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Russian language

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Русский язык Russkiy yazyk
Pronunciation [ˈruskʲɪj]
Native to Commonwealth of Independent States, Uruguay ( San Javier), Israel, China and the Baltic States.
Native speakers primary language: about 164 million
secondary language: 114 million (2006)
total: 300 - 350 million  (date missing)
Language family
  • Satem
    • Balto-Slavic
      • Slavic
        • East Slavic
          • Russian
Writing system Cyrillic ( Russian variant)
Official status
Official language in  Belarus
  Commonwealth of Independent States (working)
 Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia)
Flag of IAEA.svg International Atomic Energy Agency
 Moldova ( Gagauzia and Transnistria)
Ukraine Crimea, Ukraine ( de facto)
 United Nations
Regulated by Russian Language Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ru
ISO 639-2 rus
ISO 639-3 rus

Russian ([[Media:Ru-russkiy jizyk.ogg|русский язык]] , transliteration: russkiy yazyk, Russian pronunciation:  [ˈruskʲɪj jɪˈzɨk]) is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia, the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages, and the largest native language in Europe. Russian belongs to the family of Indo-European languages and is one of three (or, according to some authorities, four) living members of the East Slavic languages, the others being Belarusian and Ukrainian (and possibly Rusyn, often considered a dialect of Ukrainian). It is also spoken by the countries of the Russophone.

Written examples of Old East Slavonic are attested from the 10th century onwards. Today Russian is widely used outside Russia. It is applied as a means of coding and storage of universal knowledge — 60–70% of all world information is published in English and Russian languages. Russian also is a necessary accessory of world communications systems (broadcasts, air- and space communication, etc). Due to the status of the Soviet Union as a superpower, Russian had great political importance in the 20th century. Hence, the language is one of the official languages of the United Nations.

Russian distinguishes between consonant phonemes with palatal secondary articulation and those without, the so-called soft and hard sounds. This distinction is found between pairs of almost all consonants and is one of the most distinguishing features of the language. Another important aspect is the reduction of unstressed vowels, which is somewhat similar to that of English. Stress, which is unpredictable, is not normally indicated orthographically. According to the Institute of Russian Language of the Russian Academy of Sciences, an optional acute accent may, and sometimes should, be used (e.g. и́) to mark stress.


Russian is a Slavic language in the Indo-European family. From the point of view of the spoken language, its closest relatives are Ukrainian and Belarusian, the other two national languages in the East Slavic group. In many places in eastern Ukraine and Belarus, these languages are spoken interchangeably, and in certain areas traditional bilingualism resulted in language mixture, e.g. Surzhyk in eastern Ukraine and Trasianka in Belarus. An East Slavic Old Novgorod dialect, although vanished during the fifteenth or sixteenth century, is sometimes considered to have played a significant role in formation of the modern Russian language.

The vocabulary (mainly abstract and literary words), principles of word formation, and, to some extent, inflections and literary style of Russian have been also influenced by Church Slavonic, a developed and partly adopted form of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic language used by the Russian Orthodox Church. However, the East Slavic forms have tended to be used exclusively 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 Russian phonology and History of the Russian language.

Russian phonology and syntax (especially in northern dialects) have also been influenced to some extent by the numerous Finnic languages of the Finno-Ugric subfamily: Merya, Moksha, Muromian, the language of the Meshchera, Veps, et cetera. These languages, some of them now extinct, used to be spoken in the centre and in the north of what is now the European part of Russia. They came in contact with Eastern Slavic as far back as the early Middle Ages and eventually served as substratum for the modern Russian language. The Russian dialects spoken north, north-east and north-west of Moscow have a considerable number of words of Finno-Ugric origin. Over the course of centuries, the vocabulary and literary style of Russian have also been influenced by Turkic/Caucasian/Central Asian languages, as well as Western/Central European languages such as Polish, Latin, Dutch, German, French, and English.

According to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, Russian is classified as a level III language in terms of learning difficulty for native English speakers, requiring approximately 780 hours of immersion instruction to achieve intermediate fluency. It is also regarded by the United States Intelligence Community as a "hard target" language, due to both its difficulty to master for English speakers as well as due to its critical role in American world policy.

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 25,6% of the country's current population and 58,6% of the native Estonian population is also able to speak Russian. In all, 67,8% of Estonia's population can speak Russian.

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Russian remains a co-official language with Kazakh and Kyrgyz respectively. Large Russian-speaking communities still exist in northern Kazakhstan, and ethnic Russians comprise 25.6 % of Kazakhstan's population.

A much smaller Russian-speaking minority in Lithuania has represented less than 1/10 of the country's overall population. Nevertheless more than half of the population of the Baltic states are able to hold a conversation in Russian and almost all have at least some familiarity with the most basic spoken and written phrases. The Russian control of Finland in 1809–1918, however, has left few Russian speakers in Finland. There are 33,400 Russian speakers in Finland, amounting to 0.6% of the population. 5000 (0.1%) of them are late 19th century and 20th century immigrants, and the rest are recent immigrants, who have arrived in the 90's and later.

Sign above a urinal in an Israeli international airport. Translated into four languages spoken in Israel: English, Hebrew, Russian (with many spelling errors), and Arabic.

In the twentieth century, Russian was widely taught in the schools of the members of the old Warsaw Pact and in other countries that used to be allies of the USSR. In particular, these countries include Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania and Cuba. However, younger generations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system. It is currently the most widely-taught foreign language in Mongolia.

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.

Sizable Russian-speaking communities also exist in North America, especially in large urban centers of the U.S. and Canada such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, Denver, and the Cleveland suburb of Richmond Heights. In the former two, 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). Only about a quarter of them are ethnic Russians, however. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of Russophones in North America 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 is the primary language spoken in the homes of over 700,000 individuals living 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 flavor of language. Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, Norway, Austria, and Turkey 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.

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. It is also an official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the de facto official language of unrecognized Transnistria, Ukraine, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Education in Russian is still a popular choice for both Russian as a second language (RSL) and native speakers in Russia as well as many of the former Soviet republics.

97% of the public school students of Russia, 75% in Belarus, 41% in Kazakhstan, 25% in Ukraine, 23% in Kyrgyzstan, 21% in Moldova, 7% in Azerbaijan, 5% in Georgia and 2% in Armenia and Tajikistan receive their education only or mostly in Russian. Although the corresponding percentage of ethnic Russians is 78% in Russia, 10% in Belarus, 26% in Kazakhstan, 17% in Ukraine, 9% in Kyrgyzstan, 6% in Moldova, 2% in Azerbaijan, 1.5% in Georgia and less than 1% in both Armenia and Tajikistan.

Russian-language schooling is also available in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, but due to education reforms, a number of subjects taught in Russian are reduced at the high school level. The language has a co-official status alongside Moldovan in the autonomies of Gagauzia and Transnistria in Moldova, and in seven Romanian communes in Tulcea and Constanţa counties. In these localities, Russian-speaking Lipovans, who are a recognized ethnic minority, make up more than 20% of the population. Thus, according to Romania's minority rights law, education, signage, and access to public administration and the justice system are provided in Russian alongside Romanian. In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in Ukraine, Russian is an officially recognized language alongside with Crimean Tatar, but in reality, is the only language used by the government, thus being a de facto official language.


Despite leveling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary, a 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.

The northern Russian dialects and those spoken along the Volga River typically pronounce unstressed /o/ clearly (the phenomenon called okanye/оканье). East of Moscow, particularly in Ryazan Region, unstressed /e/ and /a/ following palatalized consonants and preceding a stressed syllable are not reduced to [ɪ] (like in the Moscow dialect), being instead pronounced as /a/ in such positions (e.g. несли is pronounced as [nʲasˈlʲi], not as [nʲɪsˈlʲi]) - this is called yakanye/ яканье; many southern dialects have a palatalized final /tʲ/ in 3rd person forms of verbs (this is unpalatalized in the standard dialect) and a fricative [ɣ] where the standard dialect has [g]. However, in certain areas south of Moscow, e.g. in and around Tula, /g/ is pronounced as in the Moscow and northern dialects unless it precedes a voiceless plosive or a pause. In this position /g/ is lenited and devoiced to the fricative [x], e.g. друг [drux] (in Moscow's dialect, only Бог [box], лёгкий [lʲɵxʲkʲɪj], мягкий [ˈmʲæxʲkʲɪj] and some derivatives follow this rule). Some of these features (e.g. a debuccalized or lenited /g/ and palatalized final /tʲ/ in 3rd person forms of verbs) are also present in modern Ukrainian, indicating either a linguistic continuum or strong influence one way or the other.

The city of Veliky Novgorod has historically displayed a feature called chokanye/tsokanye (чоканье/цоканье), where /ʨ/ and /ʦ/ were confused (this is thought to be due to influence from Finnish, which doesn't distinguish these sounds). So, цапля ("heron") has been recorded as 'чапля'. Also, the second palatalization of velars did not occur there, so the so-called ě² (from the Proto-Slavonic diphthong *ai) did not cause /k, g, x/ to shift to /ʦ, ʣ, s/; therefore where Standard Russian has цепь ("chain"), the form кепь [kʲepʲ] is attested in earlier texts.

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 [dʲɪɐˌlʲɛktəlɐˈgʲiʨɪskʲɪj ˈatləs ˈruskəvə jɪzɨˈka]), was published in 3 folio volumes 1986–1989, after four decades of preparatory work.

The standard language is based on (but not identical to) the Moscow dialect.

Derived languages

  • Balachka a dialect, spoken primarily by Cossacks, in the regions of Don, Kuban and Terek.
  • Fenya, a criminal argot of ancient origin, with Russian grammar, but with distinct vocabulary.
  • Nadsat, the fictional language spoken in ' A Clockwork Orange' uses a lot of Russian words and Russian slang.
  • Surzhyk is a language with Russian and Ukrainian features, spoken in some areas of Ukraine
  • Trasianka is a language with Russian and Belarusian features used by a large portion of the rural population in Belarus.
  • Quelia, a pseudo pidgin of German and Russian.
  • Runglish, Russian-English pidgin. This word is also used by English speakers to describe the way in which Russians attempt to speak English using Russian morphology and/or syntax.
  • Russenorsk is an extinct pidgin language with mostly Russian vocabulary and mostly Norwegian grammar, used for communication between Russians and Norwegian traders in the Pomor trade in Finnmark and the Kola Peninsula.

Writing system


A page from Azbuka ( Alphabet book), the first Russian textbook. Printed by Ivan Fyodorov in 1574. This page features the Cyrillic alphabet.

Russian is written using a modified version of the Cyrillic (кириллица) alphabet. The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters. The following table gives their upper case forms, along with IPA values for each letter's typical sound:


Older letters of the Russian alphabet include <ѣ>, which merged to <е> (/e/); <і> and <ѵ>, which both merged to <и>(/i/); <ѳ>, which merged to <ф> (/f/); and <ѧ>, which merged to <я> (/ja/ or /ʲa/). While these older letters have been abandoned at one time or another, they may be used in this and related articles. The yers <ъ> and <ь> originally indicated the pronunciation of ultra-short or reduced /ŭ/, /ĭ/.

The Russian alphabet has many systems of character encoding. KOI8-R was designed by the government and was intended to serve as the standard encoding. This encoding is still used in UNIX-like operating systems. Nevertheless, the spread of MS-DOS and Microsoft Windows created chaos and ended by establishing different encodings as de-facto standards. For communication purposes, a number of conversion applications were developed. \ " iconv" is an example that is supported by most versions of Linux, Macintosh and some other operating systems. Most implementations (especially old ones) of the character encoding for the Russian language are aimed at simultaneous use of English and Russian characters only and do not include support for any other language. Certain hopes for a unification of the character encoding for the Russian alphabet are related to the Unicode standard, specifically designed for peaceful coexistence of various languages, including even dead languages. Unicode also supports the letters of the Early Cyrillic alphabet, which have many similarities with the Greek alphabet.


Russian spelling is reasonably phonemic in practice. It is in fact a balance among phonemics, morphology, etymology, and grammar; and, like that of most living languages, has its share of inconsistencies and controversial points. A number of rigid spelling rules introduced between the 1880s and 1910s have been responsible for the latter whilst trying to eliminate the former.

The current spelling follows the major reform of 1918, and the final codification of 1956. An update proposed in the late 1990s 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.


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, especially before back vowels, although in some dialects the velarization is limited to hard /l/). The standard language, based on the Moscow dialect, possesses heavy stress and moderate variation in pitch. Stressed vowels are somewhat lengthened, while unstressed vowels tend to be reduced to near-close vowels or an unclear schwa. (See also: vowel reduction in Russian.)

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:


Clusters of four consonants are not very common, however, especially within a morpheme.


  Bilabial Labio-
Dental &
Palatal Velar
Nasal hard /m/   /n/      
soft /mʲ/   /nʲ/      
Plosive hard /p/   /b/   /t/   /d/     /k/   /g/
soft /pʲ/   /bʲ/   /tʲ/   /dʲ/     /kʲ/*   [gʲ]
Affricate hard     /ʦ/           
soft         /tɕ/       
Fricative hard   /f/   /v/ /s/   /z/ /ʂ/   /ʐ/   /x/     
soft   /fʲ/   /vʲ/ /sʲ/   /zʲ/ /ɕː/*   /ʑː/*   [xʲ]     
Trill hard     /r/      
soft     /rʲ/      
Approximant hard     /l/      
soft     /lʲ/   /j/  

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 (the only native minimal pair which argues for /kʲ/ to be a separate phoneme is "это ткёт"/"этот кот"). Palatalization means that the centre 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). These sounds: /t, d, ʦ, s, z, n and rʲ/ are dental, that is pronounced with the tip of the tongue against the teeth rather than against the alveolar ridge.


Russian has preserved an Indo-European synthetic- inflectional structure, although considerable leveling has taken place.

Russian grammar encompasses

  • a highly synthetic morphology
  • a syntax that, for the literary language, is the conscious fusion of three elements:
    • a polished vernacular foundation;
    • a Church Slavonic inheritance;
    • a Western European style.

The spoken language has been influenced by the literary one, 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.


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 1950s–1960s 61,458 More or less then-current language
Lopatin's dictionary 2000 c.160,000 Orthographic, current language

(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).

Proverbs and sayings

The Russian language is replete with many hundreds of proverbs (пословица [pɐˈslo.vʲɪ.ʦə]) and sayings (поговоркa [pə.gɐˈvo.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

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

  • Kievan period and feudal breakup
  • The Tatar yoke and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania
  • The Moscovite period (15th–17th centuries)
  • Empire (18th–19th centuries)
  • Soviet period and beyond (20th century)

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' in about 880, from which modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus trace their origins, established Old East Slavic as a literary and commercial language. It was soon followed by the adoption of Christianity in 988 and the introduction of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical and official language. Borrowings and calques from Byzantine Greek began to enter the Old East Slavic and spoken dialects at this time, which in their turn modified the Old Church Slavonic as well.

Dialectal differentiation accelerated after the breakup of Kievan Rus in approximately 1100. On the territories of modern Belarus and Ukraine emerged Ruthenian and in modern Russia medieval Russian. They definitely became distinct in 13th century by the time of division of that land between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania on the west and independent Novgorod Feudal Republic plus small duchies which were vassals of the Tatars on the east.

The official language in Moscow and Novgorod, and later, in the growing Moscow Rus’, was Church Slavonic which evolved from Old Church Slavonic and remained the literary language until the Petrine age, when its usage shrank drastically to biblical and liturgical texts. Russian developed under a strong influence of the Church Slavonic until the close of the seventeenth century; the influence reversed afterwards leading to corruption of liturgical texts.

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. Many Russian novels of the 19th century, e.g. Lev Tolstoy’s "War and Peace", contain entire paragraphs and even pages in French with no translation given, with an assumption that educated readers won't need one.

The modern literary language is usually considered to date from the time of Aleksandr Pushkin in the first third of the nineteenth century. Pushkin revolutionized Russian literature by rejecting archaic grammar and vocabulary (so called "высокий стиль" — "high style") in favour of grammar and vocabulary found in the spoken language of the time. Even modern readers of younger age may only experience slight difficulties understanding some words in Pushkin’s texts, since only few words used by Pushkin became archaic or changed meaning. On the other hand, many expressions used by Russian writers of the early 19th century, in particular Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Griboiädov, became proverbs or sayings which can be frequently found even in the modern Russian colloquial speech.

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 prestige, especially during the middle third of the twentieth century.

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