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What is Russian?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Russian is a Slavic language spoken widely throughout Europe and Asia, with more than 250 million speakers worldwide. It is the 8th most spoken language in the world, and one of the most spoken languages in all of Eurasia. It is written with a version of the Cyrillic alphabet. The alphabet contains 33 letters, and has at times had more.

This language is related to other Slavic languages such as Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Slovenian, and Bulgarian. It is most closely related to the other East Slavic languages, of which the most spoken are Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Rusyn. Russian is the official language of Abkhazia, Belarus, Gagauzia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Transnistria. It is also one of the operating languages of the United Nations.

The predecessor to the language began to emerge sometime after the 1st millennium, drawing in influences from surrounding Slavic languages to form what eventually become modern Russian. Old Church Slavonic, an important language among the Christians of this era, contributed a great deal to what would become the Russian language, as did borrowings from Greek at this early time. When Peter the Great embarked on his mighty campaign of Westernizing Russia, he also set the stage for a massive influx of European vocabulary to describe technologies and concepts the language didn’t have terms for at the time. French during this period was, as in most of Europe at the same time, considered the language of the literate, and a number of French words found their way into the language through the literati.

There are sizable communities speaking this language spread throughout the world, in the wake of a number of large migrations. In the United States, there are reportedly over four million Russian speakers; in Israel, there are nearly one million; and throughout western Europe, there are more than three million.

For covering such a large landmass, the language is surprisingly uniform. While distinct dialects exist throughout Russia and Russian-speaking countries, they are essentially all mutually intelligible. When compared with other comparably sized regions, this is almost unheard of. A great deal of this is due to a concerted effort on the part of the government throughout the 20th century to normalize speech patterns, grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

Russian is widely considered one of the world’s great languages for literature, accompanying English, French, and German, among others. Novelists who write in the language are often hailed as the greatest writers of epic tales, with Tolstoy, Gogol, Chekov, and Dostoevsky being a few of the most renowned authors.

Russian is a very difficult language for native English speakers to learn, being ranked as a Class III language, on a par with Arabic or Mandarin in difficulty. Its different alphabet, use of many sounds which feel alien to English speakers, and considerably different grammar all conspire to make it much more difficult to acquire than Germanic or Romance languages.

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Discussion Comments
By anon57320 — On Dec 22, 2009

What is "beyond the pale?"

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