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Russia - Language

The Russian alphabet is called Cyrillic from its founder St. Cyril, brother of Methodius who was a literary as well as religious apostle to the Slavs. It is strange that the Cyrillic should have become identified everywhere with Greek Orthodoxy, for St. Cyril, in spite of all attempts to prove the contrary, was indisputably a Catholic in close communion with Rome where, indeed, he lies buried.

Russian is a version of the Slavonic family of languages, more exactly part of the so-called 'Eastern' Slavonic grouping, including Russian, White Russian and Ukrainian. As such it uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which is in turn largely based upon that of the Greeks. The language is phonetic - pronounced as written, or 'as seen'. Translating into or from English gives rise to many problems and the vast majority of these arise because English is not a straightforward language, offering many pitfalls of pronunciation.

Accordingly, Russian words must be translated through into a phonetic form of English and this can lead to different ways of helping the reader pronounce what he or she sees. Every effort has been made to standardize this, but inevitably variations creep in. While reading from source to source this might seem confusing and/or inaccurate but it is the name as pronounced that is the constancy, if not the spelling of that pronunciation!

The 20th letter of the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet looks very much like a T but in English is pronounced as a 'U' as in the word 'rule'. This is a good example of the sort of problem that some Western sources have suffered from in the past (and occasionally get regurgitated even today) when they make the mental leap about what they see approximating to an English letter.

The Russian Language is the largest branch of the Slavic or Slavonic group of the Indo-European family of languages. It is subdivided into Great Russian, Little Russian, and White Russian. Great Russian was the official and literary language of the whole Russian Empire, while Little Russian and White Russian were often improperly considered mere dialects. The three branches of Russian form the Eastern group of the Slavic languages. Polish, Czech, and Wendish are termed West-Slavic, and Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, and Slovenian are the South-Slavic languages.

The Russian Alphabet may be considered as an enlarged Greek alphabet. The many letters added have rendered it as nearly phonetic as can be desired, because it not only expresses each sound by means of one character, but it has also the practical advantage of expressing even complex sounds by means, of only one character. Its large number of letters is therefore not to be regarded as an inconvenience by beginners, but as a real and useful simplification, both with regard to orthography and pronunciation. Certain letters are indeed somewhat * puzzling at first sight on account of their similarity to English letters having a different value. Of the thirty six letters which compose the Russian alphabet, twelve are vowels; three are semi-vowels; the twenty-one others are consonants. The Russian alphabet is much better adapted to represent the sounds of the Russian language than the common Latin alphabet is suited for the requirements of the English language. Still, the discrepancies between sound and letter are wide enough to make a phonetic transliteration indispensable to the beginner.

The earliest authentic history of the Slavonic nations, of which Russia is the great modern exponent, fades away amidst the traditions, legends, and tales which have just been noticed. Herodotus mentions a people which are supposed to have been a tribe of the Slavi; and some allusions to their country and race are made by Strabo, Pliny, and Tacitus.

The invention and introduction of the national writing, constitutes an important epoch in the history of Russian literature. Through its instrumentality, apparently, the common popular language, or Russian vernacular, was separated from the old church, or proper Sclavonic language. The earliest manuscripts in the Slavonic language are not older than the time of the eleventh century. There are some inscriptions and devices upon the crosses and monuments perhaps older than that date. The earliest records by native writers were written about the middle of the eleventh century. A code of laws was enacted as early as 1280, and recorded in the native language. And Russia, like Greece, and indeed like most other nations, has its epic poem. It is called "Igor's Expedition," and is supposed to have been written in the twelfth century.

The national writing distinguished itself from the church writing, in the first place, by its similitude to the Latin character; and secondly, by its omission of the accent, and of the unnecessary letters Semla, Ishe, Ick, Ott, Jest, Ja, Ksi, Psi, Juss, and Ishiza. This alphabet, however, still underwent several changes. About 1716 the letter Ishe, and in 1718 Ishiza, were re-admitted; and in 1733 Sdlo was substituted for Semla, but Ishiza and Ksi were excluded. The letter E was also restored to its place; and since that time the present Russian alphabet has continued unaltered. It is much to be lamented, that at the time of its first employment not a man was found capable of assisting Peter to ground the Russian alphabet on the true principles and genius of the language. All the efforts of later writers to improve, or even partially to alter it, have been hitherto in vain.

The Russian language during this period underwent numerous changes, from which it derived, however, but little advantage. Peter the Great, in his introduction of European customs, sciences, and arts, into Russia, looked only to things, and paid but little attention to words. In this way many foreign expressions, particularly military and naval words, crept into the Russian language ; as for instance, all things relating to shipbuilding were called by their Dutch names, and all subjects connected with arms derived their nomenclature from the English, which they have retained to this day. In the style of learned writers, of common conversation, and of mercantile affairs, a tremendous confusion ensued: Sclavonic and common Russian phrases, corrupted foreign words, (as for instance, Fuhrleit,) and many antiquated Russian ones, were promiscuously mixed with each other.

Russian literature can not be said to have had a beginning before the reign of Peter the Great, at the close of the seventeenth century. He adopted the Russian language in his courts of justice, and in diplomacy, and made it the polite language of the nation. He had type cast, and established presses, and caused many books to be translated into the Russian from other languages particularly from the German and French; indeed, Peter the Great was to Russia very much what Alfred the Great was to England; still, up to this time even, the Russian language had no systematic grammar, and of course but little attention had been paid to style.

This chaos equally prevailed in books of history and rhetorical works, and waited till some genius should be born to reduce the Russian style to order and uniformity. One party of authors asserted the rights of the Sclavonic language, and showed their violence against those who ventured to write in Russian. Another was ostentatious of the use of foreign idioms, of their familiarity with the Latin grammars, and their cleverness in verbal minutiae. Only one poet (Kantemir) and some other talented writers knew how to avail themselves of a suitable language as the medium for their works. In the mean time, no one thought of occupying himself in digesting and arranging the Russian grammar.

if Peter the Great laid the foundation of Russian literature, Lomonosof must be regarded as its architect. As most great benefactors are, he was humbly born; his father was a fisherman. His Russian grammar brought his native language from chaos into order, and he was the first one who cultivated style. He sketched the history of his country, and wrote several works on chemistry and mineralogy. He also composed a long epic poem, as well as several odes and tragedies, but they do not rank high; he was rather a philosopher than a poet.

The sciences and arts are easily translated from one country into another by the invitation and encouragement of learned men: they speak a universal language, intelligible by all the nations of the earth. But it is otherwise with literature, which is the free, unforced production of its native soil. The ordinances of kings and of governments may accelerate its progress or its decline, but to create it is beyond their power. It rises spontaneously, or at least not till a long time after the throwing in of the seed. Peter the Great paved the way for the success of Russian literature, but was not permitted to live till it attained maturity. The authors of his time were, as it were, brought over from the preceding era, and their works bore the stamp of the 17th century.

Prince Kropotkin said "In no country does literature occupy so influential a position as in Russia." This being the case, if one would understand Russia and the Russians it is of the utmost importance to familiarize one's self with Russian literature. The rewards for so doing are great, for one finds here .some of "the supreme heaven-dwellers in the Pantheon of Literature." No literature "is more individual, more characteristic, more distinctly national, more sharply, radically, diametrically and unmistakably different from all other literatures, past and present." No portrayals of social and individual life are more realistic. By universal consent Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevski take the foremost rank in Russian letters.

Throughout Soviet history, the arts played an integral role in influencing the population. In particular, literature has served as the main political instrument through which the leadership has regulated cultural currents. As, by Stalin's definition, the "engineers of human souls," writers were required to bolster policies sanctioned by the leadership. All writers, whether or not members of the party-controlled Union of Writers, submitted their works for party approval. After Stalin's death, writers experienced a brief literary thaw when some party constraints lessened. Not until the late 1980s, however, did the regime loosen its previously confining strictures on literary form and content.

It was widely believed that poetry in the Soviet Union lost its place to newspapers and periodicals that robbed literature of its readers. Prior to glasnost, non-official literature in the Soviet Union was more than a literary event; it was often the only mode of political discourse available to the literate public. Thhe result is "new literature" and a two-tiered system of commercially viable versus externally subsidized publications primarily for select audiences. Memoirs of old Chekists were rare in Soviet literature.

Russian language and culture had special status throughout the Soviet Union. The Russian language has been the common language in government organizations as well as in most economic, social, and cultural institutions. Higher education in many fields Was provided almost exclusively in Russian, and mastery of that language has been an important criterion for admission to institutions of higher learning. Administrative and supervisory posts in non-Russian republics were often held by Russians having little knowledge of the native language. In 1986 Russian was the language used to publish 78 percent of the books by number of titles and 86 percent of the books by number of copies. The publication of magazines and newspapers printed in Russian and in the other indigenous languages has been equally disproportionate.




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Page last modified: 11-02-2016 19:49:38 ZULU