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Old Russian Online

Lesson 1

Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum

I. The Great Sweep of Old Russian History

There were three major events that defined the earliest historical period of the East Slavic people:

  • the founding of Rus in 862 AD with the invitation to the Varangians;
  • the adoption of Christianity in 988 AD by prince Vladimir; and
  • the Tartar invasion in 1237 AD.

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.

II. Eastern European Geography and Trade

II.i Geography

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.

Reading and Textual Analysis

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 - В лѣто ,ѕ. т. ѯ з.

  • В -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- In
  • лѣто -- noun; neuter accusative singular of <лѣто> year, summer -- the year
  • ѕ -- number; <ѕ> six; six thousand -- six thousand
  • т -- number; <т> three hundred -- three hundred
  • ѯ -- number; <ѯ> sixty -- sixty
  • з -- number; <з> seven -- seven

2 - Имаху дань варязи изъ заморья на чюди и на словѣнехъ, на мери и на всѣхъ, и на кривичѣхъ; а козари имаху на полянѣхъ, и на северѣхъ, и на вятичѣхъ, имаху по бѣлѣй вѣверицѣ отъ дыма.

  • Имаху -- verb; 3rd person plural imperfect of <имати, ѥмлѭ, ѥмлѥши> take, take up; acquire -- received
  • дань -- noun; feminine accusative singular of <дань> tribute -- tribute
  • варязи -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <варѧгъ> Varangian, of the Varangian tribe (name of a particular group of Scandinavians); bodyguard (of Viking descent, often applied to members of the Byzantine Emperor's personal guard) -- The Varangians
  • изъ -- preposition; <из> (w. gen.) from, out of -- from
  • заморья -- noun; neuter genitive singular of <заморьѥ> a transmarine region, (any) region across the sea -- across the sea
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- among
  • чюди -- noun; feminine locative singular of <чюдь> (collective) the Chuds (a Finnish tribe, in Estonia near Lake Peipus) -- the Chuds
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- among
  • словѣнехъ -- adjective used as substantive; masculine locative plural of <словѣнинъ> Slovene, of the Slovene tribe (located on Lake Ilmen near Novgorod) -- the Slovenes
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- among
  • мери -- proper noun; feminine locative singular of <меря> (collective) the Merians (a Finnish tribe, in the region of Jaroslavl and Rostov, along the Volga river) -- the Merians
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- among
  • всѣхъ -- proper noun; masculine locative plural of <весь> (collective) the Ves, Vepsians (a Finnish tribe between Lakes Ladoga and Belo-ozero) -- the Ves
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- among
  • кривичѣхъ -- noun; masculine locative plural <кривичи> (pl.) the Krivitchians (a Slavic tribe) -- the Krivitchians
  • а -- conjunction; <а> and, but; if -- But
  • козари -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <козаринъ> Khazar, of the Khazars (a Turkic tribe located along the Volga) -- the Khazars
  • имаху -- verb; 3rd person plural imperfect of <имати, ѥмлѭ, ѥмлѥши> take, take up; acquire -- received (tribute)
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- among
  • полянѣхъ -- adjective used as substantive; masculine locative plural of <полӏанинъ> Polan, Polian, Polianian, of the Polianians (a Slavic tribe located along the Dnieper river) -- the Polianians
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- among
  • северѣхъ -- adjective used as substantive; masculine locative plural of <сѣвєръ> Severian, of the Severian tribe (a Slavic tribe located along the Sejm and Sula rivers) -- the Severians
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- among
  • вятичѣхъ -- noun; masculine locative plural of <вӏатичи> (pl.) the Vjatichi, Viatichi, Vyatichi (a Slavic tribe) -- the Vjatichi
  • имаху -- verb; 3rd person plural imperfect of <имати, ѥмлѭ, ѥмлѥши> take, take up; acquire -- they received
  • по -- preposition; <по> (w. dat.) on, about (motion on surface); (w. acc.) on, after, on account of; (w. loc.) after, following, for -- (each) # The preposition по frequently has a distributive meaning
  • бѣлѣй -- adjective; feminine dative singular of <бѣлъ> white -- a white
  • вѣверицѣ -- noun; feminine dative singular of <вѣвєрица> squirrel -- squirrel (pelt)
  • отъ -- preposition; <отъ> (w. gen.) of, from; by -- from
  • дыма -- noun; masculine genitive singular of <дъӏмъ> smoke; hearth, home -- hearth

3 - В лѣто ,ѕ. т. ѯ и.

  • В -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- In
  • лѣто -- noun; neuter accusative singular of <лѣто> year, summer -- the year
  • ѕ -- number; <ѕ> six; six thousand -- six thousand
  • т -- number; <т> three hundred -- three hundred
  • ѯ -- number; <ѯ> sixty -- sixty
  • и -- number; <и> eight -- eight

4 - В лѣто ,ѕ. т. ѯ ѳ.

  • В -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- In
  • лѣто -- noun; neuter accusative singular of <лѣто> year, summer -- the year
  • ѕ -- number; <ѕ> six; six thousand -- six thousand
  • т -- number; <т> three hundred -- three hundred
  • ѯ -- number; <ѯ> sixty -- sixty
  • ѳ -- number; <ѳ> nine -- nine

5 - В лѣто ,ѕ. т. о.

  • В -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- In
  • лѣто -- noun; neuter accusative singular of <лѣто> year, summer -- the year
  • ѕ -- number; <ѕ> six; six thousand -- six thousand
  • т -- number; <т> three hundred -- three hundred
  • о -- number; <о> seventy -- seventy

6 - Изъгнаша варяги за море, и не даша имъ дани, и почаша сами в собѣ володѣти, и не бѣ в нихъ правды, и въста родъ на родъ, и быша в нихъ усобицѣ, и воевати почаша сами на ся.

  • Изъгнаша -- verb; 3rd person plural aorist of <изгнати, иждєнѫ, иждєнєши> cast out, cast away; drive out, drive away -- They drove
  • варяги -- adjective used as substantive; masculine accusative plural of <варѧгъ> Varangian, of the Varangian tribe (name of a particular group of Scandinavians); bodyguard (of Viking descent, often applied to members of the Byzantine Emperor's personal guard) -- the Varangians # Note the lack of palatalization in варяги, compared to the previous instance варязи. In the nominative plural, we expect the results of second palatalization after the shift *-oi> *-i; however after the shift *-ons> *-y in the accusative plural, we expect no palatalization. Here we see the proper unpalatalized reflex -g- of the accusative plural, but we also see that Old Russian frequently replaces the proper accusative plural ending with the nominative form .
  • за -- preposition; <за> (w. acc.) after, by, because of, for; (w. instr.) behind; (w. gen.) because of -- across
  • море -- noun; neuter accusative singular of <мор҄є> sea -- the sea
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • не -- adverb; <нє> not -- not
  • даша -- verb; 3rd person plural aorist of <дати, дамь, даси> give -- they did... give
  • имъ -- pronoun; masculine dative plural of <> he -- them
  • дани -- noun; feminine genitive singular of <дань> tribute -- tribute
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • почаша -- verb; 3rd person plural aorist of <почѧти, -чьнѫ, -чьнєши> begin, commence -- began
  • сами -- adjective; masculine nominative plural of <самъ> self, oneself -- they
  • в -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- amongst
  • собѣ -- pronoun; locative singular of <сєбє> -self, oneself -- themselves
  • володѣти -- verb; infinitive of <владѣти, -дѣѭ, -дѣѥши> (freq. w. instr.) rule, rule over, hold power (over) -- to rule
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- And
  • не -- adverb; <нє> not -- no
  • бѣ -- verb; 3rd person singular aorist of <бъӏти, бѫдѫ, бѫдєши> be, become -- there was
  • в -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- among
  • нихъ -- pronoun; masculine locative plural of <> he -- them
  • правды -- noun; feminine genitive singular of <правьда> justice -- peace # Note the use of the genitive, rather than nominative, in the presence of negation
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • въста -- verb; 3rd person singular aorist of <въстати, -станѫ, -станєши> stand up, break out -- rose
  • родъ -- noun; masculine nominative singular of <родъ> race, kind, sort; generation; birth -- clan
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- against
  • родъ -- noun; masculine accusative singular of <родъ> race, kind, sort; generation; birth -- clan
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • быша -- verb; 3rd person plural aorist of <бъӏти, бѫдѫ, бѫдєши> be, become -- there was
  • в -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- among
  • нихъ -- pronoun; masculine locative plural of <> he -- them
  • усобицѣ -- noun; feminine nominative plural of <ѫсобица> discord, strife, sedition -- discord
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • воевати -- verb; infinitive of <воѥвати, воюѭ, воюѥши> fight, wage war -- to wage war
  • почаша -- verb; 3rd person plural aorist of <почѧти, -чьнѫ, -чьнєши> begin, commence -- began
  • сами -- adjective; masculine nominative plural of <самъ> self, oneself -- they
  • на -- preposition; <на> (w. acc.) onto, against, for, to the extent; (w. loc.) on, at -- against
  • ся -- pronoun; accusative singular of <сєбє> -self, oneself -- one another

7 - И рѣша сами в себѣ, "поищемъ собѣ князя, иже бы володѣлъ нами и судилъ по праву".

  • И -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- And
  • рѣша -- verb; 3rd person plural aorist of <рєшти, рєкѫ, рєчєши> say, tell -- spoke
  • сами -- adjective; masculine nominative plural of <самъ> self, oneself -- they
  • в -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- amongst
  • себѣ -- pronoun; locative singular of <сєбє> -self, oneself -- themselves
  • поищемъ -- verb; 1st person plural present of <искати, -штѫ, -штєши> seek, search for -- Let us seek # This could be translated simply as a present with a future sense: "We will seek...". But we frequently find in Old Russian a use of the present tense where an imperative might be expected. Morphologically, the imperative form of this class would generally show a thematic -и-: поищимъ.
  • собѣ -- pronoun; dative singular of <сєбє> -self, oneself -- for ourselves
  • князя -- noun; masculine genitive singular of <кънѧзь> prince -- a prince # Note the use of the genitive case for a male, human direct object
  • иже -- relative pronoun; masculine nominative singular of <ижє> who, which -- who
  • бы -- verb; 3rd person singular conditional-optative of <бъӏти, бѫдѫ, бѫдєши> be, become -- would
  • володѣлъ -- past participle; masculine nominative singular of <владѣти, -дѣѭ, -дѣѥши> (freq. w. instr.) rule, rule over, hold power (over) -- lead
  • нами -- pronoun; instrumental plural of <азъ> I -- us
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • судилъ -- verb; past participle; masculine nominative singular of <сѫдити, -ждѫ, -диши> judge, adjudicate -- judge
  • по -- preposition; <по> (w. dat.) on, about (motion on surface); (w. acc.) on, after, on account of; (w. loc.) after, following, for -- according to
  • праву -- adjective used as substantive; neuter dative singular of <правъ> just, right, proper -- the law

8 - И идоша за море къ варягомъ, к русӏ; сице бо тӏи звахуся варязи русь, яко се друзии зовутся свие, друзии же урмане, анъгляне, друзии гъте, тако и си.

  • И -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- And
  • идоша -- verb; 3rd person plural aorist of <ити, идѫ, идєши> go -- they went
  • за -- preposition; <за> (w. acc.) after, by, because of, for; (w. instr.) behind; (w. gen.) because of -- across
  • море -- noun; neuter accusative singular of <мор҄є> sea -- the sea
  • къ -- preposition; <къ> (w. dat.) to, toward -- to
  • варягомъ -- adjective used as substantive; masculine dative plural of <варѧгъ> Varangian, of the Varangian tribe (name of a particular group of Scandinavians); bodyguard (of Viking descent, often applied to members of the Byzantine Emperor's personal guard) -- the Varangians
  • к -- preposition; <къ> (w. dat.) to, toward -- to
  • русӏ -- proper noun; feminine dative singular of <рѹсь> (collective) the Rus, Rus' (a Scandinavian tribe); the land of the Rus, Russia -- the Rus
  • сице -- adverb; <сицє> thus, so -- in this way
  • бо -- conjunction; <бо> for -- for
  • тӏи -- demonstrative adjective; masculine nominative plural of <тъ, то, та> that, that one -- those
  • звахуся -- verb; 3rd person plural imperfect of <звати, зовѫ, зовєши> cry out; call, summon + pronoun; accusative singular of <сєбє> -self, oneself -- are called
  • варязи -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <варѧгъ> Varangian, of the Varangian tribe (name of a particular group of Scandinavians); bodyguard (of Viking descent, often applied to members of the Byzantine Emperor's personal guard) -- Varangians
  • русь -- proper noun; feminine nominative singular of <рѹсь> (collective) the Rus, Rus' (a Scandinavian tribe); the land of the Rus, Russia -- Rus
  • яко -- conjunction; <ӏако> as, when; in order to; that; because; (introduces quotation) -- as
  • се -- adverb; <сє> lo, behold -- ...
  • друзии -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <дрѹгъ> other -- others
  • зовутся -- verb; 3rd person plural present of <звати, зовѫ, зовєши> cry out; call, summon + pronoun; accusative singular of <сєбє> -self, oneself -- are called
  • свие -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <свийнъ> Swedish, of Sweden (a Scandinavian tribe) -- Swedes
  • друзии -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <дрѹгъ> other -- others
  • же -- conjunction; <жє> and, but -- and still
  • урмане -- noun; masculine nominative plural of <нѹрманє> (pl.) the Normans, the Northmen, the Norse, Norwegians (a Scandinavian tribe) -- Normans
  • анъгляне -- noun; masculine nominative plural of <аглянє, анъглянє> (pl.) the Angles (a Western Germanic tribe) -- Angles
  • друзии -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <дрѹгъ> other -- (and) others
  • гъте -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <готинъ> Goth, Gothic, of the Goths (likely the inhabitants of Gotland, not the East Germanic tribe) -- Goths
  • тако -- adverb; <тако> thus, in this way -- so
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- also
  • си -- demonstrative pronoun; masculine nominative plural of <сь, сє, си> this, this one -- these ones

9 - Рѣша руси чюдь, и словѣни, и кривичи и вси, "земля наша велика и обилна, а наряда в ней нѣтъ; да и поидѣте княжитъ и володѣти нами".

  • Рѣша -- verb; 3rd person plural aorist of <рєшти, рєкѫ, рєчєши> say, tell -- said
  • руси -- proper noun; feminine dative singular of <рѹсь> (collective) the Rus, Rus' (a Scandinavian tribe); the land of the Rus, Russia -- to the Rus
  • чюдь -- noun; feminine nominative singular of <чюдь> (collective) the Chuds (a Finnish tribe, in Estonia near Lake Peipus) -- the Chuds
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • словѣни -- adjective used as substantive; masculine nominative plural of <словѣнинъ> Slovene, of the Slovene tribe (located on Lake Ilmen near Novgorod) -- Slovenes
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • кривичи -- noun; masculine nominative plural <кривичи> (pl.) the Krivitchians (a Slavic tribe) -- Krivitchians
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • вси -- proper noun; masculine nominative plural of <весь> (collective) the Ves, Vepsians (a Finnish tribe between Lakes Ladoga and Belo-ozero) -- Ves
  • земля -- noun; feminine nominative singular of <зємл҄ӏа> earth, land -- land
  • наша -- adjective; feminine nominative singular of <нашь> our, of us -- Our
  • велика -- adjective; feminine nominative singular of <вєликъ> big, large, great -- great
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • обилна -- adjective; feminine nominative singular of <обильнъ> copious, abundant, large -- abundant
  • а -- conjunction; <а> and, but; if -- but
  • наряда -- noun; masculine genitive singular of <нарѧдъ> order -- order
  • в -- preposition; <въ> (w. loc.) in; (w. acc.) into -- in
  • ней -- pronoun; feminine locative singular of <> he -- it
  • нѣтъ -- adverb; <нє> not + verb; 3rd person singular present of <бъӏти, бѫдѫ, бѫдєши> be, become -- there is no
  • да -- conjunction; <да> in order to, that; may, let; and, then -- ...
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- ...
  • поидѣте -- verb; 2nd person plural imperative of <поити, -идѫ, -идєши> go, set out; go back, return -- come
  • княжитъ -- verb; supine of <кнѧжити, -жѫ, -жиши> rule, be king, have power -- to rule # The supine is essentially a frozen accusative of a verbal noun.
  • и -- conjunction; <и> and; also, too, even -- and
  • володѣти -- verb; infinitive of <владѣти, -дѣѭ, -дѣѥши> (freq. w. instr.) rule, rule over, hold power (over) -- hold sway # Note the construction employing a supine and an infinitive in parallel
  • нами -- pronoun; instrumental plural of <азъ> I -- over us

Lesson Text

1 В лѣто ,ѕ. т. ѯ з. 2 Имаху дань варязи изъ заморья на чюди и на словѣнехъ, на мери и на всѣхъ, и на кривичѣхъ; а козари имаху на полянѣхъ, и на северѣхъ, и на вятичѣхъ, имаху по бѣлѣй вѣверицѣ отъ дыма.

3 В лѣто ,ѕ. т. ѯ и.

4 В лѣто ,ѕ. т. ѯ ѳ.

5 В лѣто ,ѕ. т. о. 6 Изъгнаша варяги за море, и не даша имъ дани, и почаша сами в собѣ володѣти, и не бѣ в нихъ правды, и въста родъ на родъ, и быша в нихъ усобицѣ, и воевати почаша сами на ся. 7 И рѣша сами в себѣ, "поищемъ собѣ князя, иже бы володѣлъ нами и судилъ по праву". 8 И идоша за море къ варягомъ, к русӏ; сице бо тӏи звахуся варязи русь, яко се друзии зовутся свие, друзии же урмане, анъгляне, друзии гъте, тако и си. 9 Рѣша руси чюдь, и словѣни, и кривичи и вси, "земля наша велика и обилна, а наряда в ней нѣтъ; да и поидѣте княжитъ и володѣти нами".

Translation

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."

Grammar

1. Alphabet

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.

    Обрѣтє жє тѹ єваггєлиє и ѱалтыри рѹсьскыми писмєны писано, и чловѣка ѡбрѣтъ глаголюща тою бєсѣдою, и бєсѣдова с нимъ, и силѹ рѣчи прӏимъ, своєи бєсѣдѣ прикладаа различнаа писмєна, гласнаа съгласнаа, и къ богѹ молитвѹ творѧ, въскорѣ начѧтъ чєсти и сказати, и мноѕи сѧ ємѹ дивлѧхѹ, бога хвалѧщє.
    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.

Letter   Number   Name   Transliteration   Pronunciation
А а   1   азъ   A a   a as in 'father'
Б б   -   бѹкъӏ   B b   b as in 'boy'
В в   2   вѣдѣ   V v   v as in 'vine'
Г г   3   глаголи   G g   g as in 'good'
Д д   4   добро   D d   d as in 'dog'
Е є   5   єсть   E e   e as in 'end'
Ж ж   -   живѣтє   Ž ž   s as in 'pleasure'
Ѕ ѕ   6   ѕѣло   Dz dz   ds as in 'heads'
З з   7   зємл҄ӏа   Z z   z as in 'zebra'
Ӏ ӏ   10   ижє   I i   ee as in 'feet'
И и   8   ижєи   I i   ee as in 'feet'
(Ћ ћ)   -   ћа, дѥрв   G' g'   g as in 'coagulate'
К к   20   како   K k   c as in 'coop'
Л л   30   людиѥ   L l   l as in 'elk'
М м   40   мъӏслитє   M m   m as in 'mother'
Н н   50   нашь   N n   n as in 'not'
О о   70   онъ   O o   ou as in 'ought'
П п   80   покой   P p   p as in 'post'
Р р   100   рьци   R r   r as in 'rather', but trilled
С с   200   слово   S s   s as in 'song'
Т т   300   тврьдо   T t   t as in 'top'
Ѹ ѹ   400   ѹкъ   U u   oo as in 'food'
Ф ф   500   фрьтъ   F f   f as in 'father'
Ѳ ѳ   9   фита   Θ θ   t as in 'top', or th as in 'path', or f as in 'father'
Х х   600   хѣръ   X x   ch as in Scots English 'loch'
Ѡ ѡ   800   отъ   Ō ō   au as in 'caught'
Щ щ   -   ща   Šč šč   sh ch as in 'English cheese'
Ц ц   900   ци   C c   ts as in 'hats'
Ч ч   90   чрьвь, ча   Č č   ch as in 'church'
Ш ш   -   ша   Š š   sh as in 'sharp'
Ъ ъ   -   ѥръ   Ŭ ŭ   u as in 'put'
ЪӀ ъӏ   -   ѥръӏ   Y y   oo of 'foot' with the tongue, with lips as in ee of 'feet'; compare Bronx pronunciation of 'Spuyten Duyvil'
Ь ь   -   ѥрь   Ĭ ĭ   i as in 'stop it!'
Ѣ ѣ   -   ӏать   Ě ě   ya as in 'yam'
Ю ю   -   ю   Ju ju   you as in 'you'
ӀА ӏа   -   ӏа   Ja ja   ya as in 'yacht'
Ѧ ѧ   900   юсъ, ѧсъ   Ę ę   in as in French 'fin', similar to an in American English 'can't' when final t is not fully articulated (a glottal stop)
Ѫ ѫ   -   юсъ, ѫсъ   Ǫ ǫ   on as in French 'bon'
Ѩ ѩ   -   юсъ, ѩсъ   Ję ję   ien as in French 'bien'
Ѭ ѭ   -   юсъ, ѭсъ   Jǫ jǫ   ion as in French 'lion'
Ѯ ѯ   60   ѯи   Ks ks   x as in 'tax'
Ѱ ѱ   700   ѱи   Ps ps   ps as in 'taps'
Ѵ ѵ   400   ижица   Ü ü   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.

Letter   Number   Name   Transliteration   Pronunciation
Й й   -   и краткоє   Ji ji   y as in 'yes' or 'boy'
Я я   -   ӏать   Ja ja   ya as in 'yacht'
У у   400   у   U u   oo as in 'food'
Ы ы   -   ѥры   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 у is clearly a simplification of the OCS digraph ѹ. And я developed from the later cursive form of ѧ, 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 ѣ. The symbol й seems only to make a noteworthy appearance from the 16th century onwards. But ы had already been a variant spelling of ъӏ 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: ӏа, ѥ, ю, ѩ, ѭ. In Old Russian we also find я, whose pronunciation amounts to а preceded by yod. There was no marking of yod preceding и, and marking of yod before є was inconsistent. When it followed a consonant, texts occasionally employed the symbol ҄ to indicate its presence:

Palatalized        
Б҄ б҄   B' b'   b as in 'beauty'
К҄ к҄   K' k'   c as in 'cute'
Л҄ л҄   L' l'   ll as in 'William'
Н҄ н҄   N' n'   ni as in 'onion'
П҄ п҄   P' p'   p as in 'computer'
Р҄ р҄   R' r'   re as in 'are you', but trilled
Х҄ х҄   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) -- ь and ъ -- 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: ч҄то for чьто.

2. Sound System

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.

    Labial   Dental   Palatal(ized)   Retracted   Velar
Stops                    
voiceless   п   т   (п҄, к҄, х҄)       к
voiced   б   д   (б҄)       г
                     
Nasals   м   н   н҄        
                     
Fricatives                    
voiceless   ф   с   (с)   ш   х
voiced   в   з   (з)   ж    
                     
Affricates                    
voiceless       ц   щ   ч    
voiced           жд        
                     
Apical Trill       р   р҄        
                     
Lateral       л   л҄        
                     
Resonant           j        

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.

    Front           Central       Back    
High   и                   ы   у
        ь       ъ            
Middle           є       о        
                             
Low               а            

The Old Russian sound system largely resembles that of Old Church Slavonic. But there are some notable exceptions:

  • Affricates: While the Old Church Slavonic pronunciation of ѕ was as the dz in English 'adze', the Old Russian pronunciation seems to have been similar to that of English z, and we find alternation between ѕ and з.
  • Clusters: The Proto-Indo-European sequence *sk underwent palatalization before front vowels to yield *sk- > s'k'- > šč-. (An asterisk denotes a reconstructed or unattested form.) In Old Church Slavonic this further shifted according to šč > štč > št. In OCS the letter щ represents this combination št; in Old Russian щ represents the original palatalized sequence šč.
  • Jat: The exact pronunciation of ѣ is unclear in Old Russian, and we often find ӏа or я, or even є, where one would expect to find ѣ in Old Church Slavonic. Some scholars suggest a pronunciation approaching the a in the American English pronunciation of cat.
  • Nasalization: Old Russian distinguishes itself from Old Church Slavonic in part by its lack of nasalized vowels. The letters ѧ and ѫ in Old Russian owe their occurrence largely to the heavy influence of Old Church Slavonic literature and spelling conventions. Typically we find ѣ or я in Old Russian where Old Church Slavonic would have ѧ; and Old Russian shows ѹ or у where OCS has ѫ. The same holds for the corresponding letters denoting a palatal on-glide, e.g. OR ю where we find OCS ѭ.

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:

  • Soft Consonants: we call a consonant soft if it is followed by a front vowel;
  • Hard Consonants: we call a consonant hard if it is followed by a back vowel;
  • Palatalized: we say a consonant is palatalized if it is followed by yod.

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.

Consonant   Hard   Soft   Palatalized
[m]   имати [imati]   имєть [imetĭ]   ѥмл҄ю [jemlju]
[s]   пьсати [pĭsati]   письць [pisĭcĭ]   пишю [pišju < *pis-jǫ]
[b]   быти [byti]   любити [ljubiti]   люблю [ljublju < *ljub-jǫ]
[d]   родъ [rodŭ]   родити [roditi]   рожю [rožju < *rod-jǫ]

As mentioned above, there is no specific character representing the yod. Though there are numerous ioticized ligatures, such as ю above, texts do not always distinguish clearly between vowels with a preceding yod and those without. Thus the reader should consider alternations such as вижю 'I see' vs. видиши 'you see' to determine the presence of yod.

3. Twofold Declension

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, городъ 'city' is masculine, съмьрть 'death' is feminine, and вєрємя '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 рука denotes '(one) hand', рукы denotes 'hands', and рукѣ 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)   городъ   '(a/the) city' (as subject)
Accusative   case of the direct object, or of the destination of directed motion   (none); toward   городъ   '(a/the) city' (as object)
Genitive   case of the sphere of relation; possession; (masculine direct object)   of; (none)   города   'of (a/the) city'
Locative   case of the location in space or time   in, on, at   городѣ   'in (a/the) city'
Dative   case of the indirect object; person or thing affected by the action   to, for   городу   'for (a/the) city'
Instrumental   case of the instrument of an action; case of accompaniment   with, by   городомь   'with (a/the) city'
Vocative   case of direct address   o!   городє   'O City!'
                 
3.1. o, jo-Stem Nouns

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 городъ 'city' is город-о-мъ, and here we find the -о- of the o-declension before the ending -мъ. 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 городъ 'city' and чєловѣкъ 'man, human' illustrate the twofold declension of masculine hard stem nouns.

    Singular   Dual   Plural           Singular   Dual   Plural
N   городъ   города   городи           чєловѣкъ   чєловѣка   чєловѣци
A   городъ   города   городы           чєловѣкъ   чєловѣка   чєловѣкы
G   города   городу   городъ           чєловѣка   чєловѣку   чєловѣкъ
L   городѣ   городу   городѣхъ           чєловѣцѣ   чєловѣку   чєловѣцѣхъ
D   городу   городома   городомъ           чєловѣку   чєловѣкома   чєловѣкомъ
I   городомь   городома   городы           чєловѣкомь   чєловѣкома   чєловѣкы
V   городє   города   городи           чєловѣчє   чєловѣка   чєловѣци

Note the changes of the final velar consonant in the paradigm of чєловѣкъ. In particular we find a change of к to ч in the vocative singular and of к to ц 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 мужь 'man, husband' and змьи 'serpent, dragon' illustrate the declensions of masculine soft stem nouns.

    Singular   Dual   Plural           Singular   Dual   Plural
N   мужь   мужя   мужи           змьи   змья   змьи
A   мужь   мужя   мужѣ           змьи   змья   змьѣ
G   мужя   мужю   мужь           змья   змью   змьи
L   мужи   мужю   мужихъ           змьи   змью   змьихъ
D   мужю   мужєма   мужємъ           змью   змьѥма   змьѥмъ
I   мужємь   мужєма   мужи           змьѥмь   змьѥма   змьи
V   мужю   мужя   мужи           змью   змья   змьи

Note in the above paradigms that we see, for instance, in the nominative singular the fronted counterpart to the ending 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 . In the paradigm of змьи we find an important example of the general tendency in Old Russian to write etymological *-jĭ-, for which there was no special symbol, as -и-. For example, the underlying phonemic representation of the genitive plural змьи is /zmĭjĭ/, showing that the underlying genitive plural ending is the same as that for the genitive plural мужь. Moreover, since the front jer -ь- of this word's stem precedes the yod -j-, it falls in tense position and may alternately be written -и-: e.g. nominative singular змии or dative singular змию. 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 мѣсто 'place' and иго 'yoke' provide examples of the paradigms for neuter hard stem nouns.

    Singular   Dual   Plural           Singular   Dual   Plural
N   мѣсто   мѣстѣ   мѣста           иго   изѣ   ига
A   мѣсто   мѣстѣ   мѣста           иго   изѣ   ига
G   мѣста   мѣсту   мѣстъ           ига   игу   игъ
L   мѣстѣ   мѣсту   мѣстѣхъ           изѣ   игу   изѣхъ
D   мѣсту   мѣстома   мѣстомъ           игу   игома   игомъ
I   мѣстомь   мѣстома   мѣсты           игомь   игома   игы
V   мѣсто   мѣстѣ   мѣста           иго   изѣ   ига

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 изѣ, where the final -г- of the stem has palatalized to -з-.

The Old Russian nouns сьрдьцє 'heart' and знамєньѥ 'sign, mark' serve to illustrate the forms of the neuter soft stem nouns.

    Singular   Dual   Plural           Singular   Dual   Plural
N   сьрдьцє   сьрдьци   сьрдьца           знамєньѥ   знамєньи   знамєнья
A   сьрдьцє   сьрдьци   сьрдьца           знамєньѥ   знамєньи   знамєнья
G   сьрдьца   сьрдьцу   сьрдьць           знамєнья   знамєнью   знамєньи
L   сьрдьци   сьрдьцу   сьрдьцихъ           знамєньи   знамєнью   знамєньихъ
D   сьрдьцу   сьрдьцєма   сьрдьцємъ           знамєнью   знамєньѥма   знамєньѥмъ
I   сьрдьцємь   сьрдьцєма   сьрдьци           знамєньѥмь   знамєньѥма   знамєньи
V   сьрдьцє   сьрдьци   сьрдьца           знамєньѥ   знамєньи   знамєнья

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 знамєньѥ we find the tendency to write -jĭ- as -и-, for example in the genitive plural ending знамєньи [znamenĭjĭ]. We also note that the stem-final front jer -ь- is tense, so that we find alternate forms знамєниѥ, знамєния, and so on.

3.2. a, ja-Stem Nouns

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 жєна 'woman' and нога 'foot' are both feminine; but владъӏка '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 боярыни 'wife of a boyar' and пустыни '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 боярыня and пустыня, 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 жєна 'woman' and нога 'foot', both feminine, serve to illustrate the paradigms of the hard stem nouns.

    Singular   Dual   Plural           Singular   Dual   Plural
N   жєна   жєнѣ   жєны           нога   нозѣ   ногы
A   жєну   жєнѣ   жєны           ногу   нозѣ   ногы
G   жєны   жєну   жєнъ           ногы   ногу   ногъ
L   жєнѣ   жєну   жєнахъ           нозѣ   ногу   ногахъ
D   жєнѣ   жєнама   жєнамъ           нозѣ   ногама   ногамъ
I   жєною   жєнама   жєнами           ногою   ногама   ногами
V   жєно   жєнѣ   жєнъӏ           ного   нозѣ   ногы

Note that here too we encounter the effects of second palatalization before the ending , changing the -г- to -з-.

The nouns зємл҄я 'earth' (feminine) and судьи 'judge' (masculine) serve to illustrate the soft stem paradigms.

    Singular   Dual   Plural           Singular   Dual   Plural
N   зємл҄я   зємл҄и   зємл҄ѣ           судьи   судьи   судьѣ
A   зємл҄ю   зємл҄и   зємл҄ѣ           судью   судьи   судьѣ
G   зємл҄ѣ   зємл҄ю   зємл҄ь           судьѣ   судью   судьи
L   зємл҄и   зємл҄ю   зємл҄яхъ           судьи   судью   судьяхъ
D   зємл҄и   зємл҄яма   зємл҄ямъ           судьи   судьяма   судьямъ
I   зємл҄єю   зємл҄яма   зємл҄ями           судьѥю   судьяма   судьями
V   зємл҄є   зємл҄и   зємл҄ѣ           судьи   судьи   судьѣ

As with the front jer -ь- in змьи, the front jer in судьи is tense. We therefore find fully vocalized forms судии, судию, etc., alongside those listed above.

4. Verb Inflection

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
I   -e-   нєсти   нєс-є-ши   carry
II   -ne-   двинути   дви-нє-ши   move
III   -je-   знати   зна-ѥ-ши   know
IV   -i-   любити   люб-и-ши   love
V   -0-   быти   єс- -и   be

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.

4.1. Present Tense

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 (-ши) from the second person singular form of the verb. Thus if we have the verb рєщи 'to say', with second person singular рєчєши, then the present tense stem of this verb is рєчє-. 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 -є- in the stem рєчє- we obtained above is called the thematic vowel. This thematic vowel is a suffix that intervenes between the verbal root, here рєк-, and the ending, in this instance -ши. When the thematic vowel is a front vowel, this triggers palatalization in preceding velar consonants. Often we find that the thematic vowel is -о- 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: нєсти 'to carry', from Class I, and глаголати 'to say', from Class III.

    Singular   Dual   Plural           Singular   Dual   Plural
1   нєсу   нєсєвѣ   нєсємъ           глагол҄ю   глагол҄ѥвѣ   глагол҄ѥмъ
2   нєсєши   нєсєта   нєсєтє           глагол҄ѥши   глагол҄ѥта   глагол҄ѥтє
3   нєсєть   нєсєта   нєсуть           глагол҄ѥть   глагол҄ѥта   глагол҄ють

The verb нєсти has second person singular нєсєши, hence present tense stem нєсє-. The verb глаголати shows a second person singular глагол҄ѥши, and thus has present stem глагол҄ѥ-. In Old Church Slavonic the third personal dual ending -тє is frequently replaced by -та. In Old Russian the ending -та regularly appears for the third person dual.

4.2. Imperfect Tense

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: -аа-х- in Old Russian; for comparison -ѣа-х- and -аа-х- in Old Church Slavonic. Musical notation (cf. Lunt, 1980) suggests that the suffix -аах- was indeed originally disyllabic, though it is unclear until what date such pronunciation survived in the spoken language. The first element, -а-, variously appears as -а-, -я-, -ѧ-, -ѩ-. The second element, -а-, often seems to have been contracted into the first, and so is often left unwritten. The third and last element, -х-, appears as -ш- or -с- 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 -ти, and undoing any sound changes undergone by the stem in the process of affixing the infinitive marker. For a verb such as нєс-ти 'to carry', removal of the infinitive marker leaves нєс-, with no further adjustments. Similarly глагола-ти 'to say' yields an infinitive-aorist stem глагола-. But for вєс-ти 'to lead', we must realize that the -с- of the surface form derives from a root-final -д- that shifts to -с- before the -т- of the infinitive ending. Hence the infinitive-aorist stem for вєсти is вєд-.

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 нєсти 'to carry', we have the second person singular нєсєши, with stem нєсє-: removing the thematic vowel, this then leaves нєс-. For двигнути 'to move' the second singular is двигнєши, so that the present stem is двигнє-: removing the thematic vowel yields двигн-.

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):

  • Infinitive: If removal of the infinitive suffix -ти leaves a final -а-, then the imperfect attaches the suffix to this stem, and the stem-final -а- is absorbed into the first element, -а-, of the suffix. For example, зна-ти yields the stem зна-, to which is appended the suffix to give знаах-.
  • Present-Stem: A large class of verbs attaches the imperfect suffix to the themeless present stem. For example, the second person singular present нєс-є-ши 'you carry' yields present stem нєс-є-, the themeless version of which is нєс-. To this we add the imperfect suffix to arrive at the imperfect stem нєс-яах-.

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 нєсти 'to carry', from Class I, and глаголати 'to say', from Class III.

    Singular   Dual   Plural           Singular   Dual   Plural
1   нєсяахъ   нєсяаховѣ   нєсяахомъ           глаголаахъ   глаголааховѣ   глаголаахомъ
2   нєсяашє   нєсяашєта   нєсяашєтє           глаголаашє   глаголаашєта   глаголаашєтє
3   нєсяашє   нєсяашєта   нєсяаху           глаголаашє   глаголаашєта   глаголааху

Under the influence of the present endings, for the third person we often find forms with an additional -ть appended to the normal ending: e.g. singular нєсяашєть and глаголаашєть, plural нєсяахуть and глаголаахуть. Moreover, presumably under the influence of the aorist endings, we find alternate forms for the second and third person dual: нєсяаста and глаголааста for both second and third person.

One important exception to the above division into formation classes is that of verbs with infinitive stem in -а- which originally derives from Proto-Slavic *-ę-: for example Old Russian начати (начяти) 'to begin', compared with Old Church Slavonic начѧти. 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 имаху дань 'they took tribute', where имаху is the third person plural imperfect built from имати 'to take' according to the infinitival paradigm outlined above. But the same phrase appears in the Igor Tale as ємляху дань 'they took tribute', where now имати takes its imperfect from the themeless present-stem construction.

5. Word Order

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.

5.1. Subject & Predicate

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:

    Въ сє жє лѣто   рєкоша   дружина   Игорєви...
    And in that year   said   the retinue   to Igor...

meaning "And in that year the retinue said to Igor...". Here the verb рєкоша precedes its subject дружина.

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:

    коньчахъ   книжькъӏ   сия
    I wrote   little book   this

meaning "I wrote this little book." This comes from the Svjatoslav Miscellany, dating to 1076.

5.2. Modifier & Modified

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:

    боръ   вєликъ
    pine forest   large

meaning "a large pine forest". We also find examples where the definite adjective precedes the modified noun, as in the Igor Tale:

    тѹ   кроваваго   вина   нє   доста
    here   related-to-blood   of wine   not   there was sufficient

meaning "Here the blood wine was insufficient." In this statement the definite adjective кроваваго precedes the noun вина 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

    съ   Дону   вєликаго
    from   Don   great

in the Igor Tale alongside

    отъ   вєликаго   Дону
    from   great   Don

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:

    Поимѣмъ   жєну   єго   за   князь   свои   Малъ
    Let us take   wife   his   for   prince   our   Mal

meaning "Let us take his wife for our prince, Mal." Here the possessive pronoun єго follows the noun жєну which it qualifies, and likewise the possessive adjective свои follows the noun князь which it modifies. By contrast, the demonstrative pronominal adjective tends to precede the word it modifies:

    до   сєго   дьнє
    until   this   day

meaning "up to this very day". Here the proximal deictic сєго precedes the noun дьнє which it modifies.

5.3. Enclitics

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 бо 'for', or жє 'and', as the second word of their clause. For example we find the following in the Primary Chronicle:

    бѣ   бо   самъ   любя   жєнъӏ
    was   for   he himself   loving   women

meaning "for he himself was loving women", i.e. he loved women. We also find in the Primary Chronicle

    Они   жє   рѣша...
    They   and   said...

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.