A Brief History of the Russian Language

a brief history of the russian language

Russia has a fascinating history.

Just like English or any other major language, Russian has been around a very long time – although it has only ‘settled’ recently, in the 19th and 20th centuries, and most of the classic works in Russian are of relatively new vintage.

Early Russian

In the 10th century, the various migrating Slav clans had diverged into three main language groups: Western, Eastern, and Southern. Eastern Slavic eventually became what we know today as Russian, and Russian still has major regional differences as you travel east, west, or south through the region.

What was remarkable about these different languages was that even as they were pronounced differently, they retained a lot of grammar and structure in kind and as a result could use a common written language. In other words, two people might not be able to understand each other’s speech, but could easily write down their thoughts for each other. The written language was known as ‘Old Church Slavonic’ and was, as its name suggests, used primarily for religious texts. Two missionaries, Constantine (the future Saint Cyril) and Methodius were tasked with writing down the scriptures in Old Church Slavonic, and Saint Cyril invented the alphabet they would use, borrowing heavily from Greek. Thus the Cyrillic alphabet was born.


Russia has always been a ‘reactionary’ country, suspicious of change and outside influence. The alphabet and writing in Russian was not standardised until Czar Peter the Great ruled in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and Russia only took on its truly modern form with the removal of unnecessary and archaic letters in 1918 after the Communist Revolution.

Russian, as a result, has a curious feel to it. It’s a very old language and its alphabet and forms of address – particularly in personal names, which still follow the old rules of the patronymic. A Russian name is always made up of a first name, a patronymic, and then a family name. Take the name Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky. Fyodor is the first name. His father’s name was Mikhayl; the -ovich indicating that he is his father’s son (you would use -ovna for a daughter), and Dostoyevsky is the family name. This is a holdover from the old days, but it’s still considered polite today to address people by their first name and patronymic in order to show respect.