.R. (1991). Introduction to the Phonological History of the Slavic Languages. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Press. 
  • Comrie, B., G. Stone, M. Polinsky (1996). The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century (2nd ed. ed.). Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  • Ladefoged, Peter and Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Blackwell Publishers. 
  • Matthews, W.K. (1960). Russian Historical Grammar. London: University of London, Athlone Press. 
  • Stender-Petersen, A. (1954). Anthology of old Russian literature. New York: Columbia University Press. 

In Russian

  • Жуковская Л.П., отв. ред. Древнерусский литературный язык и его отношение к старославянскому. М., «Наука», 1987.
  • Иванов В.В. Историческая грамматика русского языка. М., «Просвещение», 1990.
  • Михельсон Т.Н. Рассказы русских летописей XV–XVII веков. М., 1978.
  • Цыганенко Г.П. Этимологический словарь русского языка, Киев, 1970.
  • Шанский Н.М., Иванов В.В., Шанская Т.В. Краткий этимологический словарь русского языка. М. 1961.
  • Шицгал А., Русский гражданский шрифт, М., «Исскуство», 1958, 2-e изд. 1983.

Many further references are listed in the books above.

See also

Language description

Related languages


External links


This article incorporates text from Wikipedia, and is available under the GNU Free Documentation License.
For the original article please see the "external links" section.

Wikipedia:Russian language
This article is one of quite a few pages about Natlangs.

Indo-european natlangs:

Balto-Slavic Natlangs: Czech * Russian
Celtic Natlangs: Revived Middle Cornish * Pictish
Germanic Natlangs:
North Germanic Natlangs: Norwegian
West Germanic Natlangs: Anglo-Saxon * Dutch * English (Old English * Middle English * Modern English * Scots) * German (High German * Low German)
Indo-Iranian Natlangs: Pahlavi
Italic Natlangs: French * Italian * Latin * Spanish
Debated: Cimmerian

Uralic Natlangs: Finnish * Khanty * Mansi * Mordvinic * Proto-Uralic
Altaic (controversial): Japanese
Sino-Tibetan Natlangs:
Uto-Aztecan Natlangs: Nahuatl


Isolate Natlangs: Basque * *
Hypothetical/debated Natlangs and Natlang families: Danubian * Europic (obsolete)