Eastern Europe is one of unique regions in terms of language. Slavic languages are very similar in number of ways – the alphabet, grammar and vocabulary are close to identical when comparing, for example, Ukrainian, Russian and Belarus languages. Borders separating Slavic world are not exactly boundaries as Serbs easily understand Ukrainians, Ukrainians understand Poles and Poles find it easy to speak with Czech people. That is why, I chose to pick one of the Slavic languages for analysis, Russian, to be precise.
Russian is mostly heard in Russia but tracks of its influence can be found all over former USSR countries, Eastern and Central Europe and even Cuba. Nevertheless, the most of Russian-speaking people live in the European part of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. This territory stretches from Baltic Sea to Ural Mountains and from Caucasus to White Sea. There are also other areas with big amount of Russian speaking population, like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan or Israel, but they are somewhat distant from the main domain.
Through the course of its history, Russia was a crucible where many nations and languages mixed to create a lively, complex, flexible and vibrant language. This also means that not only roots of Slavic languages are found in Russian; the influences of French, Finno-Ugric and Ural languages are very strong. Numerous smaller languages of the nations that were consumed are represented in Russian in a less apparent manner.
To start with the comparison of Russian with the other languages of the Slavic family it might be interesting to list one fact that I have learned from a native Russian. It states that it is much easier for other Slavs to understand Russian than vice versa.
Russian’s closest relatives, Ukrainian, Belarusian and Rusyn, are very similar in the number of ways. All of them have a relatively large consonant inventory (over 20), moderate vowel inventory (below 10), have no definite or indefinite articles, very close or same number of cases (6-7) and the same word order.
The order of words in a sentence is something to be specially mentioned, as it stands out as one of key difficulties in understanding Russian and some other Slavic languages. Although there is a general regulation and a pattern that in most cases shows the order in which the parts of sentence align, there is no particular word order in Russian, Ukrainian, Belarus and Rusyn. The word order in other Slavic languages is not a very important factor, too. For example, in sentence «Я люблю кушать ванильное мороженное» (I like to eat vanilla ice-cream) any word can swap position with the other one without the loss of even tiny bit of sense or grammar correctness. In Polish, Czech, Slovak and other western Slavic languages this feature is weaker due to influence of Romano-Germanic languages, but still present to some extent.
Differences between Russian and its closest relatives lie mostly in the vocabulary. It is easy to other Slavs to understand Russian, but much harder vice versa. For example, where others Slavs have similar basic words like «кінь», «конь», «koń» (horse), Russian has completely different word «лошадь». Russian has two distinct words for hand an arm, much like all of its neighbors. Russian word «чай» which means tea is derived from Sinitic cha and Ukraine is the western border of this similarity among Slavic languages. Another important difference to be taken into account is the borrowed vocabulary. Russian was greatly influenced by a large number of European and Asian languages through the course of its history. Great Migration, Mongolian Invasion, Napoleonic wars, World Wars I and II are characterized with lots of different people passing through Slavic lands and thus leaving their trace in languages. One of the biggest prides of Russians is their diverse, colorful and almost omnipotent in terms of expressing emotions obscene language. It is the gift of Turk language family. Most notably, Ukrainian (the closest relative of Russian) has no obscene language at all, as Ukrainians use Russian words when they curse or swear. Obscene language is probably one of the most notable aspects of Russian, as it allows its users to communicate easily on various topics while using only 10 words in different forms. Last, but not least issue is the prosodic notation. For Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian it’s made with stress only while other Slavic languages use other ways.
Russian, Ukrainian, Rusyn and Belarusian languages stem from one common ancestor – the Old Slavic language, which was the language of the medieval kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Old Slavic language, in turn, was the descendant of ancient Proto-Slavic language, which is considered the ancestor of all Slavic and Baltic languages, descending from Proto-Indo-European itself. Kievan Rus’ territory was also the place, where important ancient trade routes intersected. The biggest of them were Varangians to the Greeks and Volga trade routes. This combined with constant invasions from eastern nomads and the policy of expansion led Russian to the fate of other imperial languages. It grew to be a dominant way of communication in the region of its reign, but also was doomed to absorb and abduct the features of many other languages and bear traces of cultures long gone or assimilated. During the times of Siberian expansion, Russian Empire consumed hundreds of ethnics that spoke in Ural, Turk and Finno-Ugric languages. Emperor Peter the First in XVIII century proclaimed the western course of the empire, which led to relocation of numerous French, German and Dutch specialists to Russia. There was even a period of time, when Russian nobility spoke French and German while disregarding Russian completely, as it was considered a language of “low people”. Thanks to this prejudice, Russian now contains a lot of Romano-Germanic words.
Russian might have had a lot more in common with other Slavic languages if not for the aggressive expansionist politics. Historically, Russia tried to invade and conquer every other Slavic (except Slovenia) country at least once. This led to a strong Russian antipathy among the Slavic ethnics, which, in turn, led to formation of movements for language preservation. The recent conflict in the Eastern Ukraine has the “Russian versus Ukrainian” language problem as one of key factors that cause strife and unrest. Nevertheless, Russian still has very strong bonds with other languages of Slavic group as it has much more similarities than differences.