Russian is the official language. It is East Slavic along with Ukrainian and Belarussian, and has its own alphabet: Cyrillic. More than 120 languages are spoken Russia. Most everyone speaks Russian. Many of the ethnic groups in Russia speak their own language, with Russian being either their first or second language.

Languages: Russian (official) 96.3 percent, Dolgang 5.3 percent, German 1.5 percent, Chechen 1 percent, Tatar 3 percent, other 10.3 percent. The total adds up to more than 100 percent because some respondents gave more than one answer on the census (2010 est.). [Source: CIA World Factbook =]

The Russian language has dominated cultural and official life throughout the history of the nation, regardless of the presence of other ethnic groups. Linguistic groups in Russia run the gamut from Slavic (spoken by more than three-quarters of the population) to Turkic, Caucasian, Finno-Ugric, Eskimo, Yiddish, and Iranian. Russification campaigns during both the tsarist and communist eras suppressed the languages and cultures of all minority nationalities. Although the Soviet-era constitutions affirmed the equality of all languages with Russian for all purposes, in fact language was a powerful tool of Soviet nationality policy. The governments of both the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation have used the Russian language as a means of promoting unity among the country's nationalities, as well as to provide access to literary and scientific materials not available in minority languages. According to the Brezhnev regime, all Soviet peoples "voluntarily" adopted Russian for use in international communication and to promote the unity of the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Beginning in 1938, the Russian language was a compulsory subject in the primary and secondary schools of all regions. In schools where an indigenous language was used alongside Russian, courses in science and mathematics were taught in Russian. Many university courses were available only in Russian, and Russian was the language of public administration in all jurisdictions in all fifteen Soviet republics. Nevertheless, the minority peoples of the Russian Republic, as well as the peoples of the other fourteen Soviet republics, continued to consider their own language as primary, and the general level of Russian fluency was low. In the mid-1990s, in every area of the federation, Russian remains the sole language of public administration, of the armed forces, and of the scientific and technical communities. Russian schools grant diplomas in only two minority languages, Bashkir and Tatar, and higher education is conducted almost entirely in Russian. *

Although Russian is the lingua franca of the Russian Federation, Article 26 of the 1993 constitution stipulates that "each person has the right to use his native language and to the free choice of language of communication, education, instruction, and creativity." Article 68 affirms the right of all peoples in the Russian Federation "to retain their mother tongue and to create conditions for its study and development." Although such constitutional provisions often prove meaningless, the non-Slavic tongues of Russia have retained their vitality, and they even have grown more prevalent in some regions. This trend is especially visible as autonomy of language becomes an important symbol of the struggle to preserve distinct ethnic identities. In the 1990s, many non-Russian ethnic groups have issued laws or decrees giving their native languages equal status with Russian in their respective regions of the Russian Federation. In the mid-1990s, some 80 percent of the non-Slavic nationalities — or 12 percent of the population of the Russian Federation — did not speak Russian as their first language. *

Russian Language

Russian is an Eastern Slavic language along with Ukrainian and Belarussian. It has historically been divided into northern, central and southern dialects, marked by difference in vocabulary and syntax. Russian has also been influenced by other language, notably Finno-Ugric in its early stages, Germanic, Turkic, Greek, Polish and particularly French, and in recent years English.

Slavs are divided into three main groups: 1) Western Slavs (chiefly Poles, Czechs and Slovaks); 2) Southern Slavs (mainly people from Bulgaria and former Yugoslavia): 3) Eastern Slavs (primarily Russians,Ukrainians and Belorussians). The Russian, Ukrainian and Belarussian languages are similar enough so that members of one group can understand members of the other two. Most Ukrainians and Belorussians learn Russian in school.

Top first languages (number of speakers): 1) Mandarin Chinese (885 million); 2) English (322 million); 3) Spanish (266 million); 4) Arabic (220 million); 5) Bengali (189 million); 6) Hindi (182 million); 7) Portuguese (170 million); 8) Russian (170 million); 9) Japanese (120 million); 10) German (98 million); 11) Wu Chinese (77 million). [Source: Worldwatch Institute 2001]

The twelve most widely spoken languages are (number of speakers): 1) Mandarin Chinese (975,000,000); 2) English (478,000,000); 3) Hindi (437,000,000); 4) Spanish (392,000,000); 5) Russian (284,000,000); 6) Arabic (225,000,000); 7) Bengali (200,000,000); 7) Portuguese (184,000,000); 9) Malay-Indonesian (159,000,000); 10) Japanese (128,000,000); 11) French (125,000,000); 12) German (123,000,000).

History of Russian Language

Russian is a member of Indo-European family of languages as are English, French, Spanish, Persian and Hindi. Russian and other Slavic languages are closer to original highly inflected Indo-European languages than Germanic or Romantic languages because of the Old Slavonic Church—which served as the literary and religious language of the Slavs from their conversion to Christianity in the 10th century until the 17th century—preserved the old language forms.

The Russian language emerged from the common East Slavic tongue (which also includes Ukrainian and Belarussian), Ancient Russian or Old Church Slavonic, by the A.D. 14th century in the Rostov-Suzdak area of central Russia. Old Church Slavonic (also known as Old Church Slavic) was the first Slavic literary language, which influenced the development of the modern Slavic languages, including literary Russian. Used in liturgies of the Slavic Orthodox churches, it became known as Church Slavonic after the twelfth century. Methodius translated the entire Bible into Old Church Slavonic in the 9th century.

Chronicles from Prince Vladimir's 10th century kingdom in Kiev used a mixture of Russian and Old Slavonic. In the 14th century when Moscow became the cultural and administrative center of proto-Russia, local Russian took precedence over Old Slavonic and other Slavic languages. By the 18th century the Moscow dialect became the dominate dialect in the Russian kingdom.

Because the Russian language was spread by colonizers rather than developing over time in different regions, there are relatively few dialectical difference. The uniformity of Communist rule also helped standardize the language. In the early 2000s, legislation was introduced in the Duma to make Russian the only official state language of Russia.

Features of Russian Language

Russian is a very rich and flexible language. For this reason it is both poetic and difficult to learn. Dostoevsky once wrote that a Russian could express an entire range of feeling in a single word. He didn’t say what the word was but is widely believed to be “khoy”, the Russian swear word for penis.

Russian has fairly complicated grammar. Highly inflective, it uses lots prefixes and suffixes, particularly the latter. Nouns, pronouns, adjectives and even numbers are modified in six different ways, similar to the way verbs are conjugated in Spanish and French.

Word order isn't import in Russian. There are no articles and no word for "to have" (instead Russians use a preposition). Verbs have three genders and two aspects, each with its own separate and infinitive and imperfect form. Nouns too have gender.

Russian words are often long, polysyllabic but have only one accented syllable. Russian is notorious for its long words (“upotreblenie”, for example means "use") and awkward consonant vowel combinations (“vzvod”, “vstrecha” and “tknut”). The longest word in Russian has 33 letters (compared to 45 for English).

Russian Words, Expressions and Proverbs

Russian for "thank you" literally means "God save" and the morning greeting means "Be healthy!" The Russian words for beauty and red are derived from the same word. The Russian word for toilet means "adornment place."

Many Russians have “the habit of phrasing their statements in the form of a question by adding an interrogative ‘yes’ at the end.” “You want a drink, yes? In the Soviet period, many Russians became adept at speaking bureaucratese.

There are lots of proverbs in Russian partly because the Soviet Union encompassed so many nationalities and ethnic groups. Russians say: "Why blame the mirror when your face is crooked” and "When everybody's crying, someone's going to make money selling handkerchiefs." Confusion is expressed by saying "This week has seven Fridays." Fooling someone is referred to as "hanging noodle on someone's ears." When Russians don't understand something they say, "That's Chinese to me."

Mat- Russian Swear Language

Russians have a very rich swear language that is known as “mat”. Victor Erofeyev wrote in The New Yorker: “Unlike the indecent terminology of most other languages, “mat” is multileveled, multi functional, and extensively articulated; it is, in a way, more a philosophy than a subset of language...Excluded from dictionaries, it is an oral lexicon comprising thousands of phrases, exclamations, interjections and idiomatic expressions, all enveloped in a nimbus of transparent synonyms and coded euphemisms.” A Russian language scholar told Erofeyev, mat has been “subjected to far more powerful social prohibition” than any profane words in the West. [Source: Victor Erofeyev, The New Yorker, September 15, 2003]

Erofeyev wrote: “The world of “mat” is virtually inaccessible to foreigners studying Russian. It is too situational and semantically capricious, too dependant on intonational subtleties. “Mat” is linguistic theater, verbal performance art. It exploits the Russian language’s flexible range of suffixes and prefixes, and toys with phonetically similar worlds from the standard lexicon in order to generate anthropomorphic images.”

In 2002, “The Big Dictionary of Obscenity” Volume 1 was released at bookstores. It was a 390 page scholarly work on single word and it took 24 years to complete. At the same time it was released lawmakers were trying to pass laws to make the word illegal to use in public.

Russian Swear Words

The primary mat words are: “khuy” (“cock”), “pizda” (“cunt”), “blyad” (“whore” or “bitch”), and “ebat” (“fuck”). All of these have been forged into countless numbers of expressions and terms the same way fuck has been molded into expressions like “fucked up” and “fucked over.” The word “mat” is derived from the Russian word for”mother” and is a kind of shorthand for “yob tvoyu mat” (“fuck your mother”), which until recently was such an objectionable thing to say that it often triggered brawls, even murder. Many young people used the word “fuck.”

Almost all the mat words deal with sexual activity rather than urination or defecation. What is remarkable about the Russian language is that it has no acceptable world like “intercourse” or “penis” to talk about sex. The result is that there is no way one can talk about sex other than to use mat, and one of the results of this is that many Russians simply don’t. talk about sex. Another consequences is there is no equivalent for “shit.” When someone says shit in an American movie the word that appears in the subtitles is Russian equivalent of “damn.”

Some common Russian mat expression include “psobol ty na khuy” (“go fuck yourself” or literally “sit on your prick”), “poshol v pizdu” (“go into the cunt”), meaning you wish someone death; “khuem grushi okalachivat” (“knocking pears out of a tree with one’s dick”), meaning wasting time; “V-rot-yebis” (“fuck yourslef in the mouth”); and “nev’yebenno” (“unfuckable”), impressive. Among the word used for penis are the Russian words for ax handle, bayonet, birch branch and wagon tongue.

History of Mat

Mat has been around a long time. Some say it originated with the Mongols who occupied much of Russia from the 13th to the 15th century. But this does not seem to true. Linguists believe “khvoya”, for example, is Slavonic and derived from the word for “pine needle.” “Ebat” came from the word “bit”, meaning to “strike.” These words may been have been widely used at one time but when the Russians were Christianized they became associated with paganism and were regarded as a kind of blasphemy. But that didn’t stop Peter the Great from mastering the language. He once let off a sequence of 74 mat word while decapitating rebellious Kremlin guards.

Even though mat has a long history it is regarded as the language of the gulags (Soviet labor camps). There it blossomed and became a language of subversion. It was also a language of the factories. One joke went that after mat was banned on the factory floor factories were forced to close down. Why? Because all the terms used to describe the machines were mat and no one could commnicate.

During the Soviet period, “mat” was primarily the language of the street, spoken mostly by criminals and the working class. But beginning with the perestroika in the late 1980s it started to come aboveground. By the 1990s it had found It way into Internet, mass media, literature, pop songs and even an opera. Young people of all classes now speak it as matter of course and many more women routinely speak it than they did in the past.

English and Foreign Word in Russian

English is not nearly as widely spoken as it is in Western Europe. More and more people, though, especially young people, are learning it. In the cities and tourist industry you will find many people that speak English. German is the second most widely understood language. In many places German is a more popular language of study than English.

English is regarded as an essential element of being cool, getting ahead and not being a loser. Parents encourage their kids to learn it. Many university demand fluency in it. Explaining how English is taught on the schools, a headmaster at a school in St. Petersburg told the Daily Yomiuri, “the number of hours varies from two to three hours a week in middle schools to six in high schools. The lessons are taught in English, though in middle schools some explanations are provided in Russian.” A retired teach from Yaroslav said, “The best teachers concentrate on talking, the worst limit themselves to reading and translating textbooks.” A high school student said, “When we came to class, we in some way ‘forget’ Russian and speak only English.”

Beginning with Peter the Great, Russian has absorbed many words for foreign languages. Relatively new English-influenced words include: “drinkski”, “jeansi”, “potato chipsi”, “mafiya”, “biznesmeny”, “offshorski”, “keeler”, “impeech”, “defolt” and “konsenus”. Some of these have been adopted as shortcuts. The Russian equivalent of default is "”nevypolneniye obyazatelst”."

Linguists have lobbied to get foreign word banned from the mass media. Lawmakers have introduced legislation to outlaws foreign words and gangster expressions. The legislation was introduced by Putin's Unity party and backed by the Communists but eventually defeated.

Russian words found in English include vodka, tsar (czar), samovar, pogrom, borscht, steppe and tundra.

Cyrillic, Russia's Written Language

Cyrillic, Russia's written language, is an alphabet based on Greek characters that was created in the ninth century for translating Eastern Orthodox religious texts into Old Church Slavonic. Named for Cyril, the leader of the first religious mission from Byzantium to the Slavic people, the alphabet is used in Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Yugoslavia. The Central Asian republics, Moldova, and Azerbaijan used a modified Cyrillic alphabet in the Soviet period.

Cyrillic is essentially an adaption of the Greek alphabet to the Slavic language, with the addition of a couple of Hebrew letters and several new letters. It is completely phonetic. Most of the non-Russian languages spoken in Russia are written with the Cyrillic alphabet. Each languages that uses Cyrillic has different variation and sometimes different letters.

Cyrillic is named after St. Cyril, a Byzantine missionary who introduced it and helped spread the Orthodox religion in Eastern Europe and present-day Russia in the 9th and 10th century. A few decades late it was simplified by his fellow Greek missionary Methodius.

St. Kliment and St. Naum, disciples of St, Cyril, established a seat of higher leaning in Ohrid, in present-day Macedonia in 896, and created the Cyrillic alphabet, which is also used by Macedonians and Bulgarians. Revised slightly by Peter the Great and the Bolsheviks, the present Cyrillic alphabet contains 32 letters.

The Bible was translated to the Southern Slav dialect. Later called Church Slavonic, this became the language of Russian Orthodox church liturgy and is still used today. There is a lack of standardization in the Russian language. Different dictionaries and textbooks by different authors often have conflicting views on spelling and word usage, Transliteration of Cyrillic to Roman letters is not always easy. The Library of Congress System is one of the simplest systems.

Rare Minority Languages

Tofa is a language in danger of going extinct. It is spoken by about 200 people in Siberia — the Tofalars. The Tofalars are a small minority that lives in a mountainous area of the Irkutsk region near Tuva and Buryatia in Siberia and the Altai region. Their language is similar to Tuvan. There are only around 600 Tofalars. Votic is another language in danger of going extinct. It is spoken by about 30 people on the Russian coast of the Gulf of Finland.

The Chuvash are a Turkic-Mongol people that predate the Tatars and are Orthodox Christians. There are about 1.8 million Chuvash and they live mostly around the Volga region in the Chuvash Republic. The Chuvash language is the only living language of the Bulgaro-Turkish branch of the Turkic group of Altaic languages. The closest language is Volga-Bulgarian, which is now extinct. As of the late 1980s, about 80 percent of Chuvash spoke Chuvash as their first language. Most Chuvash that live in the cities and towns are bilingual in Chuvash and Russian. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston)]

The Ket are a remnant population of moose and reindeer hunters, fishermen and gatherers who have traditionally lived around the Yenisei River. There are only around 1,300 Kets left. They are related to several groups that spoke Kott languages and are now extinct. The Itelmen are a small groups that live on Kamchatka. Also known as the Kamchadals, they are very close to extinction. There numbers in the late 17th century were estimated at around 12,000. Today there are round 1,500. They live in the Koryak National Area. Only about 20 percent speak the Itelmen language, which is similar to the languages spoken by the Chukchi and Koryak and is believed to have evolved into native American languages in North America.

Russian Names

Russian is infamous for its long, unpronounceable names like “Dneprodzerzhinsk” and “Sheremetyevskiy”. Ivan is the Russian form of John. Pavel is the Russian form of Paul. The ten most common family names in Russia are 1) Ivanov; 2) Vasiliev; 3) Petrov; 4) Smirnov; 5) Mikhailov; 6) Federov; 7) Sokolov; 8) Yakovlev; 9) Popov; 10) Andrev. Many names end with “ova,” “eva,” or “ina”

Russians commonly have three names: 1) the first name; 2) the middle name (often an adaption of the father's name) and the their last name. The "evich" or "ovich" in a man's middle name is the Russian equivalent of "son of." The "ovna" in a woman's middle name is the Russian equivalent of "daughter of." Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev translates to Mikhail, son of Sergey, Gorbachev. Natasai Pavlona Popov translates to Natasai, daughter of Pavel, Popov

Russians often greet and refer to one another using their first and middle names. Yeltsin was often called Boris Nikolayevich. Lenin was referred to as Vladimir Ilyich and Gorbachev is referred to Mikhail Sergeyevich. Using the first and middle names is a sign of respect. You should avoid addressing a Russian person by their first name until you are on fairly friendly terms.

After the Russian Revolution many people dropped surnames indicating peasant status. Instead of a name like Krasnoshtanov (“Red Pants”) they chose a name like Orlov (“Eagle”).

Americans begin business letters with a salutation with the individual’s a last name and a colon or a comma (“Dear Mr. Putin:” or “Dear Mr. Putin,”). Russians use the person’s first and middle names and an exclamation mark (“Respected Vladimir Vladamirovich!”).

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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