The Languages of Russia
Sometimes we need to change something in our life. Our readers
remember that we had the rubric “Around Russia”, where I tried to give as much useful
information about the capital as possible. Today, when the format of our newspaper is
altered, the rubric will also be a bit changed. From now on we will speak not only about
Moscow, but also about the whole of Russia.
The first question I asked myself when I started thinking about
possible subjects to write about was the following: “What should I start with?”
Finally, I came to the decision that I’ll tell you about the different languages that
exist in Russia. My choice can be explained, first of all, by the fact that our newspaper
is all about language, and, secondly, just at the beginning of the new year, we will
mention the peoples who inhabit the territory of the Russian Federation. So, let us start!
As we all know, Russia is a multinational country, which means it is a
multilingual one. Linguists count about 150 different languages here, among which
scientists paid attention to all languages, starting with Russian, spoken by 97 per cent
of the population, and finishing with the language of a small community of 662 people
living near the Amur River.
Some languages are very similar: representatives of different peoples
can speak their own language and perfectly well understand each other. For example, a
Russian can talk to a Byelorussian, a Tatar to a Bashkir, a Kalmyk to a Buryat. Some
languages, despite the fact they have a lot in common, can not be so easily understood.
This is the case of a Mari and a Mordvinian, a Lezghin and an Avar. And, finally, there
are the so-called isolated languages, i.e. those which are completely different from all
The majority of languages in Russia derive from one of four big
language families: Indo-European, Altaic, Uralic and Caucasian ones. Each language
family has its common ancestor language. Many centuries ago tribes, speaking the same
languages, were constantly moving to other territories, mixing with other ones, hence the
division of a language into several branches.
Russian, for example, belongs to the Indo-European group of
languages. There belong also such languages as English, German, Spanish and many
others. A part of this group unites Slavic languages – Bulgarian, Czech, Polish.
About 87 per cent of the population of Russia speaks languages of the
Indo-European group; only 2 per cent of them are not Slavic. Among them let us mention
German and Yiddish; Armenian (it makes a separate group alone); Iranian languages:
Ossetic, Kurdish, Tajik; Romanic languages: Moldavian; and even Newindian spoken by
The Altaic group of languages is represented by three groups,
such as Turkic, Mongolian and Tungus-Manchurian. One of the Uralic group of languages
consists of the Finno-Ugric group. “Finno” has nothing to do with the state language
of Finland: languages forming this group simply have similar grammar and sounding. Among
peoples speaking the Finnish languages we could name Karelians, Komis, Maris, Udmurts,
Mordvinians, and Lapps.
As for the northern Caucasian language group, only specialists
are able to point out their origins and common roots. These languages have a very
complicated grammar and phonetics. There are sounds which do not exist in other languages.
One of the branches of the northern Caucasian group is the Daghestan
group, which includes, for example, the language of Avars, Lezghins and many other
peoples. Daghestan is often referred to as “a mountain of languages” and “a paradise
for linguists” as the field of work for them in this country is enormous.
There are some languages which do not belong to any of four above
mentioned groups. These are languages of peoples in Siberia and the Far East. All of them
are represented only by small tribal communities of speakers (Chukchis, Koryaks, Eskimos,
No doubt, there are many different languages; but people still need a
common one. In Russia it is the Russian language, because Russians represent the majority
of the population in the country.
Of course, all languages are valuable, and we must do everything to
preserve them; but there is no possibility to publish all books in every language: still,
this can be done in the language spoken by millions.
Some peoples in Russia are, unfortunately, losing their mother tongue,
and the list of such nations is quite long. In our towns and cities Russian is becoming
more and more popular and very often the only one used. Nevertheless, there are national
cultural centres trying to do their best in order to save their identities.
Most peoples in Russia did not have any written languages at all till
the 1920s. Georgians, Armenians and Jews were an exception. Germans, Polish, Lithuanians,
Letts, Estonians, and Finns used the Latin alphabet. Some languages do not have any
written form even today.
The first attempt to create written languages for peoples in Russia
were undertaken before the Revolution. Starting from 1936 everyone in the country was
taught to write using the Slavonic alphabet, as it was believed that the common system
could assist in learning the Russian language quickly.
Questions to the Next Part:
1. How would you characterise the typical physical appearance of
2. Where does the name ‘Russian’ come from?
3. Why is it difficult to give the precise number of Russians living in the country in the
4. What was the policy of the Soviet government concerning their attitude towards
5. What country did the word “sarafan” come from?
6. Why did married women have to wear headgears?
7. What were the most popular women’s headgear? When?
Compiled by Alevtina Kozina