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1. the official language of Russia: an Indo-European language belonging to the East Slavonic branch
2. the official language of the former Soviet Union
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the language of the Russian nation, a means of communication between peoples of the USSR, and one of the most widely used languages of the world; an official and working language of the United Nations. Russian, which belongs to the eastern group of Slavic languages, is spoken by more than 183 million persons in the USSR (1970 census).

The origins of Russian can be traced far into antiquity. In approximately the second and first millennia B.C., Common Slavic, or Proto-Slavic (in Russian, protoslavianskii iazyk), separated from a group of related dialects of the Indo-European language family. This language is also known in Russian as praslavianskii iazyk at a later stage, between approximately the first and seventh centuries A.D. Where the Proto-Slavs (the protoslaviane and their descendants, the praslaviane) lived is a question still open to discussion. In the second half of the first century B.C. and in the early part of the Common Era, the Proto-Slavic tribes probably occupied the lands from the middle course of the Dnieper in the east to the upper reaches of the Vistula in the west, from south of the Pripiat’ in the north to the forest-steppe regions in the south.

The Proto-Slavic territory expanded dramatically in the first half of the first century. In the sixth and seventh centuries, the Slavs occupied the lands from the Adriatic in the southwest to the upper course of the Dnieper and Lake Il’men’ in the northeast. The Proto-Slavic ethnolinguistic unity disintegrated, and three closely related groups were formed: East Slavic (the Old Russian people), West Slavic (the ancestors of the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Lusatians, and Pomeranian Slavs), and South Slavic (represented by the Bulgarians, Serbo-Croatians, Slovenes, and Macedonians).

The East Slavic (Old Russian) language existed from the seventh to the 14th century. Typical features included polnoglasie, or pleophony, as in vorona (“crow”), solodъ (“malt”), berëza (“birch”), and železo (“iron”); the pronunciation of ž and č where Common Slavic had *dj, *tj, and *kt, as in xožu (“I walk”), svčča (“candle”), and nočb (“night”); and the change of the nasalized vowels *Q and *ę to u and ja. Other Old Russian features included the ending -tb in present and future third person plural verb forms; the ending in the genitive singular for nouns with a soft stem ending in -a, as in zemlĕ (“earth”); and many words not attested in other Slavic languages, such as kustъ (“bush”), raduga (“rainbow”), gruzdb (“peppery lactarius,” a type of mushroom), koŝbka (“cat”), deŝëvyj (“cheap”), and sapogъ (“boot”). In the tenth century a written language was created that used the Cyrillic alphabet. This language attained a high level of development, as can be seen from the Ostromir Gospel (11th century), the Discourse on Law and Grace by the Kievan metropolitan Ilarion (11th century), the Primary Chronicle (early 12th century), The Tale of Igor’s Campaign (12th century), and the Russkaia Pravda (11th and 12th centuries).

In Kievan Rus’ (ninth to early 12th centuries), Old Russian was already used as a medium of communication by some Baltic, Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and Iranian tribes and peoples. From the 14th to 16th centuries, the southwestern variant of the East Slavic literary language was the language of the state and the Orthodox Church in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Principality of Moldavia. Feudal disintegration contributed to the splitting of the language into various dialects. The Mongol-Tatar yoke, which lasted from the 13th through 15th centuries, and Polish-Lithuanian conquests led to the breakup of the Old Russian people in the 13th and 14th centuries. The unity of the Old Russian language also broke up gradually. There developed three centers of new ethnolinguistic associations, each struggling for its own Slavic identity: the northeast group, or Great Russians; the southern group, or Ukrainians; and the western group, or Byelorussians. The closely related but independent East Slavic languages—Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian—developed on the basis of these associations in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The Russian language of the Muscovite Rus’ period (14th through 17th centuries) had a complex history. Dialectal features continued to develop. Two main dialect zones, overlapped by other dialect divisions, formed: the Northern Russian zone, approximately north of a line between Pskov, Tver’, and Moscow and south of Nizhny Novgorod; and the Southern Russian zone, south of the Pskov-Tver’-Moscow line to the Byelorussian and Ukrainian regions. Intermediate Central Russian subdialects (govory) developed, among which the Moscow dialect assumed a leading role.

At first the Moscow dialect was a transitional dialect, but later it developed an ordered system of its own. It came to be characterized by akan’e (unstressed o pronounced as a); a strong reduction of vowels in unstressed syllables; the plosive consonant g; the pronunciation of the endings -ogo and -ego in the genitive singular of the masculine and neuter genders in the pronominal declension as -ovo and -evo; the hard ending -t in third person verb forms of the present and future tenses; and the genitive-accusative forms of the pronouns menia (first singular), tebia (second singular), and sebia (reflexive for all persons and numbers). The dialect of Moscow gradually became the standard dialect and now forms the basis of the Russian national literary language.

The spoken language of this period underwent a final restructuring of the tense categories, with the old past tenses—aorist, imperfect, perfect, and pluperfect—being completely replaced by a standardized form ending in -l. The dual number was lost, and the earlier six-stem declension of nouns was replaced by declension of the modern type.

The written language continued to show great diversity. The literary Slavic language, which was in origin Old Bulgarian that had undergone significant Russian influence, was cut off from the colloquial and folk element and mainly served religion and the rudiments of scientific knowledge. The language of the state was based on Russian popular speech, although it did not coincide with the latter in all respects. Within this language there developed stereotyped expressions that often included purely literary (“bookish”) elements. The syntax, unlike that of the spoken language, was more organized, and there were cumbersome compound sentences. The infusion into the language of dialectal features hampered the development of standard all-Russian norms.

The written language used for artistic purposes was rich in linguistic means of expression. The oral language of folklore, which served all strata of the population until the 16th and 17th centuries, played an important role from ancient times. This is evidenced by its reflection in Old Russian writings, such as the tales of the Belgorod porridge and Ol’ga’s revenge in the Primary Chronicle, the folkloric motifs in The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, and the expressive phraseology in The Praying of Daniil the Incarcerated. It is also evidenced by the archaic strata of contemporary byliny (epic folk songs), tales, songs, and other types of oral folklore. In the 17th century, folkloric works were for the first time written down and imitated in literature; examples include the songs transcribed in 1619 and 1620 for the Briton Richard James, the lyrical songs of Kvashnin-Samarin, and the Tale of Woe-Misfortune. The complexity of the linguistic situation did not permit the development of single and stable norms, and a unified Russian literary language did not exist.

In the 17th century, national ties developed and the foundations of the Russian nation were laid. The separation of the Civil and Church Slavonic alphabets took place in 1708. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, secular literature achieved great popularity, whereas ecclesiastical literature gradually faded into the background and finally was relegated to the domain of religious ritual, its language becoming a distinctive ecclesiastical jargon. Scientific, technical, military, navigational, and administrative terminology developed rapidly, causing a great influx into Russian of words and expressions from the Western European languages. In the second half of the 18th century, French began to exert enormous influence on Russian vocabulary and phraseology.

The conflict of heterogeneous linguistic elements and the need for a common literary language urged the establishment of standard national language norms. These norms came into being in the course of a bitter struggle between conflicting tendencies. The democratically disposed strata of society sought to bring the literary language closer to the language spoken by the people, whereas the reactionary clergy attempted to preserve the purity of the archaic Slavic (slovenskii) language, a language that broad sections of the population had difficulty understanding. At the same time, among the highest strata of society an inordinate passion for foreign words developed, which threatened to contaminate the Russian language. An important role in the creation of standard national language norms was played by the linguistic theory and practice of M. V. Lomonosov, author of the first detailed Russian grammar. Lomonosov proposed assigning different means of expression to high, middle, and low styles, in accordance with the nature or purpose of literary works.

Lomonosov, V. K. Trediakovskii, D. I. Fonvizin, G. R. Derzhavin, A. N. Radishchev, N. M. Karamzin, and other Russian writers paved the way for the great reform of A. S. Pushkin. The creative genius of Pushkin synthesized into a single system diverse elements of expression: Russian folk elements, Church Slavonic elements, and Western European elements. In this synthesis, the Russian popular language, and particularly the Moscow variant, served as the foundation. The modern Russian literary language began with Pushkin. Rich and varied styles of language developed that were closely related to one another, including styles for literature, publicistics, science, and scholarship. Phonetic, grammatical, and lexical norms were established that were obligatory for all those having a command of the literary language, and the lexical system was developed and enriched.

An important role in the development and formation of the Russian literary language was played by Russian writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, including A. S. Griboedov, M. Iu. Lermontov, N. V. Gogol, I. S. Turgenev, F. M. Dostoevsky, L. N. Tolstoy, M. Gorky, and A. P. Chekhov. In the second half of the 19th century, public figures and representatives of science and culture began influencing the development of the literary language and the formation of scientific, publicistic, and other styles. The language of V. I. Lenin played an important role in the development of the literary language and especially the scientific and publicistic style.

The Great October Socialist Revolution and the building of socialism in the USSR exerted an appreciable influence on the Russian language. The vocabulary changed and grew, some shifts (less noticeable) occurred in the grammatical structure, a stylistic reappraisal of a number of language phenomena took place, and the language’s means of expression were enriched. The universal spread of literacy and the raising of the cultural level of the population led to the literary language’s becoming the principal means of communication for the Russian nation. This contrasts with the situation obtaining in the prerevolution-ary past, when most people spoke local dialects and urban vernaculars.

The development of the phonetic, grammatical, and lexical norms of the modern Russian literary language is controlled by two associated tendencies: established traditions thought worthy of emulation and the continually changing speech of the language’s speakers. Established traditions include the usage encountered in the language of writers, publicists, actors, and those working in film, radio, television, and other mass media. For example, the classical Moscow pronunciation, which became the standard Russian pronunciation, was cultivated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Moscow Art Theater and the Malyi Theater. Although this standard pronunciation is changing, its principles are still regarded as unshakeable.

Neutral, or stylistically uncolored, means of expression consitutute the basis of the modern Russian literary language. The remaining forms, words, and meanings have stylistic coloring, which imparts to the language all possible shades of expressivity. Most widespread are the colloquial elements, which convey naturalness and to some degree make speech less formal in the written literary language; these elements are neutral in everyday speech. However, colloquial speech is a component of the literary language and does not constitute a special linguistic system.

The use of popular language (prostorechie) is a common means of achieving stylistic diversity in the literary language. Like the colloquial language, it has a dual nature; although an organic part of the literary language, it exists at the same time outside of the literary language. Historically, the popular language derives from the older, everyday colloquial language of the urban population, which resisted the bookish language of previous times, when the norms of the spoken literary language had not yet been established. The division of the older, everyday colloquial language into the popular language and the variant of the literary language spoken by the educated portion of the population began in approximately the mid-18th century. Subsequently, the popular language became the medium of communication mainly of illiterate and semiliterate urban-dwellers, but within the literary language some of the popular language’s features were used to provide stylistic coloration.

Subdialects (govory) occupy a special place in Russia. Because of universal education, they are rapidly dying out and being replaced by the literary language. In terms of their archaic elements, the modern subdialects fall into two major groups: the Northern Russian dialect (narechie) and the Southern Russian dialect. Characteristics of the former include okan’e (unstressed o pronounced as o); the plosive consonant g; vowel contraction; the genitive-accusative personal pronoun forms menia (first singular), tebia (second singular), and sebia (reflexive for all persons and both numbers); and the hard ending -t in third person present and future verb forms. The latter is characterized by akan’e (unstressed o pronounced as a); the fricative consonant y; the pronominal genitive-accusative forms mene (first singular), tebe (second singular), and sebe (reflexive for all persons and both numbers); and the soft ending -V in third person present and future verb forms. There is also an intermediate transitional Central Russian dialect.

Smaller dialectal units exist that are known in Russian as dialekty. These dialekty are groups of similar subdialects, for example, the dialekty of Novgorod, Vladimir-Rostov, and Ria-zan’. The division is arbitrary, since the boundaries for individual dialekt features do not usually coincide. The dialekt feature boundaries sometimes cut across Russia in various directions, and sometimes features are observed only in certain areas. Before the origin of writing, the dialekty were the universal form of language occurrence. After the literary languages developed, the dialekty underwent modifications but still retained their vigor, the overwhelming majority of the population still speaking dialekty. With the development of culture and the rise of the Russian national language the dialekty became mainly the speech of the rural population. The present-day Russian subdialects are becoming distinctive semi-dialekty, in which local features are combined with norms of the literary language. The subdialects continually influenced the literary language, and dialectisms are used by writers for stylistic purposes today as well.

Modern Russian is witnessing an intensive growth of specialized terminology, primarily owing to the needs of the scientific and technological revolution. Russian borrowed terminology from German in the early 18th century and from French in the 19th century; today, in the second half of the 20th century, the terminology is taken primarily from American English. Although specialized vocabulary has become the major source for the enrichment of the vocabulary of the Russian literary language, the penetration of foreign words should be reasonably restricted.

The present-day Russian language has a number of stylistic, dialectal, and other variants, all of which exist in complex interaction. These variants are united by common origin, common phonetic and grammatical systems, and basic vocabulary, which allows the language to be understood by all speakers. The variants together constitute the common national Russian language, the principal element of which is the literary language in its written and spoken forms. Shifts in the system of the literary language and the constant influence on the language by other speech variants result in the enrichment of the language by new means of expression, produce additional stylistic diversity, and make it possible to use different words and forms to mean the same thing or something similar in meaning.

Russian plays an important role as the language of communication between the peoples of the USSR. The writing systems of many new written languages are based on the Russian alphabet, and Russian has become the second native language of the non-Russian population of the USSR. “The process now under way of voluntary Russian-language study alongside native-language study has positive significance, since it promotes mutual exchange of experience and the introduction of each nation and nationality to the cultural achievements of all other peoples of the USSR and to world culture” (Programma KPSS, 1975, p. 115). Russian and the languages of the peoples of the USSR are constantly enriching one another.

The study of Russian began expanding at ever-increasing rates worldwide in the mid-20th century. The building of the world’s first socialist society, the development of Soviet science and technology, the requirements of mutual economic, scientific, and cultural exchanges, and the world importance of Russian literature have aroused interest in the Russian language and created a need in many countries to know the language. Russian is taught in 87 states, in 1,648 universities in the capitalist and developing countries, and in all institutions of higher education in the socialist countries of Europe; in 1975 more than 18 million persons were engaged in the study of Russian. The International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature was created in 1967, and the A. S. Pushkin Institute of the Russian Language was founded in 1974. A special magazine called Russkii iazyk za rubezhom (The Russian Language Abroad) is now being published.

Russian language studies are important to the study of the history and contemporary state of Russian and to the regulation of language norms. A major role in the stabilization of language norms is played by academic grammars; normative dictionaries, including defining, orthographic, and pronouncing dictionaries, dictionaries of language difficulties, and dictionaries of synonyms; handbooks on good language usage; magazines, such as Russkii iazyk v shkole (The Russian Language in School) and Russkaia rech’ (Russian Speech); and the dissemination of scholarly information about the Russian language. The activities of the Institute of the Russian Language of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (established in 1944) and numerous Russian language subdepartments in higher educational institutions are directed toward the study and regulation of the processes taking place in the Russian language.


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a mountain range in the Kunlun system, in China, between the Keriya and Kara Muran rivers. The length of the range from southwest to northeast is approximately 400 km; elevations reach 6,626 m. The range is composed primarily of gneisses, schists, and granites. It consists of three to five ridges separated by narrow tectonic valleys. The northern slope (elevation approximately 4,000 m) drops steeply to the Kashgar Plain (Tarim Basin); at its foot is a band of oases. The relative height of the southern slope is approximately 1,500 m. Saltwort deserts and steppe wormwood communities predominate on the northern slope, and cold desert landscape on the southern slope. There are glaciers. The range was named by N. M. Przheval’skii in 1885 during the second Tibetan expedition.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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