There were three major events that defined the earliest historical period of the East Slavic people:
To understand each of these events and its impact on the development of the early Russian cultural and political institutions, we must first understand something of the context within which they occurred.
The description below, and the Introductions to the lessons that follow, attempt to provide an overview of the geographic, economic, cultural, religious, and political conditions surrounding the composition of Old Russian texts during the "classical" period from the 11th to 15th centuries.
The Eastern Slavs make their appearance in history already situated in the vast expanse of Eastern Europe. We may speak broadly of this people as Russians, but only if we are careful to note that, in this early period, the term is merely a convenience for speaking inclusively of the ancestors of large populations of modern Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine. That this was not their original homeland we may surmise from, among other sorts of physical evidence, the linguistic traits they share with various branches of the Indo-European linguistic family tree. Their first mention in historical records comes not from their own monuments, but from authors writing in Greek, Latin, and other languages. These authors themselves were often quite removed from the East Slavic tribes and so the veracity of their claims leaves much to be desired. Principally we infer from their writings a general sense of the location of the Slavs as a whole. We must yet wait centuries for the nascent Russian culture to break into the historical record with its own voice.
We find the earliest Eastern Slavs located in the vast expanse between two roughly north-south-running mountain ranges. The Carpathians shielded the "civilized" plain of the Danube River which marked the extent of the Roman Empire from the wilderness that lay beyond. The variegated territory which extended between the Carpathians and the Ural Mountains far to their east provided the cradle of the Russian cultural birth.
The Black Sea, followed by the Caucasus Mountains, and completed by the landlocked Caspian Sea provided a natural boundary to the south. Abutting this southerly frontier from the north lay the steppe, a low-lying flattened geographic highway that would, centuries hence, provide the conduit for ruinous invasions of Europe, made all the worse for the Russians by the fact that, by dint of location, they were often the first to catch the full fury of the bloody onslaught.
As one moves north from this southerly belt the featureless terrain slowly yields to forest. Deciduous at first, the forest thickens relentlessly as its members trade in seasonal leaves for the perpetual spines of their coniferous cousins. The northern territory intersperses the forest with bog that further impedes travel. To the west of this wooded northerly expanse the terrain opens onto the shores of the Baltic Sea. Continuing north one passes Lakes Ladoga and Onega before encountering the White Sea and the inhospitable arctic climes beyond.
The densely wooded regions north of the steppe would have remained largely impassable to all but the most small-scale travel had not Nature provided its own highway system for extended travel: navigable rivers. From the eastern lip of the Baltic the river Dvina winds eastward into the uplands situated midway between the Carpathians and Urals. Here the Dvina comes within a geographic hair's breadth of the headwaters of the Volga, the region's great superhighway connecting the northerly reaches with the Caspian Sea in the south. As the Volga extends east from the uplands before making its sweeping turn south, its tributary the Oka meets it from the west. The two continue a short stretch southeast as one before the Kama, descending from the Urals and traveling eastward, finally joins them. The three continue together as the Volga, first southwest, then southeast, before finally emptying into the Caspian.
The net effect of the Volga's tributaries Oka and Kama is to provide a waterborne highway stretching east-west, starting at the easternmost extreme in the foothills of the Urals and flowing west into the central Uplands of the Russian expanse where, much later in the story of early Russia, Moscow was to grow from an early backwater into a unifying hub of the burgeoning Russian nation. But enabling further north-south travel were the rivers Dnieper and Don. The former trickles westward out of the Uplands, growing as it turns southward and finally empties into the Black Sea. Not to be outdone, the Don chooses an eastward path out of the central Uplands, until it to turns south and rushes toward the Black Sea, this time emptying in the Sea of Azov on the Black Sea's northeastern extreme.
Thus Nature provided both fertile, wooded lands and the ability to navigate them within the flat expanse to the west of the Urals. With a short break between them, the Dvina and Volga provided a north-south axis for travel from the Baltic to the Caspian. And by another short hop this path could be deflected to the Black Sea, where the jewel of the southerly belt awaited: Byzantium.
The following extract begins the famous text of the Invitation to the Varangians, found in the Primary Chronicle under the year 859 AD and following. The passage below describes the conditions among the East Slavs and neighboring tribes leading up to the invitation.
1 - V lje'to ,dz. t. ks z.
2 - Imaxu dani' varjazi izu' zamori'ja na tchjudi i na slovje'nexu', na meri i na vsje'xu', i na krivitchje'xu'; a kozari imaxu na poljanje'xu', i na severje'xu', i na vjatitchje'xu', imaxu po bje'lje'ji vje'vericje' otu' dyma.
3 - V lje'to ,dz. t. ks i.
4 - V lje'to ,dz. t. ks th.
5 - V lje'to ,dz. t. o.
6 - Izu'gnasha varjagi za more, i ne dasha imu' dani, i potchasha sami v sobje' volodje'ti, i ne bje' v nixu' pravdy, i vu'sta rodu' na rodu', i bysha v nixu' usobicje', i voevati potchasha sami na sja.
7 - I rje'sha sami v sebje', "poishchemu' sobje' knjazja, izhe by volodje'lu' nami i sudilu' po pravu".
8 - I idosha za more ku' varjagomu', k rusi; sice bo tii zvaxusja varjazi rusi', jako se druzii zovutsja svie, druzii zhe urmane, anu'gljane, druzii gu'te, tako i si.
9 - Rje'sha rusi tchjudi', i slovje'ni, i krivitchi i vsi, "zemlja nasha velika i obilna, a narjada v neji nje'tu'; da i poidje'te knjazhitu' i volodje'ti nami".
1 V lje'to ,dz. t. ks z. 2 Imaxu dani' varjazi izu' zamori'ja na tchjudi i na slovje'nexu', na meri i na vsje'xu', i na krivitchje'xu'; a kozari imaxu na poljanje'xu', i na severje'xu', i na vjatitchje'xu', imaxu po bje'lje'ji vje'vericje' otu' dyma.
3 V lje'to ,dz. t. ks i.
4 V lje'to ,dz. t. ks th.
5 V lje'to ,dz. t. o. 6 Izu'gnasha varjagi za more, i ne dasha imu' dani, i potchasha sami v sobje' volodje'ti, i ne bje' v nixu' pravdy, i vu'sta rodu' na rodu', i bysha v nixu' usobicje', i voevati potchasha sami na sja. 7 I rje'sha sami v sebje', "poishchemu' sobje' knjazja, izhe by volodje'lu' nami i sudilu' po pravu". 8 I idosha za more ku' varjagomu', k rusi; sice bo tii zvaxusja varjazi rusi', jako se druzii zovutsja svie, druzii zhe urmane, anu'gljane, druzii gu'te, tako i si. 9 Rje'sha rusi tchjudi', i slovje'ni, i krivitchi i vsi, "zemlja nasha velika i obilna, a narjada v neji nje'tu'; da i poidje'te knjazhitu' i volodje'ti nami".
1 In the year 6367. 2 The Varangians received tribute from across the sea among the Chuds and among the Slovenes, among the Merians and among the Ves, and among the Krivitchians. But the Khazars received (tribute) among the Polianians, and among the Severians, and among the Vjatichi, they received a white squirrel (pelt) from (each) hearth.
3 In the year 6368.
4 In the year 6369.
5 In the year 6370. 6 They drove the Varangians across the sea, and they did not give them tribute, and they began to rule amongst themselves. And among them there was no peace, and clan rose against clan, and there was discord among them, and they began to wage war against one another. 7 And they spoke amongst themselves: "Let us seek a prince for ourselves, who would lead us and judge according to the law." 8 And they went across the sea to the Varangians, to the Rus; for in this way those Varangians are called Rus, as others are called Swedes, and still others Normans, Angles, and others Goths, so also these ones. 9 And the Chuds, and Slovenes, and Krivitchians, and Ves said to the Rus: "Our land is great and abundant, but there is no order in it; come to rule and hold sway over us."
The history of Slavic alphabets provides ample evidence for scholarly disputes. The principal dispute surrounds the priority of the two alphabets encountered in the earliest documents: Glagolitic and Cyrillic. The latter bears the name of the missionary Constantine, later St. Cyril, who in roughly 863 AD with the assistance of his brother St. Methodius gave the Slavic tribes their first distinct alphabet. This he did in a mission to the South Slavic tribes at a time when Slavic dialects were still sufficiently indistinct that the Old Church Slavonic language into which Cyril translated the New Testament could be understood by other Slavs, and the alphabet served to represent the sounds of a large number of Slavic dialects.
The perennial question is, Which came first, Glagolitic or Cyrillic? Though the latter name honors Cyril's signal achievement, the general scholarly consensus is that Cyril himself created the Glagolitic alphabet. Its stark difference from the traditional "holy" alphabets of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin served to cement the view in the Byzantine Church that Slavic was indeed a truly distinct tongue meriting preaching of the Gospel in the indigenous language. Only later, goes the theory, was the alphabet revised into a simplified form easier for missionaries acquainted with Greek to pick up. This simplified form has come down to us as the Cyrillic alphabet.
Nevertheless, early texts provide us with enigmatic clues suggesting that the true order of creation of the alphabets might have been the reverse. In fact a short passage in one description of St. Cyril's acts suggests that he found the model for his alphabet in some "Russian letters" that he encountered during a mission to the Crimea which predated his mission to the Slavs.
|Obrje'te zhe tu evaggelie i psaltyri rusi'skymi pismeny pisano, i tchlovje'ka obrje'tu' glagoljushcha toju besje'doju, i besje'dova s nimu', i silu rje'tchi priimu', svoei besje'dje' prikladaa razlitchnaa pismena, glasnaa su'glasnaa, i ku' bogu molitvu tvore^, vu'skorje' natche^tu' tchesti i skazati, i mnodzi se^ emu divle^xu, boga xvale^shche.|
|And he found there the evangel and the psalter written with Russian letters, and having found a man who spoke this tongue, he conversed with him, and appreciated the power of the idiom. He adapted to his own tongue the various letters, each fitted to the sounds; and offering a prayer to the Lord he quickly began to honor Him, and many marveled at this man and praised the Lord. (Sokolsky, 1966)|
It remains unclear how exactly to interpret a phrase such as "Russian letters" in an era predating the creation of the Slavic alphabet, though many have taken it to mean something akin to the symbols of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Such mysteries notwithstanding, Cyrillic is by far the commonest alphabet encountered among the texts of the Old Russian period. These lessons will therefore employ Cyrillic exclusively. As we will also see in these lessons, the East Slavic dialect, of which Russian is a member, maintains certain phonological characteristics which set it apart from the South Slavic dialect, to which Old Church Slavonic belongs. Even so, the historical and cultural importance of Old Church Slavonic exerted a heavy influence both on the literary styles and on the orthography of Russian for much of its early history. The reader must therefore be able to read certain of the letters of Old Church Slavonic even though they do not represent sounds native to Old Russian.
The following chart lists the letters of the Old Church Slavonic alphabet, together with their roman transliteration and approximate pronunciation. Early Slavic texts also employed the letters as numerals, and so the chart lists the equivalent numeric value of each letter.
|A a||1||azu'||A a||a as in 'father'|
|B b||-||buky||B b||b as in 'boy'|
|V v||2||vje'dje'||V v||v as in 'vine'|
|G g||3||glagoli||G g||g as in 'good'|
|D d||4||dobro||D d||d as in 'dog'|
|E e||5||esti'||E e||e as in 'end'|
|Zh zh||-||zhivje'te||Zh zh||s as in 'pleasure'|
|Dz dz||6||dzje'lo||Dz dz||ds as in 'heads'|
|Z z||7||zeml'ja||Z z||z as in 'zebra'|
|I i||10||izhe||I i||ee as in 'feet'|
|I i||8||izhei||I i||ee as in 'feet'|
|(G' g')||-||g'a, djerv||G' g'||g as in 'coagulate'|
|K k||20||kako||K k||c as in 'coop'|
|L l||30||ljudije||L l||l as in 'elk'|
|M m||40||myslite||M m||m as in 'mother'|
|N n||50||nashi'||N n||n as in 'not'|
|O o||70||onu'||O o||ou as in 'ought'|
|P p||80||pokoji||P p||p as in 'post'|
|R r||100||ri'ci||R r||r as in 'rather', but trilled|
|S s||200||slovo||S s||s as in 'song'|
|T t||300||tvri'do||T t||t as in 'top'|
|U u||400||uku'||U u||oo as in 'food'|
|F f||500||fri'tu'||F f||f as in 'father'|
|Th th||9||fita||Th th||t as in 'top', or th as in 'path', or f as in 'father'|
|X x||600||xje'ru'||X x||ch as in Scots English 'loch'|
|O o||800||otu'||O o||au as in 'caught'|
|Shch shch||-||shcha||Shch shch||sh ch as in 'English cheese'|
|C c||900||ci||C c||ts as in 'hats'|
|Tch tch||90||tchri'vi', tcha||Tch tch||ch as in 'church'|
|Sh sh||-||sha||Sh sh||sh as in 'sharp'|
|U' u'||-||jeru'||U' u'||u as in 'put'|
|Y y||-||jery||Y y||oo of 'foot' with the tongue, with lips as in ee of 'feet'; compare Bronx pronunciation of 'Spuyten Duyvil'|
|I' i'||-||jeri'||I' i'||i as in 'stop it!'|
|Je' je'||-||jati'||Je' je'||ya as in 'yam'|
|Ju ju||-||ju||Ju ju||you as in 'you'|
|Ja ja||-||ja||Ja ja||ya as in 'yacht'|
|E^ e^||900||jusu', e^su'||E^ e^||in as in French 'fin', similar to an in American English 'can't' when final t is not fully articulated (a glottal stop)|
|O^ o^||-||jusu', o^su'||O^ o^||on as in French 'bon'|
|Je^ je^||-||jusu', je^su'||Je^ je^||ien as in French 'bien'|
|Jo^ jo^||-||jusu', jo^su'||Jo^ jo^||ion as in French 'lion'|
|Ks ks||60||ksi||Ks ks||x as in 'tax'|
|Ps ps||700||psi||Ps ps||ps as in 'taps'|
|I i||400||izhica||I i||i in English 'ship', or u in French 'tu', ue in German 'Muenchen'|
In addition to the above characters, we find the following characters in Old Russian texts.
|Ji ji||-||i kratkoe||Ji ji||y as in 'yes' or 'boy'|
|Ja ja||-||jati'||Ja ja||ya as in 'yacht'|
|U u||400||u||U u||oo as in 'food'|
|Y y||-||jery||Y y||oo of 'foot' with the tongue, with lips as in ee of 'feet'; compare Bronx pronunciation of 'Spuyten Duyvil'|
For the most part these symbols derived later than the original Cyrillic version of the alphabet employed in Old Church Slavonic and the earliest Old Russian. The symbol u is clearly a simplification of the OCS digraph u. And ja developed from the later cursive form of e^, which had lost its nasal quality in the dialects of East Slavic, in particular in Old Russian. Its name derives from the fact that it frequently alternated with je'. The symbol ji seems only to make a noteworthy appearance from the 16th century onwards. But y had already been a variant spelling of y encountered in certain remnants of OCS itself.
The sound represented by English y in 'yes' plays a pivotal role in the Slavic phonetic inventory, making its absence in the above alphabet all the more conspicuous. In Slavic linguistics this sound is typically represented in transcription by the symbol j. This symbol is often referred to as yod or jot, which latter might be written more clearly to the English speaker as 'yote', and rhymes with the word 'boat'. When preceding certain vowels we often find in Cyrillic ligatures comprised of the simple vowel preceded by what looks like a roman capital I or a Greek iota: ja, je, ju, je^, jo^. In Old Russian we also find ja, whose pronunciation amounts to a preceded by yod. There was no marking of yod preceding i, and marking of yod before e was inconsistent. When it followed a consonant, texts occasionally employed the symbol ' to indicate its presence:
|B' b'||B' b'||b as in 'beauty'|
|K' k'||K' k'||c as in 'cute'|
|L' l'||L' l'||ll as in 'William'|
|N' n'||N' n'||ni as in 'onion'|
|P' p'||P' p'||p as in 'computer'|
|R' r'||R' r'||re as in 'are you', but trilled|
|X' x'||X' x'||ch y as in 'Is this the loch you mentioned?'|
The so-called jers (rhyming with 'wears', but with w replaced by y) -- i' and u' -- were reduced vowels. Having a generally weak articulation, they were often omitted in manuscripts. One often finds the symbol ' where a jer might be expected: tch'to for tchi'to.
We may organize the phonemes of Old Russian in a table by placing them according to their type and primary point of articulation. The letters in parentheses are not separate phonemes, but rather palatalized consonants consisting of the original consonant followed by a yod, i.e. by a palatal off-glide.
|voiceless||p||t||(p', k', x')||k|
We may likewise display the vowels, organizing them according how high or low the tongue is in the mouth and according to how far forward or back the tongue is pushed during articulation. Under such a scheme, we find the following structure for the vocalic system.
The Old Russian sound system largely resembles that of Old Church Slavonic. But there are some notable exceptions:
Slavic languages in general, and Old Russian in particular, make an important distinction between "hard" and "soft" consonants. One can not sensibly discuss these distinctions without also discussing "palatal" or "palatalized" consonants, and it is here that scholarship makes what is a very simple concept into something altogether unintelligible. The present description will attempt to steer a middle course through terminology that is often defined differently by different authors. With this caveat, we distinguish the following concepts:
The difficulty arises in part due to the confusion between palatal and palatalized consonants. A palatal consonant is simply a consonant whose point of articulation is the hard palate of the mouth. English ch in 'church' and j in 'jiffy' are palatal consonants in this sense. By contrast, the c in English 'cute' (pronounced as if written 'kyoot') is palatalized, i.e. it is a velar k-sound followed by the yod-sound.
The reason for the confusion stems from the fact that, as a language evolves over time, palatalized consonants have the tendency to mutate into palatal consonants, and likewise soft consonants tend to mutate into palatal consonants. Moreover if, for example, a soft consonant changes into a palatal consonant, then the resulting palatal consonant will likewise find itself before a front vowel, and we may thus call the resulting palatal consonant soft as well. This process is not unique to Slavic: in Germanic, we find Old Norse skip maintains the velar pronunciation of the k before i; but in Old English scip already we find the cluster sk has palatalized before the front vowel, a feature reflected in the modern pronunciation 'ship'. In the resulting form, the sh still precedes the front vowel that conditioned the original mutation.
In Old Russian, as in Old Church Slavonic, a labial consonant is accompanied by an epenthetic l when palatalized. For example, the sequence b + j results in blj. The following chart provides some examples of a given consonant in hard, soft, and palatalized contexts.
|[m]||imati [imati]||imeti' [imeti']||jeml'ju [jemlju]|
|[s]||pi'sati [pi'sati]||pisi'ci' [pisi'ci']||pishju [pishju < *pis-jo^]|
|[b]||byti [byti]||ljubiti [ljubiti]||ljublju [ljublju < *ljub-jo^]|
|[d]||rodu' [rodu']||roditi [roditi]||rozhju [rozhju < *rod-jo^]|
As mentioned above, there is no specific character representing the yod. Though there are numerous ioticized ligatures, such as ju above, texts do not always distinguish clearly between vowels with a preceding yod and those without. Thus the reader should consider alternations such as vizhju 'I see' vs. vidishi 'you see' to determine the presence of yod.
Old Russian, like Old Church Slavonic and Modern Russian, is an inflected language. In particular nouns display their grammatical role in an utterance by means of changes to the endings of the word. English, inasmuch as it is linguistically related to Old Russian, shows the same system of denoting grammatical function, though in greatly reduced form: for example, 's added to a noun denotes possession or relation, as in Jill's book or gold's luster. In English we may rephrase such expressions using prepositions: the book of Jill or the luster of gold. Old Russian also employs prepositions, but in many instances they are unnecessary because the ending of the word is sufficient for the task. Moreover, Old Russian employs many different endings for different shades of meaning, whereas English employs only a handful and for other shades of meaning requires prepositions.
Old Russian nouns display three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. These are grammatical genders, not natural genders. In general when a noun denotes an animal or person that is masculine, the noun too has the masculine grammatical gender; similarly for feminine beings and feminine nouns. Nouns denoting inanimate things or concepts may be neuter, but they may just as well take either of the other genders. For example, gorodu' 'city' is masculine, su'mi'rti' 'death' is feminine, and veremja 'time' is neuter. In addition, Old Russian nouns show inflection for three numbers: singular, dual, and plural. The singular number denotes one of a thing, the plural denotes more than one, and the dual specifically denotes two. For example, in the nominative case ruka denotes '(one) hand', ruky denotes 'hands', and rukje' specifically denotes 'two hands'.
Old Russian inflects nouns in seven cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, locative, dative, instrumental, and vocative. Since each case may have a unique ending for singular, dual, or plural, this implies that each noun can potentially have twenty-one distinct forms. In practice, many cases have the same endings in the dual, and the nominative and vocative are always identical in the plural. This greatly reduces the number, and in several inflection paradigms the number is reduced even further. Each case denotes a specific grammatical role. The nominative marks the grammatical subject of the clause. The accusative denotes the direct object of the verb, or it may denote motion along a line or surface, or the destination of motion. The genitive in its simplest interpretation denotes possession; but the case is broad enough that it may denote a more general relationship or quality. The locative marks a stationary location, either temporal or physical, in or at which an event occurs. The dative case denotes the indirect object in a clause, or more generally a person or thing with an interest in the action or with reference to whom the action takes place. The instrumental denotes the means by which an action is performed, or it may denote accompaniment. The vocative is the case of direct address. In English, aside from the 's or s' of the genitive or the oblique case of pronouns, each of these roles is marked through the use of prepositions. The following chart outlines the cases of Old Russian, their basic senses, a preposition or prepositions in English that elicit the approximate sense, and an example in Old Russian.
|Case Name||Description of Use||Basic Preposition||Example||Sense|
|Nominative||case of the subject, or something predicated to the subject||(none)||gorodu'||'(a/the) city' (as subject)|
|Accusative||case of the direct object, or of the destination of directed motion||(none); toward||gorodu'||'(a/the) city' (as object)|
|Genitive||case of the sphere of relation; possession; (masculine direct object)||of; (none)||goroda||'of (a/the) city'|
|Locative||case of the location in space or time||in, on, at||gorodje'||'in (a/the) city'|
|Dative||case of the indirect object; person or thing affected by the action||to, for||gorodu||'for (a/the) city'|
|Instrumental||case of the instrument of an action; case of accompaniment||with, by||gorodomi'||'with (a/the) city'|
|Vocative||case of direct address||o!||gorode||'O City!'|
The commonest pattern of noun declension encountered in Old Russian is that of the o- or jo-declension, termed by many authors the twofold nominal declension. The designation of the declension derives from the stem vowel preceding the ending. In some sense this is a theoretical construct: for the most part the endings that are appended to the stem vowel in declining nouns have so melded with the stem vowel itself that the latter is difficult to discern without recourse to the underlying historical phonetics. Nevertheless we maintain the terminology for two major reasons: first, it aligns with more general scholarly terminology; second, the declension type is more readily identifiable in Indo-European terms and able to be linked to related declensions in other languages, e.g. Latin and Greek, where the o-declension conforms more noticeably to its name. Within Old Russian a useful rule of thumb is that the stem vowel appears directly after the nominal root in the dative plural. For example the dative plural of gorodu' 'city' is gorod-o-mu', and here we find the -o- of the o-declension before the ending -mu'. This rule of thumb holds for all but the consonant declensions, to be discussed later.
While many nouns in Proto-Indo-European, and later Common Slavic, appended *-o- to the nominal root, others appended *-jo-. This yod incurred a palatalization, or softening, of the preceding consonant within Common Slavic. It also left effects on the nominal endings themselves. We thus have two slightly different declension types for o- and jo-stem nouns, often called hard and soft declensions, respectively.
The paradigms of gorodu' 'city' and tchelovje'ku' 'man, human' illustrate the twofold declension of masculine hard stem nouns.
Note the changes of the final velar consonant in the paradigm of tchelovje'ku'. In particular we find a change of k to tch in the vocative singular and of k to c in the locative singular and nominative, vocative, and locative plural. These changes result from the first and second palatalization, respectively, which we will discuss in greater detail in the next lesson.
Old Russian muzhi' 'man, husband' and zmi'i 'serpent, dragon' illustrate the declensions of masculine soft stem nouns.
Note in the above paradigms that we see, for instance, in the nominative singular -i' the fronted counterpart to the ending -u' from the hard stems. Moreover we see the remnants of the -j- of the jo-stem in the iotated forms of endings such as the dative singular -ju. In the paradigm of zmi'i we find an important example of the general tendency in Old Russian to write etymological *-ji'-, for which there was no special symbol, as -i-. For example, the underlying phonemic representation of the genitive plural zmi'i is /zmi'ji'/, showing that the underlying genitive plural ending is the same as that for the genitive plural muzhi'. Moreover, since the front jer -i'- of this word's stem precedes the yod -j-, it falls in tense position and may alternately be written -i-: e.g. nominative singular zmii or dative singular zmiju. We will discuss tense position of jers in the next lesson.
The neuter paradigms for the twofold declension closely resemble those of the masculine nouns. The nouns mje'sto 'place' and igo 'yoke' provide examples of the paradigms for neuter hard stem nouns.
In the neuter paradigm note the agreement of the forms for the nominative and accusative of all numbers. This holds true for all neuter nouns, not only those that decline according to the twofold pattern. We also encounter again the effects of the second palatalization in forms such as the locative singular izje', where the final -g- of the stem has palatalized to -z-.
The Old Russian nouns si'rdi'ce 'heart' and znameni'je 'sign, mark' serve to illustrate the forms of the neuter soft stem nouns.
As with the masculine soft stems, we see that the endings of the neuter soft stems show the fronted version of the corresponding hard ending. Moreover in znameni'je we find the tendency to write -ji'- as -i-, for example in the genitive plural ending znameni'i [znameni'ji']. We also note that the stem-final front jer -i'- is tense, so that we find alternate forms znamenije, znamenija, and so on.
The a- and ja-stem declensions also provide one of the commonest noun types alongside the o- and jo-stem nouns. As a general rule of thumb, the a- and ja-stems are feminine nouns; however some nouns that refer to male beings are grammatically masculine. For example zhena 'woman' and noga 'foot' are both feminine; but vladyka 'ruler' is masculine, even though it is an a-stem noun.
The a- and ja-declensions also betoken their Indo-European forbears: a-stem nouns run rife through languages such as Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit. In Old Russian the -a of this declension appears not only in the dative plural, but in the nominative singular as well. However there are a few nouns of the ja-declension, such as bojaryni 'wife of a boyar' and pustyni 'wilderness', with nominative singular in -i rather than -ja. Even with these nouns, there seems to have been a tendency to shift back to forms more recognizably derived from the ja-declension, and so we also find nominative singulars bojarynja and pustynja, respectively. Note that the new forms maintain the yod. As with the o- and jo-stems, the a- and ja-stems are termed hard and soft, respectively, and the yod of the latter shows the tendency to palatalize preceding consonants.
The forms of zhena 'woman' and noga 'foot', both feminine, serve to illustrate the paradigms of the hard stem nouns.
Note that here too we encounter the effects of second palatalization before the ending -je', changing the -g- to -z-.
The nouns zeml'ja 'earth' (feminine) and sudi'i 'judge' (masculine) serve to illustrate the soft stem paradigms.
As with the front jer -i'- in zmi'i, the front jer in sudi'i is tense. We therefore find fully vocalized forms sudii, sudiju, etc., alongside those listed above.
Old Russian inflects verbs to show person and number. This is similar to English, which changes the final sounds of the verb have, for example, to agree with the subject: I have, thou hast, she has, etc. In addition to distinguishing between singular and plural subjects, as between English she has and they have, Old Russian also distinguishes the dual number: e.g. there are distinct forms for the equivalents of each of English I have, we have, and we (two) have. The language distinguishes three simple tenses -- present, imperfect, and aorist -- where verbal inflection is confined to one word alone. The compound tenses -- perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect -- are all formed by combination of an inflected verb form with a separate participle. This parallels English formations such as the perfect, where a verb like take has a perfect form composed of two parts: has taken.
Common Slavic inherited from Proto-Indo-European a tripartite system of verbal construction. Specifically, each verb form can be broken down into three basic parts: root, suffix, and ending. The root comprises the meaning-bearing unit of the word. In practical terms, it holds the content which we seek when looking up the word in the dictionary. The ending, by contrast, encapsulates all information pertaining to person and number. It tells us who (I vs. you vs. he, she, it) and how many (you vs. y'all, or I vs. we two). Finally the suffix includes any other information, in particular information regarding tense. That is, certain suffixes mark the past tenses, others the present tenses, and so on. In Old Russian, as in the rest of Indo-European, the verbal root comes first, the ending last, and the suffix in between. In certain instances there is no suffix to speak of, or no ending (we never lack a verbal root, of course). In such situations linguists say the suffix, for example, is "null" or "zero" rather than saying there is no suffix. This simply facilitates the process of description, avoiding clumsy caveats such as "the suffix, when it is present, can have the form...". As another convenient shorthand, we say that the root and suffix taken together comprise the verbal stem.
Based on this scheme of root-suffix-ending, Old Russian verbs fall into five basic categories. The categories are distinguished by the suffix found in the present tense stem. For convenience we list these verbal classes below, together with an example verb from each category.
|Class||Suffix||Example||2nd Pers. Sg.||Translation|
Note that the fifth class has no suffix, or rather it has a zero suffix. Moreover the third class has a suffix which includes the yod -j-. As Old Russian has no separate character to represent this sound, we must often infer its presence either from pre-iotated forms of vowels or from the palatalization which it produces in preceding consonants.
In order to begin reading texts profitably and as quickly as possible, we introduce Old Russian verbal inflection in the context of the present and imperfect tenses. These tenses show the basic mechanics involved in analyzing Old Russian verb forms. Later lessons will go into greater detail regarding the different tense formations and verb classes.
The present tense denotes action contemporaneous with the moment of utterance. Note that the English present tense comprises two constructions, a simple and a continuous. For example the verb jog has simple present I jog and continuous present I am jogging. In English it is clear that the latter formation, I am jogging, denotes an action that is currently in progress as the statement is being uttered. The former, I jog, by contrast need not be going on at the same instant as the utterance -- in fact, it typically does not mean that. We can say I jog on Tuesdays or I jog every day of the week, so that I jog denotes a general truth rather than a present circumstance, and it could be rephrased more clearly as I am a jogger or I am a person who jogs. Thus the English "present tense" describes two very different situations, only one of which actually talks specifically about present time.
The Old Russian present tense fulfills both these functions: it may represent an action ongoing currently (e.g. I am jogging) or it may represent an action as a general truth (e.g. I jog, i.e. I am a jogger). Where it differs from English is that one and the same verb form can have either connotation: Old Russian does not have a separate verb form for an ongoing present action. Moreover, this same present verb form in Old Russian can act as a future tense, denoting an action that will occur after the moment of utterance. This too parallels English usage of the continuous present: for example I am jogging to the store in 5 minutes. One and the same verbal form in Old Russian covers all these senses.
In truth, Old Russian shows the beginnings of a very subtle system for distinguishing some of these senses. Old Russian often distinguishes the aspect of verbs, e.g. whether an action is viewed as completed or ongoing, by means of the presence or absence of a verbal prefix. Specifically the presence of a verbal prefix on most verbs marks the action as viewed as a complete whole, encompassing beginning, middle, and end. In the past tense, an English equivalent would be I jogged. By contrast, the absence of a prefix often denotes that the action is not viewed as completed; frequently this means that there is no reference to the action's end. For example, in English I was jogging is a past tense form that does not show completion: in context, the action could continue until the present moment. This will be discussed in greater detail in a later lesson, but it is a linguistic feature important enough to be worth noting right from the beginning.
The actual formation of the Old Russian present tense proceeds by obtaining the present tense stem. We obtain the present tense stem by removing the ending (-shi) from the second person singular form of the verb. Thus if we have the verb reshchi 'to say', with second person singular retcheshi, then the present tense stem of this verb is retche-. Obtaining the present tense stem thus requires that one know beforehand the form of the second person singular. Some dictionaries therefore provide this as part of the entry for a given verb.
It is worth pointing out that the final element -e- in the stem retche- we obtained above is called the thematic vowel. This thematic vowel is a suffix that intervenes between the verbal root, here rek-, and the ending, in this instance -shi. When the thematic vowel is a front vowel, this triggers palatalization in preceding velar consonants. Often we find that the thematic vowel is -o- or some other back vowel, particularly in the first person singular and third person plural forms, and in these positions the thematic vowel does not trigger palatalization.
We illustrate the present conjugation of verbs by providing the paradigms of two verbs: nesti 'to carry', from Class I, and glagolati 'to say', from Class III.
The verb nesti has second person singular neseshi, hence present tense stem nese-. The verb glagolati shows a second person singular glagol'jeshi, and thus has present stem glagol'je-. In Old Church Slavonic the third personal dual ending -te is frequently replaced by -ta. In Old Russian the ending -ta regularly appears for the third person dual.
The imperfect tense denotes repeated or continuous action in the past. In denoting continuous past action the Old Russian imperfect most closely resembles the English continuous past, as in I was jogging. The imperfect in this sense renders an action as occurring over some span of time in the past, and it does not stipulate whether or not the action ceased before the time of utterance. In denoting repeated past action the Old Russian imperfect closely parallels the English construction used to, as in I used to jog. The imperfect in this sense connotes a series of individual actions; by virtue of their being individually isolatable, the implication is that each particular action had a definite beginning and end.
Scholarly description of the formation of the imperfect in Old Russian, as in Old Church Slavonic, presents numerous difficulties. Lunt (1980) provides perhaps the cleanest theoretical description. In these lessons, however, we will strive to achieve a pragmatic middle-ground.
The most distinctive feature of the imperfect is the tense suffix: -aa-x- in Old Russian; for comparison -je'a-x- and -aa-x- in Old Church Slavonic. Musical notation (cf. Lunt, 1980) suggests that the suffix -aax- was indeed originally disyllabic, though it is unclear until what date such pronunciation survived in the spoken language. The first element, -a-, variously appears as -a-, -ja-, -e^-, -je^-. The second element, -a-, often seems to have been contracted into the first, and so is often left unwritten. The third and last element, -x-, appears as -sh- or -s- in certain desinences.
Whereas the suffix which characterizes the imperfect remains readily identifiable, the stem to which it is attached is not so easy to predict. Most treatments of Old Russian stipulate that the imperfect suffix attaches to the infinitive-aorist stem. We find the infinitive-aorist stem by taking the infinitive, removing the infinitive marker -ti, and undoing any sound changes undergone by the stem in the process of affixing the infinitive marker. For a verb such as nes-ti 'to carry', removal of the infinitive marker leaves nes-, with no further adjustments. Similarly glagola-ti 'to say' yields an infinitive-aorist stem glagola-. But for ves-ti 'to lead', we must realize that the -s- of the surface form derives from a root-final -d- that shifts to -s- before the -t- of the infinitive ending. Hence the infinitive-aorist stem for vesti is ved-.
Some verbs, however, do not append the imperfect suffix to the infinitive-aorist stem, but rather to the present stem. Here we should be careful to note that the stem employed is really the present stem without the thematic vowel. Thus for nesti 'to carry', we have the second person singular neseshi, with stem nese-: removing the thematic vowel, this then leaves nes-. For dvignuti 'to move' the second singular is dvigneshi, so that the present stem is dvigne-: removing the thematic vowel yields dvign-.
We may now attempt to provide a pragmatic recipe for imperfect formation. We divide Old Russian verbs into two main classes, each receiving slightly different treatment (cf. Schmalstieg, 1995):
The reader must bear in mind, however, that Old Russian provides numerous exceptions to the rules stated above.
Continuing with the examples from the previous section, we illustrate the imperfect conjugation of verbs by providing the paradigms of nesti 'to carry', from Class I, and glagolati 'to say', from Class III.
Under the influence of the present endings, for the third person we often find forms with an additional -ti' appended to the normal ending: e.g. singular nesjaasheti' and glagolaasheti', plural nesjaaxuti' and glagolaaxuti'. Moreover, presumably under the influence of the aorist endings, we find alternate forms for the second and third person dual: nesjaasta and glagolaasta for both second and third person.
One important exception to the above division into formation classes is that of verbs with infinitive stem in -a- which originally derives from Proto-Slavic *-e^-: for example Old Russian natchati (natchjati) 'to begin', compared with Old Church Slavonic natche^ti. Such verbs form their imperfects according to the present-stem group.
Moreover we occasionally find that a single verb will show imperfects formed according to both groups outlined above. For example in the Primary Chronicle we find imaxu dani' 'they took tribute', where imaxu is the third person plural imperfect built from imati 'to take' according to the infinitival paradigm outlined above. But the same phrase appears in the Igor Tale as emljaxu dani' 'they took tribute', where now imati takes its imperfect from the themeless present-stem construction.
The study of Old Russian word order forms a highly controversial and hotly debated subdiscipline within historical studies of the Russian language. Old Russian's close linguistic relative, Old Church Slavonic, suffers from similar controversy. Within the corpus of Old Church Slavonic we find few instances of natively composed literature; instead the majority of the texts comprise biblical stories translated from Greek models. Likely owing to the similar nominal and verbal structures of the two languages, the OCS texts closely parallel their Greek exemplars. For this reason scholars have difficulty deciding whether a particular OCS passage shows the particular order of elements it does because this is a natural construction within OCS, or whether the order derives from adoring adherence to the Greek original.
In the Old Russian corpus we encounter the contrary problem. We have a wealth of natively composed literature. Much of it, however, is of an elevated style. As in English, in compositions of a highly educated register the composer tends to use constructions that frequently would not occur to a native speaker in casual conversation. And though we do have some documents, such as writings on birch bark, that very likely pertained to the everyday life of ordinary folk, these texts tend to be extremely short, often abbreviated, and of opaque interpretation. Finally, among the high literature of Old Russian we find a strong tendency, especially in the earliest phases, to emulate Old Church Slavonic. Thus we again end with the same dilemma as to whether a given construction represents a native style or an emulation of a highly regarded foreign style. Suffice it to say, the abundance of evidence in the Old Russian corpus provides ample examples to contradict any theory.
Old Russian displays a remarkably free word order, especially in regard to the relative position of subject and predicate. The inherited tendency from its Indo-European ancestor is toward verb-final word order. Some scholars suggest that this is still the trend in Old Russian with transitive verbs: transitive verbs tend to stand at the end of their clause. The farther forward the speaker or writer places the verb, the more pronounced it becomes. A particular position of emphasis is before the subject. Consider the following example from the Primary Chronicle:
|Vu' se zhe lje'to||rekosha||druzhina||Igorevi...|
|And in that year||said||the retinue||to Igor...|
meaning "And in that year the retinue said to Igor...". Here the verb rekosha precedes its subject druzhina.
Modern Russian tends to place the verb before the object when no particular emphasis is called for. We also see this tendency developing early, as in the following example:
|I wrote||little book||this|
meaning "I wrote this little book." This comes from the Svjatoslav Miscellany, dating to 1076.
The term modifiers in the present context denotes those words which serve to restrict or qualify another word, typically a noun. Some modifiers, such as adjectives, must agree with the modified noun. Others, such as qualifying or dependent genitives, do not.
The Old Russian texts suggest that the position of adjectives relative to the noun they modified was relatively free. Old Russian adjectives come in two basic types, definite and indefinite, whose exact significance we will discuss later in these lessons. Much controversy surrounds the question of whether one or the other type tends to precede or follow the word it modifies. A definitive consensus has so far eluded scholars. We find examples where indefinite adjectives follow the noun modified, as in the following example from the Primary Chronicle:
meaning "a large pine forest". We also find examples where the definite adjective precedes the modified noun, as in the Igor Tale:
|here||related-to-blood||of wine||not||there was sufficient|
meaning "Here the blood wine was insufficient." In this statement the definite adjective krovavago precedes the noun vina which it modifies. However we find definite adjectives preceding and following the nouns they modify in parallel phrases with no apparent difference in meaning. For example we find
in the Igor Tale alongside
both meaning "from the great Don" with no readily discernable distinction.
Possessive pronouns and adjectives both show a more distinct tendency to follow the noun which they modify. The following example, from the Primary Chronicle, illustrates:
|Let us take||wife||his||for||prince||our||Mal|
meaning "Let us take his wife for our prince, Mal." Here the possessive pronoun ego follows the noun zhenu which it qualifies, and likewise the possessive adjective svoi follows the noun knjazi' which it modifies. By contrast, the demonstrative pronominal adjective tends to precede the word it modifies:
meaning "up to this very day". Here the proximal deictic sego precedes the noun di'ne which it modifies.
Enclitics are words which carry no stress of their own. Typically they are preceded by a stressed word. In Old Russian we frequently encounter enclitic conjunctions such as bo 'for', or zhe 'and', as the second word of their clause. For example we find the following in the Primary Chronicle:
meaning "for he himself was loving women", i.e. he loved women. We also find in the Primary Chronicle
meaning "And they said...". Such enclitics often serve to mark the transition between clauses, and the regularity of their position after the first accented word of their clause can often assist the reader to identify clause boundaries where no other punctuation is readily available.