Old East Slavic language

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Old East Slavic (руськъ)
Spoken in: Eastern Europe
Region: --
Total speakers: Extinct
Ranking: --
   East Slavic
    Old East Slavic
Official status
Official language of: historical: Kievan Rus, Novgorod Republic
Regulated by: --

Template:IPA notice



Old East Slavic language is one name for a language spoken between 10th and 14th century in Kievan Rus and its successor states.

As the language is part of the (pre-)national history of all Eastern Slavs, it is in their languages usually known by the respective national names, viz. as Old Belarusian (Belarusian старабеларуская or старажытнабеларуская мова), Old Russian (Russian древнерусский), or Old Ukrainian (Ukrainian староукраїнська or давньоукраїнська мова). However, there are also supranational names for that language in East Slavic: Belarusian старажытнаруская мова 'Old Rusian (= East Slavic)', Ukrainian давньоруська мова (idem) and давньокиївська мова 'Old Kievan'.

General considerations

The language was a direct descendant of the Common Slavonic language (which evolved from the Proto-Slavic language) and faithfully retained many of its features. A striking innovation in the evolution of this language was the development of so-called full vocalism, which came to differentiate the newly evolving East Slavic from other Slavic languages. For instance, Proto-Slavic *gordъ town became OES gorodъ, Proto-Slavic *melko milk - OES moloko, and Proto-Slavic *korva cow - OES korova. Other Slavic languages would develop such forms as gradъ, mlěko, krava (South Slavic, Czech and Slovak) or grodъ, mleko, krova (e.g. Polish) etc.

Its dialects were spoken, though not exclusively, roughly in the area today occupied by European part of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and parts of Poland and Lithuania.

It is difficult to assess this language as standardised in the modern sense. The spoken language in Rus' consisted of a variety of dialects, and today we may speak definitely only of the languages of surviving manuscripts, which show regional divergences from the beginning of the historical records.

With time it evolved into several more diversified forms, which were the predecessors of the modern Belarusian, Russian, Rusyn and Ukrainian languages. Each of the aforementioned languages preserved much of the Old East Slavic grammar and vocabulary.

When after the end of the 'Tatar yoke' the territory of former Kievan Rus was divided between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Grand Duchy of Moscow, there emerged also two separate literary languages in these states, viz. Ruthenian in the west and Old Russian in the east.

Literary language of Kievan Rus

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A page from Svyatoslav's Miscellanies (1073).

The political unification of the region into the state called Kievan Rus, from which modern Belarus, Russia and Ukraine trace their origins, occurred approximately a century before the adoption of Christianity in 988 and the establishment of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical and literary language. Documentation of the language of this period is scanty, making it difficult at best fully to determine the relationship between the literary language and its spoken dialects.

There are references, in Arab and Byzantine sources, that pre-Christian Slavs in European Russia used some form of writing. Despite some suggestive archaelogical finds and a corroboration by the tenth-century monk Khrabr that ancient Slavs wrote in "strokes and incisions" (черты и резы ), the exact nature of this system is not known. Recent amateur investigations in Russia have proposed that this was a syllabic system that may have survived, possibly into the twentieth century, in cryptography (тайнопись ), but scholars have reached no consensus beyond undecidability.

Although the Glagolitic alphabet was briefly introduced, as witnessed by church inscriptions in Novgorod, it was soon entirely superseded by the Cyrillic. The samples of birch-bark writing excavated in Novgorod have provided crucial information about the pure tenth-century vernacular in North-West Russia, almost entirely free of church influence. It is also known that borrowings and calques from Byzantine Greek began to enter the vernacular at this time, and that simultaneously the literary language in its turn began to be modified towards Eastern Slavic.

The following excerpts illustrate two of the most famous literary monuments.

NOTE. The spelling has been partly modernized. The translations attempt to be as literal as possible; they are not literary.

Primary Chronicle

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c. 1110, from the Laurentian Codex, 1377

These [are] the tales of the bygone years, whence is come the Russian land, who first began to rule at Kiev, and whence the Russian land has come about.

Early language; Russian and Ukrainian not yet fully differentiated. Fall of the yers in progress or arguably complete (several words end with a consonant; "to rule" < , modern Uk княжити, R княжить). South-western (incipient Ukrainian) features include "bygone"; modern R временных). Correct use of perfect and aorist: єсть пошла "is/has come" (modern R пошла), нача "began" (modern R начал as a development of the old perfect tense.) Note the style of punctuation.

Tale of Igor's Campaign

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. c. 1200, from the Pskov manuscript, 15th cent.

Would it not be meet, o brothers, for us to begin with the old words the difficult telling of the host of Igor, Igor Sviatoslavich? And to begin in the way of the true tales of this time, and not in the way of Boyan's inventions. For the wise Boyan, if he wished to devote to someone [his] song, would wander like a squirrel over a tree, like a grey wolf over land, like a bluish eagle beneath the clouds.

Illustrates the sung epics. Typical use of metaphor and simile. The apparent (Russian) misreading растекаться мыслью по древу (to effuse/pour out one's thought upon/over wood) has become proverbial in modern Russian with the meaning "to speak ornately, at length, excessively". (The misreading is of мысію, "squirrel-like", taken to be мыслію, "thought-like". It is present in both the manuscript copy of 1790 and the first edition of 1800, and appears to have been aided by a then misunderstood change in the meaning of the word R течь "to flow".)

Old East Slavic Literature

The Old East Slavic language was the only ancient Slavic tongue (apart from the Old Church Slavonic) that developed a great literature of its own. Surviving literary monuments include the legal code Justice of the Rus (Русская правда ), a corpus of hagiography and homily, the disputed epic Song of Igor (Слово о полку игореве ) and the earliest surviving manuscript of the Primary Chronicle (Повесть временных лет ) - the Laurentian codex (Лаврентьевский список ) of 1377.

The Book of Veles, said to have been found during the Russian civil war and to have disappeared in WWII, would, if genuine, provide about the only surviving pre-Christian Russian literary monument. Since the account of its find and eventual fate (several photographs are claimed to survive) has not been confirmed, and its language deviates from the accepted reconstruction, most professional linguists have so far dismissed the book's authenticity.

The earliest dated specimen of Old East Slavic (or, rather, of Church Slavonic with pronounced East Slavic interference) must be considered the written Ostromir Codex, written by the diak Gregory at the order of Ostromir, the posadnik or governor of Novgorod. This is an East Slavic recension of the Slavonic Gospels, of the year 1056/57. Of the year 1073 we have the Izbornik or Miscellany of Sviatoslav. It was written by John the diak or deacon for that prince, and is a kind of Slavonic encyclopaedia, drawn from Greek sources. The date is 1076.

The next monument of the language is the famous Slovo o zakone i blagodati, by Hilarion, metropolitan of Kiev. In this work there is a panegyric on Prince Vladimir of Kiev, the hero of so much of the Russian popular poetry. This subtle and graceful oration admirably conforms to the precepts of the Byzantine eloquence. It is rivalled by another panegyric on Vladimir, written a decade later by Yakov the Monk.

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Ostromir Codex from Novgorod (mid-11th century)

Other 11th-century writers are Theodosius, a monk of the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra, who wrote on the Latin faith and some Pouchenia or Instructions, and Luka Zhidiata, bishop of Novgorod, who has left us a curious Discourse to the Brethren. From the writings of Theodosius we see that many pagan habits were still in vogue among the people. He finds fault with them for allowing these to continue, and also for their drunkenness; nor do the monks escape his censures. Zhidiata writes in a more vernacular style than many of his contemporaries; he eschews the declamatory tone of the Byzantine authors. And here may be mentioned the many lives of the saints and the Fathers to be found in early Russian literature, starting with the two Lives of Sts Boris and Gleb, written in the late 11th century and attributed to Jacob the Monk and to Nestor the Chronicler.

With the so-called Russian Primary Chronicle, also attributed to Nestor, begins the long series of the Russian annalists. There is a regular catena of these chronicles, extending with only two breaks to the 17th century. Besides the work attributed to Nestor, we have chronicles of Novgorod, Kiev, Volhynia and many others. Every town of any importance could boast of its annalists, Pskov and Suzdal among others. In some respects these compilations, the productions of monks in their cloisters, remind us of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, dry details alternating with here and there a picturesque incident; and many of these annals abound with the quaintest stories.

In the 12th century we have the sermons of bishop Cyril of Turov, which are attempts to imitate in Russian the florid Byzantine style. In his sermon on Holy Week, Christianity is represented under the form of spring, Paganism and Judaism under that of winter, and evil thoughts are spoken of as boisterous winds.

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The 12th-century Novgorodian children were literate enough to send each other letters written on birch bark

There are also admirable works of early travellers, as the igumen Daniel, who visited the Holy Land at the end of the 11th and beginning of the 12th century. A later traveller was Afanasiy Nikitin, a merchant of Tver, who visited India in 1470. He has left a record of his adventures, which has been translated into English and published for the Hakluyt Society.

A curious monument of old Slavonic times is the Pouchenie (Instruction), written by the great Vladimir Monomakh for the benefit of his sons. This composition is generally found inserted in the Chronicle of Nestor; it gives a fine picture of the daily life of a Slavonic prince. The Paterik of the Kievan Caves Monastery is a typical medieval collection of stories from the life of monks, featuring devils, angels, ghosts, and miraculous resurrections.

We now come to the famous Lay of Igor's Campaign, which narrates the expedition of Igor Svyatoslavich, prince of Novgorod-Severskiy against the Cumans. It is neither epic nor a poem but is written in rhythmic prose. Any Christian influence is hard to trace, whereas pagan gods and deities are famously invoked by Igor's grieving wife, Yaroslavna, from the walls of Putivl. Of the whole bulk of the Old Russian literature, the Lay is the only work familiar to every educated Russian or Ukrainian. Its brooding flow of images, murky metaphors, and ever changing rhythm haven't been successfully rendered into English yet; the best attempt at translation belongs to Vladimir Nabokov.

The Zadonshchina is a sort of prose poem much in the style of the Tale of Igor's Campaign, and the resemblance of the latter to this piece furnishes an additional proof of its genuineness. This account of the battle of Kulikovo, which was gained by Dmitri Donskoi over the Mongols in 1380, has come down in three important versions.

The early Russian laws present many features of interest, such as the Russkaya Pravda of Yaroslav the Wise, which is preserved in the chronicle of Novgorod; the date is between 1018 and 1072. The laws show Rus at that time to have been in civilization quite on a level with the rest of Europe.

Notable texts

See also:

External links

be:Старабеларуская мова pl:Język staroruski ru:Древнерусский язык uk:Давньоукраїнська мова


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