The title Old Russian serves to denote the language of the earliest documents of the eastern branch of the Slavic family of languages. The composition of the oldest surviving documents generally dates to some time within the 10th century AD. The term Old Russian is something of a misnomer in that the initial stages of the language which it denotes predate the dialectal divisions which mark the nascent distinction between modern Russian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian. Thus Old Russian serves as a common parent to all three of the major East Slavic languages, and as such a more appropriate term for the language is Old East Slavic. Unfortunately, in addition to being cumbersome, this terminology is not universally applied even within modern scholarship. Moreover, as the language Old Russian formed the medium of communication throughout the lands of the Rus [Rusĭ], about whom we will have more to say elsewhere in these lessons, some scholars employ the term Rusian for Old Russian. This is perhaps the most convenient of all the terms, but lamentably it is also the least commonly used.
Throughout these lessons, therefore, the terminology Old Russian is employed with a bow to tradition. However Old Russian is no more the oldest form of Russian than Latin is the oldest form of Spanish: Old Russian is equally Old Belorussian and Old Ukrainian. The terms Russian and Russia will also appear throughout these lessons; but unless qualified by the adjective modern (as in the modern Russian language), these terms should be taken in their historical sense: relating to the Rus.
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At some point before the creation of the oldest written monuments of Old Russian, the Slavic tribes seem to have formed a more or less homogeneous speaking community with relatively minor regional variation. Scholars apply the term Common Slavic (CS or CoS), or Proto-Slavic (PSl), to the putative language spoken by this as yet little differentiated Slavic community. This language, some of whose features can be reconstructed by scholars, serves as a parent to all subsequent Slavic languages. Proto-Slavic itself seems to derive from a parent, termed Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which serves as the common ancestor for an even wider array of languages ranging from Iceland in the west to India and beyond in the east: the Germanic languages (e.g. German, English, Dutch, Icelandic), the Italic (Latin, Italian, Spanish, French), Hellenic (Greek, Mycenaean), Celtic (Old Irish, Welsh, Gaelic), and many Indic languages (Sanskrit, Hindi, Marathi) all belong to this Indo-European family, among others. The close affinity of the Baltic languages to the Slavic languages leads many scholars to suppose that between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Slavic there was an intervening period of close habitation between Baltic and Slavic tribes, with the dialects being sufficiently intelligible to all to be viewed as part of a single language, Proto-Balto-Slavic.
Within the Proto-Slavic speaking community, migration and subsequent isolation of one subgroup or tribe from another tended to accentuate dialectal distinctions. As this process progressed, we find the emergence of three broad groupings within the Slavic language family: West Slavic (including modern Czech and Polish), South Slavic (including Bulgarian and Macedonian), and East Slavic (modern Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian). In each subgrouping, the members share some linguistic features among themselves which do not pertain to other groupings. In particular we find that, while Old Church Slavonic (OCS) shows features shared by South Slavic languages, Old Russian (OR or ORu) demonstrates its affiliation with the East Slavic languages.
If we look at the linguistic characteristics of the various subgroups of the Slavic language family, there is no one single feature that will identify a particular language as belonging, say, to the East Slavic group. Each particular feature is shared by languages in more than one subgroup. What we therefore seek for the purposes of linguistic classification is a minimal set of features which we can say are shared, as a whole, by members of one subgroup but not, as a whole, by members of another subgroup. The following list provides a set of three characteristics which serve, on the whole, to distinguish the East Slavic branch from the others. The features are stated in terms of how certain phonemic characteristics of the parent Proto-Slavic evolved within languages pertaining to the East Slavic subgroup (Vinokur, 1971).
Debate continues, however, regarding just how wide was the linguistic gap between Old Russian and its South Slavic cousin Old Church Slavonic. The heart of the debate lies in the fact that the earliest manuscripts of Old Russian generally comprise East Slavic redactions of earlier OCS manuscripts, and the conventions of OCS spelling likely exerted a heavy influence on Old Russian orthography. Thus some scholars propose a scenario for the 10th and 11th centuries in which the Old Russian manuscripts show a "bookish" language which remained distinct from the everyday language of discourse.
Other scholars, however, take issue with such arguments, notably Lunt (1987). As Lunt points out, no direct evidence regarding the everyday speech in the lands of the Rus has survived, and so notions regarding any differences between common speech and the language of the manuscripts remain completely speculative. Rather, discussions of the speech practices of the Rus must be based on the evidence in hand, namely inscriptions, manuscripts, and even what little graffiti survives. Moreover all indications from accounts of the original missions of Saints Cyril and Methodius suggest that, in the time period surrounding and immediately following the missions, variations among Slavic dialects were not so great as to impede mutual intelligibility. Lunt therefore proposes that Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic be viewed as two variants of the latest period of the common Slavic tongue, that is, as two variants of Late Common Slavic (LCS or LCoS) (Lunt, 1987).
Two major points support this view. The first concerns the presence of the jers ъ, ь (ŭ, ĭ). Both Old Russian and OCS preserve these reduced vowels that first arise in Common Slavic. Moreover they appear equally accurately in the earliest manuscripts of both languages, in the sense that they generally appear in positions where they would be expected on etymological grounds. In addition, they were true vowels: syllables containing jers are counted in syllable-counting poetry (Lunt, 1987). The scholar Trubetzkoy has established that the conditions determining when jers are strong or weak (terminology which we shall explain in the lessons) are shared by all Slavic languages. Thus their presence as a phonetic entity in a form that precedes their full vocalism (strong jers) or loss (weak jers) must be a characteristic of Common Slavic. Since the earliest remnants of both OCS and Old Russian still maintain the jers intact, before the shifts under the strong or weak conditions, these documents must represent a late stage of Common Slavic, before the breakup into respective daughter languages (Lunt, 1987).
The second point concerns pronunciation. We have seen above that Old Russian loses the nasalization accompanying some vowels from other dialects. However we still find a regular correspondence: OCS ǫ corresponds to Old Russian u, and OCS ę corresponds to Old Russian ě. This means that, in the earliest period of the language, the speaker of Old Russian could always read OCS with a local pronunciation and the result would be intelligible (Lunt, 1987).
The argument that OCS and Old Russian are both variants of Late Common Slavic has not convinced all scholars. But it does have a practical benefit: it provides a theoretical framework within which to view OCS and Old Russian as two remarkably similar languages. Their similarity is such that, at least for the earliest documents, one can profitably read Old Russian merely with a knowledge of OCS and a superficial understanding of the three characteristics of East Slavic mentioned above.
By the time of the earliest documents, the speakers of Old Russian inhabit a vast expanse of eastern Europe between the two political poles of Novgorod in the north and Kiev in the south. However the events surrounding how the East Slavs arrived in this region, and from where they came, remain shrouded in mystery. Some vague references from Latin and Greek authors whose works predate the advent of writing among the Slavs nevertheless provide some tantalizing clues.
Among the works of the first century AD, we find two which mention tribes plausibly to be identified with the Slavic group or its subgroups. In his treatise Naturalis historia, Pliny the Elder employs the term Venedi, Veneti for tribes which modern scholars surmise to be early Slavs. Pliny mentions in particular a tribe known as the Anti, saying they inhabit the region between the Sea of Azov and the Caspian Sea, an area then controlled by the Sarmatians (Gimbutas, 1971). Also writing in the first century, Tacitus likewise mentions the Venedi or Veneti in his survey of tribes impinging upon the Roman Empire, the Germania. In this work he mentions that the Venedi consist of robbers and thieves who wander the forests and mountains. According to Tacitus they generally inhabited the region between the Peucini tribe (Germanic Bastarnae) in the eastern Carpathians and the Fenni, whose location is left unclear (Gimbutas, 1971).
In the second century, Claudius Ptolemy mentions what is presumably the same tribe in his work De geographia. He employs the term Grk. Ouenedai, Lat. Venedae, and he labels the Baltic Sea the "Venedic Gulf" by virtue of the tribe's proximity to its shores. Based on Ptolemy's descriptions, scholars surmise that these Venedae inhabited a region north of the Goths, to the west of the Baltic tribes (Galindians and Sudinians), and to the southwest of the Finnic tribes (Matthews, 1960).
It is not until the sixth century that we find references to the Veneti that appear to make distinctions between subgroups. In his work De origine actibusque Getarum, or simply the Getica, Jordanes employs Venetae as a general term. But he identifies two separate tribes within this group: the Antes or Antae, and the Sclaveni. He says that all are 'of one blood' (cf. Gimbutas, 1971). Generally the Venetae are said to inhabit the region between the Dniester and Dnieper. Of the two subgroups, Jordanes locates the westernmost group, the Sclaveni, in the vicinity of the Carpathian mountains, with the Vistula river to their north, and the Dniester river to the east (Gimbutas, 1971). The region inhabited by the Antae lies to the east of the land of the Sclaveni.
In this same period, Procopius of Caesarea, writing in Greek, mentions the Antai and Sklabe:noi in his work De bello Gothico. Of the Sklabenoi he states that they were intruders into the region of the lower Danube (Gimbutas, 1971). Moreover he asserts that both tribes spoke the same language and jointly inhabited an expansive area. Procopius seems to have been acquainted with Slavic troops in the Byzantine army. He provides us with a description of their physical features: "The Sklavini and Antes do not differ in appearance: all of them are tall and very strong, their skin and hair are neither very light nor dark, but all are ruddy of face. They live a hard life of the lowest grade just like the Messagetae, and are just as dirty as they" (quoted in Gimbutas, 1971).
The historical descriptions mentioned above are unspecific at best. At worst, they do not refer to Slavic tribes at all, a possibility which is difficult to rule out. If we do however draw the tentative conclusion that the above tribes refer to the Slavs before the advent of their own written documents, it seems probable that the Antae are those most likely to be identified as the forerunners of the East Slavs that appear to us in the earliest records of Old Russian.
The Old Russian language itself contains traces of the myriad interactions of its speakers with neighboring peoples in the course of trade and cultural exchange. These linguistic clues predominantly take the form of words borrowed from neighboring languages into Old Russian. The same process occurs in nearly all languages, and Old Church Slavonic itself adopted numerous words from the neighboring Germans and Greeks in their missionary work in Moravia. Since OCS had a profound influence on Old Russian, the latter acquired many words from the Germans and Greeks indirectly via OCS. Frequently these terms related to ecclesiastical themes. But the speakers of Old Russian also interacted with other neighboring cultures independently of the southern Slavs, and we find borrowings that serve to highlight these exchanges.
One such group of loanwords comes from the profound commercial and cultural ties that the early Rus shared with Scandinavia. The following terms come from Scandinavian borrowings (Matthews, 1960):
Another group of borrowings highlights economic ties with Germanic peoples. This interaction increased as the Germans pushed eastward along the Baltic Sea into Prussia. Numerous terms relate to titles and units of measure (Matthews, 1960):
But at the tail end of the Old Russian period we find later borrowings related to the exchange of fabrics in the 14th-15th centuries (Matthews, 1960):
Of course, Byzantium played a privileged role in both the economic life and religious development of the Rus. A wealth of terms coming from all aspects of daily life provide a testament to this intertwining of cultures (Matthews, 1960):
Some of these terms borrowed from Greek were themselves loanwords taken over from Latin. The following terms provide a small sample (Matthews, 1960):
In addition, as trade extended eastward, the Rus came into contact with Turkic cultures. The influence of Turkic cultures became more profound with the periodic attacks that culminated in the Tartar invasion. But the 13th-century Codex Cumanicus contains several Turkic loanwords that testify to Turkic influence preceding the invasion. The following list provides a sample of Old Russian terms of Turkic origin (Matthews, 1960):
No specific dates fix the period of Old Russian. Rather we may suppose from historical sources that its earliest stages represent something close to what was spoken upon the reception of the Byzantine liturgy in the middle of the 10th century, since this would likely have marked the opening of the literary tradition that produced the earliest surviving manuscripts. That would place the beginning of the Old Russian period sometime in the 10th century AD. Since no monuments have survived from this period, however, scholars generally agree that Old Russian as a documented system begins in the 11th century. At the other extreme, the end date is similarly flexible. Some scholars prefer to place the end of the Old Russian period relatively early, sometime near the beginning of the 14th century. Others prefer to place the end closer to the latter part of the 15th century, as the center of literary production shifts from Kiev to Moscow in the waning years of Tartar rule.
The corpus of Old Russian, broadly understood, is rather expansive. Its remains take a variety of forms. In particular we find roughly 180 inscriptions dating from the 11th to 14th centuries. Most famous among these is the Tmutorokan stone, discovered near Taman in 1792 and dated 1068. The inscription states that Prince Gleb measured a distance of 14,000 sazhens between Tmutorokan and Kerch across the Strait of Kerch (Vinokur, 1971).
Most interestingly, in the 1950s archaeologists discovered numerous documents in excavations near Novgorod. These birch-bark letters date from middle of 12th century. The texts are scratched on birch-bark with bone instruments. The content consists predominantly of private letters, but the finds also contain testaments and agreements (Sokolsky, 1966).
The preponderance of the remaining documentary evidence for Old Russian consists of manuscripts. Roughly 1000 manuscripts remain dating from the 11th to 14th centuries. More than 20 of these manuscripts come from the 11th century specifically. Unfortunately we have no single preserved manuscript from the 10th century (Vinokur, 1971). The following list provides a brief overview of some of the more important specimens of Old Russian manuscript evidence (cf. Vinokur, 1971; Sokolsky, 1966):
The functional view espoused by the lessons of this series is that Old Russian (Old East Slavic) shows such a great degree of similarity to Old Church Slavonic that it behooves the reader to draw parallels whenever possible. For that reason, the sections discussing the grammar of the language mirror those of the series Old Church Slavonic Online for ease of cross-reference.
Moreover, the headword entries for the glossed texts are keyed to the Lexicon Palaeoslovenico-Graeco-Latinum of Miklosich (1865), with minor variations. The reader will note that this forms the standard of lexical reference for the OCS series as well. Hopefully this will foster the attitude that the two languages, OCS and Old Russian, should be read together, knowledge of one informing the other. On the one hand, by all accounts this appears to be how the copyists of Old Russian manuscripts themselves understood Old Russian. On the other hand, the discussion above on the relation of the two provides a theoretical framework in which the two may be viewed profitably as flip-sides of the same coin. As one professor aptly put it, the reader will get a long way by "studying Old Russian as if it were Old Church Slavonic spelled poorly".
Perhaps a more logical choice of lexical standard would have been Sreznevskij's Materials for an Old Russian Dictionary (1893-1912). While long the standard reference in the field, being wholly in Russian it might pose a barrier to some readers of these lessons. Moreover, as it employs a standardized Old Russian orthography, it already eliminates, say, the nasalized ǫ in favor of u. This creates a difficulty in trying to compare Old Russian with OCS: it is much more straightforward to read an OCS form with a nasalized ǫ and immediately conclude that the corresponding Old Russian term will be found with u. The reverse is more difficult: an Old Russian form with u may correspond to an OCS form with either u or ǫ. For this reason it has seemed advisable to normalize to OCS spelling and to keep in mind the East Slavic features outlined above and later in the lessons to make the conversion to Old Russian.
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Most but not all language courses taught at The University of Texas concern modern languages; sometimes courses are offered in ancient languages, though more often at the graduate level. Slavic language courses are taught in the Department of Slavic & Eurasian Studies (link opens in a new browser window). Other online language courses for college credit are offered through the University Extension (new window).