- Russian (russkii iazyk) is part of the East Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is mostly closely related to Ukrainian and Belarusian, and more distantly related to Polish, Serbian, Bulgarian, and the other Slavic tongues. As with the majority of other Slavic languages, Russian has a flexible word order: nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and numbers change their endings (the case system) to reflect the relationships between words in a sentence. A specific feature of the Russian sound system is the use of palatalized, or soft consonants, which, when transliterated, are indicated with an apostrophe: vlast’—“power.” The Russian language has an enormous ability to generate new meaning with the help of prefixes, suffixes, and other morphological tools.Worldwide, there are approximately 275 million speakers of the language, with 160 million speaking it as their native tongue. The language is spoken by 97 percent of Russian citizens; outside of Russia, it is spoken in the former Soviet republics (particularly Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), as well as in Israel, Germany, Mongolia, Great Britain, and the United States. It is an official language in Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the breakaway republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria. The Russian hybrids of Surzhyk (Ukrainian-Russian) and Trasianka (Belarusian-Russian) attest to the language’s importance beyond Russia’s borders. Russian employs the Cyrillic alphabet, originally adapted from the Greek alphabet by Byzantine missionaries. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and—until 1991—enjoyed popularity among many second-language learners in the Eastern Bloc and the Third World.The Russian language, and especially its vocabulary system, reflects the religious, political, and imperial history of the nation. Abstract notions are often words of Greek or Latin origin. Russian poetic language derives from the Old Church Slavonic; these words have common Russian equivalents (for example, mlechnyi and molochnyi, both referring to milk). Words for food products and everyday objects come from a host of neighboring cultures, often reflecting their original nature as imports from abroad (for example, the Russian word for apple jam—povidlo—is of Polish origin, whereas the word for money—den’gi—is Turkic).In the 19th century, the Russian aristocracy communicated in French, and so a large part of the Russian vocabulary consists of coinages derived from French words. English vocabulary units began entering the Russian language from the end of the 19th century; however, this process has increased in the past several decades due to the import of technologies and rapid modernization of the country. A special stratum of the Russian language is mat, or maternyi iazyk, a system of profanities that have Slavic or IndoEuropean roots and are reserved for specific uses: mat is used as a sign of social distinction—among criminals, army recruits—and designates power relations among speakers. Mat is a language in its own right and its uses are highly tabooed and ritualized in the Russian culture.The nature of Russian is such that despite it being spoken across a vast geographical space, its dialectic variation, especially pronunciation, is not significant, which means it is easily understood by all speakers of Russian, irrespective of their background. Though Russian displays a great capacity for adapting and adopting new vocabulary and speech patterns, there have always been fears among Russian nationalists that the Russian language is under threat. Although no equivalent of the French Academy exists in the Russian Federation, the State Duma from time to time discusses legislation aimed at the protection of the Russian language; however, little has been done to advance any specific policies. Major transformations in the language system occurred after the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) and in the wake of Russian independence (1991). In the early 20th century, the alphabet was simplified, with several redundant letters being phased out. More recently, with the arrival of digital technologies, such as the Internet, new forms of communication have precipitated new linguistic patterns. One such recurrent system is the “language of scum,” a deliberately rude form of Russian that proliferated in the blogosphere of Runet in the 2000s. This “digital dialect” uses an innovative system of spelling that, ironically, effectively denotes the sound system of the language. Increasing dual use of the Roman alphabet in electronic environments is also a by-product of the shift to digital technologies.In recent years, the Russian government realized the political potential of the Russian language as an identity formation tool. Cultural centers like Russkii Mir (The Russian World) were established with the aim of disseminating knowledge of Russian across the globe. Media outlets, which are widely available in the Commonwealth of Independent States, also support knowledge and use of the language. Russian remains one of the few mandatory examinations that Russian students must take to graduate and in order to gain access to higher education. The knowledge of Russian is compulsory for individuals seeking Russian citizenship. In the former Soviet republics, for example, Latvia, the status of Russian is ambivalent, causing concerns among members of Russian ethnic minorities and providing the Russian government with political leverage.
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov. 2010.
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