Russian is a language of 150 million speakers in the world. It’s spoken not only in Russia, but in a wide range of countries, especially those that used to be part of the Soviet Union. Russian is even spoken in space!
But where did the Russian language come from, and what language family is it part of? Is Russian a Germanic, Romance, Slavic language or perhaps something entirely different?
The Russian language is, in fact, a Slavic language, or more precisely, an East Slavic language. It’s closely related to such languages as Ukrainian and Belarusian, but also to the main Slavic language family which include languages like Czech, Macedonian, Polish, Serbian and Bulgarian.
Does this mean that Russian is completely unrelated to English? No, it doesn’t because even though the Russian language is Slavic and the English language is Germanic, both Slavic and Germanic languages are part of the “Indo European” family of languages.
But it is a distant relative!
What Are Slavic Languages And What’s Slavic About Russian?
As mentioned, the Slavic language family is one of the main branches of the Indo European language tree. Other branches include Germanic, Romance, Hellenic and many more.
The Slavic languages are known for being very homogeneous. The individual languages look more alike than the languages of other language families. One of the reasons for this might be that they only had around a millennium to develop. In 1000 A.D, a thousand years ago, the whole Slavic region spoke more or less the same language known as Common Slavic.
One, typical trait of Slavic languages that we find in Russian is the high degree of inflection. Inflected languages like to put prefixes and suffixes onto words and change some of the vowels inside of the words following certain grammatical rule. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds, because English uses inflection too when we speak of verb tenses and conjugation.
Where Russian is different, is that it does it a lot more, especially when it comes to grammatical cases. While cases isn’t something unique for Slavic language, all of them use cases, Russian included, and they tend to be complicated.
Nouns, for example are declined differently depending on how they’re used. Each sentence “intention” equals one case, so you’d use different cases if you were speaking about direction, ownership, direction, action and so on. There are 6 different cases in Russian and each have different declensions for each gender.
In terms of pronunciation, Russian, and Slavic languages in general, are known to have words with a lot of consonants and “consonant clusters”. What this means is that consonants are often grouped together, making them rather difficult to pronounce for a Russian learner. Take the word for “hysterical” (vzbálmoshniy) as an example.
These and many other aspects of the Russian language that make it distinctly Slavic.
Lastly there’s the clear resemblance between the different Slavic languages. They simply share a lot of vocabulary and grammar, making it a dead giveaway that they’re in the same language family. Check out the article I recently wrote about which language is closer to Polish for a comparison of a few different Slavic languages.
Read also: Is Russian Hard To Learn?
Has Russian Been Influenced By Other Languages Like The Germanic Languages?
The Russian language has a long history and it’s been influenced by a lot of foreign languages during the ages. Most importantly, Russian took influence from a lot of different Slavic dialects in the region in the middle ages.
There are some indications that the Russian language was later influenced by travelers coming from both Scandinavia and the Middle East. Most traces of these influences have since disappeared, although the proper name “Oleg, Olga or Igor” seem to have Norse roots.
When Russia suffered from invasions by the Mongols, a lot of of Turkic loanwords became part of the Russian language. Most of these were words for concepts that weren’t common in everyday Russian, like certain animal names, foods and concepts related to society, politics and military.
In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Russia started to become a bigger player in international trade, especially with western Europe. This happened in the epoch of Peter The Great, a Tsar known for his proficiency in languages and affinity for western culture. With the stronger bond to Europe, Dutch, English and German loanwords, especially of maritime nature, saw their way into Russian.
Later in the 19th century, French became more and more important in Russia. If you were part of the Russian elite, you more likely than not, spoke French, which means that a lot of French words were borrowed in to Russian, or at least, upper-class Russian. This is evident when reading Tolstoy’s classics “War And Peace” and “Anna Karenina”.
Most recently, English has had an important influence on the Russian language, adding new words to the language dealing with technology, sports, politics, diplomacy and economy.
Russian: A Slavic Language
There’s no doubt at all that Russian is a Slavic language. It hasn’t been isolated during its history, however, so influences from many different languages are visible in the language today. But none of these are even remotely significant, and you couldn’t mistake Russian for being a Germanic, Romance, or Turkic language.
Do you want to learn to speak Russian? Go read my article on how to learn Russian by yourself.