Russian language

Русский язык (Russkiy yazyk)
Spoken in Russia, countries of the former Soviet Union, emigrant communities around the world, notably Germany, Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia and Latin America.
Total speakers primary language: about 164 million
secondary language: 114 million (2006)[1]
total: 278 million
Ranking 4–7[2]
Language family Indo-European
Writing system Cyrillic (Russian variant)
Official status
Official language in  Russia
 Kazakhstan (co-official)
 Kyrgyzstan (co-official)
 Abkhazia[3] (co-official)
 South Ossetia[3] (co-official)
 Crimea[4] (autonomous republic of Ukraine, co-official)
 Gagauzia (co-official)
 Transnistria (co-official)
 United Nations
Regulated by Russian Language Institute [5] at the Russian Academy of Sciences
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ru
ISO 639-2 rus
ISO 639-3 [

Russian (Russian: русский язык, russkiy yazyk, pronounced ) is a Slavic language primarily spoken in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia and Estonia and, to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics of the USSR.[6]

It is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia, the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages, and the largest native language in Europe. Russian belongs to the family of Indo-European languages and is one of three (or four including Rusyn) living members of the East Slavic languages. Written examples of Old East Slavonic are attested from the 10th century onwards. The language is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Russian distinguishes between consonant phonemes with palatal secondary articulation and those without, the so-called soft and hard sounds. This distinction is found between pairs of almost all consonants and is one of the most distinguishing features of the language. Another important aspect is the reduction of unstressed vowels, which is somewhat similar to that of English. Stress, which is unpredictable, is not normally indicated orthographically[7] though an optional acute accent (знак ударения) may, and sometimes should, be used to mark stress (such as to distinguish between otherwise identical words or to indicate the proper pronunciation of uncommon words or names).


Russian is a Slavic language in the Indo-European family. From the point of view of the spoken language, its closest relatives are Ukrainian and Belarusian, the other two national languages in the East Slavic group. In many places in eastern and southern Ukraine and throughout Belarus, these languages are spoken interchangeably, and in certain areas traditional bilingualism resulted in language mixture, e.g. Surzhyk in eastern Ukraine and Trasianka in Belarus. An East Slavic Old Novgorod dialect, although vanished during the 15th or 16th century, is sometimes considered to have played a significant role in the formation of the modern Russian language. The next closest relatives are the West Slavic languages, especially Polish and Slovak; next are the South Slavic languages, although Bulgarian especially has somewhat different grammar.

The vocabulary (mainly abstract and literary words), principles of word formations, and, to some extent, inflections and literary style of Russian have been also influenced by Church Slavonic, a developed and partly adopted form of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic language used by the Russian Orthodox Church. However, the East Slavic forms have tended to be used exclusively in the various dialects that are experiencing a rapid decline. In some cases, both the East Slavic and the Church Slavonic forms are in use, with many different meanings. For details, see Russian phonology and History of the Russian language.

Russian phonology and syntax (especially in northern dialects) have also been influenced to some extent by the numerous Finnic languages of the Finno-Ugric subfamily: Merya, Moksha, Muromian, the language of the Meshchera, Veps, et cetera. These languages, some of them now extinct, used to be spoken in the center and in the north of what is now the European part of Russia. They came in contact with Eastern Slavic as far back as the early Middle Ages and eventually served as substratum for the modern Russian language. The Russian dialects spoken north, north-east and north-west of Moscow have a considerable number of words of Finno-Ugric origin.[8][9] Over the course of centuries, the vocabulary and literary style of Russian have also been influenced by Western and Central European languages such as Polish, Latin, Dutch, German, French, and English.[10]

According to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, Russian is classified as a level III language in terms of learning difficulty for native English speakers, requiring approximately 780 hours of immersion instruction to achieve intermediate fluency. It is also regarded by the United States Intelligence Community as a "hard target" language, due to both its difficulty to master for English speakers and its critical role in American world policy.

Geographic distribution

During the Soviet period, the policy toward the languages of the various other ethnic groups fluctuated in practice. Though each of the constituent republics had its own official language, the unifying role and superior status was reserved for Russian, although it was declared the official language only in 1990.[11] Following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, several of the newly independent states have encouraged their native languages, which has partly reversed the privileged status of Russian, though its role as the language of post-Soviet national discourse throughout the region has continued.

In Latvia its official recognition and legality in the classroom have been a topic of considerable debate in a country where more than one-third of the population is Russian-speaking (see Russians in Latvia). Similarly, in Estonia, Russophones constitute 25.6% of the country's current population and 58.6% of the native Estonian population is also able to speak Russian.[12] In all, 67.8% of Estonia's population can speak Russian.[12] Command of Russian language, however, is rapidly decreasing among younger Estonians (primarily being replaced by the command of English). For example, if 53% of ethnic Estonians between 15–19 claim to speak some Russian, then among the 10–14 year old group, command of Russian has fallen to 19% (which is about one-third the percentage of those who claim to have command of English).[12]

In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Russian remains a co-official language with Kazakh and Kyrgyz, respectively. Large Russian-speaking communities still exist in northern Kazakhstan, and ethnic Russians comprise 25.6% of Kazakhstan's population.[13]

Those who speak Russian as a mother or secondary language in Lithuania represent approximately 60% of the population of Lithuania. Also, more than half of the population of the Baltic states speak Russian either as foreign language or as mother tongue.[12][14][15] As the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1918, a number of Russian speakers have remained in Finland. There are 33,400 Russian-speaking Finns, amounting to 0.6% of the population. Five thousand (0.1%) of them are late 19th century and 20th century immigrants or their descendants, and the rest are recent immigrants, who have arrived in the 1990s and later.

In the 20th century, Russian was widely taught in the schools of the members of the old Warsaw Pact and in other countries that used to be allies of the USSR. In particular, these countries include Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Albania and Cuba. However, younger generations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system. According to the Eurobarometer 2005 survey,[16] though, fluency in Russian remains fairly high (20–40%) in some countries, in particular those where the people speak a Slavic language and thereby have an edge in learning Russian (namely, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria). It is currently the most widely taught foreign language in Mongolia, and has been compulsory in Year 7 onward as a second foreign language since 2006.[17][18]

Russian is also spoken in Israel by at least 750,000 ethnic Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (1999 census). The Israeli press and websites regularly publish material in Russian. Russian is also spoken as a second language by a small number of people in Afghanistan (Awde and Sarwan, 2003). According to a BBC report from October 2009, Afghan refugee children are learning Russian in school. If they return to Afghanistan, this may create a small population of second-language Russian speakers there, as well.

Sizable Russian-speaking communities also exist in North America, especially in large urban centers of the U.S. and Canada, such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Francisco, Seattle, Spokane, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, Denver and Cleveland. In a number of locations they issue their own newspapers, and live in ethnic enclaves (especially the generation of immigrants who started arriving in the early sixties). Only about a quarter of them are ethnic Russians, however. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of Russophones in North America were Russian-speaking Jews. Afterwards, the influx from the countries of the former Soviet Union changed the statistics somewhat, with ethnic Russians and Ukrainians immigrating along with some more Russian Jews.[vague] According to the United States 2000 Census, Russian is the primary language spoken in the homes of over 700,000 individuals living in the United States.

Significant Russian-speaking groups also exist in Western Europe. These have been fed by several waves of immigrants since the beginning of the 20th century, each with its own flavor of language. Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, Norway, and Austria have significant Russian-speaking communities totaling 3 million people. Australian cities Melbourne and Sydney also have Russian speaking populations, with the most Russians living in southeast Melbourne, particularly the suburbs of Carnegie and Caulfield. Two thirds of them are actually Russian-speaking descendants of Germans, Greeks, Jews, Azerbaijanis, Armenians or Ukrainians, who either repatriated after the USSR collapsed, or are just looking for temporary employment.

Russians in China form one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognized by mainland China.

Recent estimates of the total number of speakers of Russian
Source Native speakers Native rank Total speakers Total rank
G. Weber, "Top Languages",
Language Monthly,
3: 12–18, 1997, ISSN 1369-9733
160,000,000 8 285,000,000 5
World Almanac (1999) 145,000,000 8          (2005) 275,000,000 5
SIL (2000 WCD) 145,000,000 8 255,000,000 5–6 (tied with Arabic)
CIA World Factbook (2005) 160,000,000 8

Official status

Russian is the official language of Russia, although it shares the official status at regional level with other languages in the numerous ethnic autonomies within Russia, such as Bashkortostan, Tatarstan, and Yakutia. It is also an official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and the de facto official[clarification needed] language of the unrecognized country of Transnistria and partially recognized countries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Education in Russian is still a popular choice for both Russian as a second language (RSL) and native speakers in Russia as well as many of the former Soviet republics. Russian is still seen as an important language for children to learn in most of the former Soviet republics.[19][20]

Ninety-four percent[21] of the school students of Russia, 75% in Belarus, 41% in Kazakhstan, 20% in Ukraine,[22] 23% in Kyrgyzstan, 21% in Moldova, 7% in Azerbaijan, 5% in Georgia and 2% in Armenia and Tajikistan receive their education only or mostly in Russian. The percentage of ethnic Russians is 80% in Russia, 10% in Belarus, 36% in Kazakhstan, 27% in Ukraine, 9% in Kyrgyzstan, 6% in Moldova, 2% in Azerbaijan, 1.5% in Georgia and less than 1% in both Armenia and Tajikistan.

Russian-language schooling is also available in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. However, due to recent high school reforms in Latvia (whereby the government pays a substantial sum to a school to teach in the national language), the number of subjects taught in Russian has been reduced in the country.[23][24] The language has a co-official status alongside Romanian in the autonomies of Gagauzia and Transnistria in Moldova. In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in Ukraine, Russian is recognized as a regional language alongside Crimean Tatar. According to a poll by FOM-Ukraine, Russian is the most widely spoken language in Ukraine understood literaly by everyone.[25][26][Need quotation to verify] However, despite its widespread usage, pro-Russian Crimean activists complain about the (mandatory) use of Ukrainian in schools, movie theaters, courts, on drug prescriptions and its use in the media and for government paperwork.[27][28]