: ''Cyrillic letters in this article are romanized using scientific transliteration.'' Old East Slavic (traditionally also: Old Russian, Belarusian: старажытнаруская мова; Russian: древнерусский язык; Ukrainian: давньоруська мова) was a language used during the 10th–15th centuries by East Slavs in Kievan Rus' and its successor states, from which the Belarusian, Russian, Rusyn, and Ukrainian languages later evolved.


The current widely accepted name of the language is ''Old East Slavic'', in reference to the modern family of East Slavic languages. Its original speakers were the Slavic tribes inhabiting territories of today's Belarus, the western edge of Russia, and western and central Ukraine. Although the language is sometimes called "Old Russian" (; russian: древнерусский язык|translit=drevnerusskij jazyk) "with a bow to tradition", this term is a misnomer, because initial stages of the language which it denotes predate the dialectal divisions marking the nascent distinction between modern East Slavic languages (Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian). ''Old East Slavic'' is therefore the more appropriate term. Some scholars replaced the anachronistic “Russian” with an adjective for ''Rus'', using the name Rus'ian, Rusian (with one "s"), or Rus' language (), although these are less commonly used forms. In the context of the history of Ukrainian, George Shevelov referred to historical phases of the language as Proto-Ukrainian and Old Ukrainian, using criteria based on the available sources: the PU period (up to the mid 11th century) having no sources written down by speakers in Ukraine, and the OU period (from the mid 11th to the 14th century) represented by texts chiefly compiled in Church Slavonic but preserving evidence of Old East Slavic in Ukraine. The periodization of the literary language represents great changes and breaks resulting from events in cultural and political history; in contrast, the spoken language of Ukraine "shows a surprising continuity in development from prehistoric times to our day."

General considerations

The language was a descendant of 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 pleophony (or ''polnoglasie'' 'full vocalisation'), which came to differentiate the newly evolving East Slavic from other Slavic dialects. For instance, Common Slavic ''*gordъ'' 'settlement, town' was reflected as OESl. ''gorodъ'', Common Slavic ''*melko'' 'milk' > OESl. ''moloko'', and Common Slavic ''*korva'' 'cow' > OESl ''korova''. Other Slavic dialects are differed by resolving the closed-syllable clusters *eRC and *aRC as liquid metathesis (South Slavic and West Slavic), or by no change at all (see the article on ''Slavic liquid metathesis and pleophony'' for a detailed account). Since extant written records of the language are sparse, it is difficult to assess the level of its unity. In consideration of the number of tribes and clans that constituted Kievan Rus, it is probable that there were many dialects of Old East Slavonic. Therefore, today we may speak definitively only of the languages of surviving manuscripts, which, according to some interpretations, show regional divergence from the beginning of the historical records. Nonetheless, by 1150 it had more unity than any other branch of Slavic, showing the fewest local variations. With time, it evolved into several more diversified forms, which were the predecessors of the modern Belarusian, Russian, Rusyn and Ukrainian languages. The regional language differences on Old Russian lands took place between 1300 and 1800. Thus different variations evolved of the Russian language in the regions of Novgorod, Moscow, South Russia and meanwhile the Ukrainian language was also formed. Separation of Russian and Belarusian took place by 1700. Each of these languages preserves much of the Old East Slavic grammar and vocabulary. Especially Russian language borrows much of the vocabulary from Church Slavonic. However, findings by Russian linguist Andrey Zaliznyak suggests that, in the 11th century, the Novgorodian Russian language differed from the Kiev language as well as from all other Slavic languages much more than in later centuries, meaning that there was no common Old East Slavic language of Kievan Rus' from which Ukrainian, Russian and Belorusian languages diverged, but that the Russian language developed as a convergence of the Novgorod language and other Russian dialects. Also, Russian linguist Sergey Nikolaev, analysing historical development of Slavic dialects’ accent system, concluded that a number of other tribes in Kievan Rus came from different Slavic branches and spoke distant Slavic dialects. Another Russian linguist G. A. Khaburgaev as well as a number of Ukrainian linguists (Stepan Smal-Stotsky, Ivan Ohienko, George Shevelov, Yevhen Tymchenko, Vsevolod Hantsov, Olena Kurylo) deny the existence of a common Old East Slavic language at any time in the past. According to them, the dialects of East Slavic tribes evolved gradually from the common Proto-Slavic language without any intermediate stages. When after the end of the 'Tatar yoke' the territory of former Kievan Rus was divided between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the medieval Rus' principality Grand Principality of Moscow, two separate literary traditions emerged in these states, Ruthenian in the west and medieval Russian in the east.

Literary language of Kievan Rus'

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. The Old Church Slavonic language was introduced. 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 to pre-Christian Slavs in European Russia using some form of writing. Despite some suggestive archaeological finds and a corroboration by the tenth-century monk Chernorizets Hrabar that ancient Slavs wrote in "strokes and incisions", the exact nature of this system is unknown. 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 Slavonic 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 of the original excerpt has been partly modernized. The translations are best attempts at being literal, not literary.

Primary Chronicle

, from the Laurentian Codex, 1377: Early language; fall of the yers in progress or arguably complete (several words end with a consonant; кнѧжит "to rule" < кънѧжити, modern Uk , R , B ). South Slavic features include времѧньнъıх "bygone"; modern R , modern Ukr , modern B . Correct use of perfect and aorist: єсть пошла "is/has come" (modern R ), нача "began" (modern R as a development of the old perfect.) Note the style of punctuation.

Tale of Igor's Campaign

Слово о пълку Игоревѣ. , from the Pskov manuscript, fifteenth cent. Illustrates the sung epics, with typical use of metaphor and simile. It has been suggested that the phrase растекаться мыслью по древу (to run in thought upon/over wood), which has become proverbial in modern Russian with the meaning "to speak ornately, at length, excessively," is a misreading of an original мысію (akin to "mouse") from "run like a squirrel/mouse on a tree"; however, the reading мыслью is present in both the manuscript copy of 1790 and the first edition of 1800, and in all subsequent scholarly editions.

Old East Slavic literature

The Old East Slavic language developed a certain literature of its own, though much of it (in hand with those of the Slavic languages that were, after all, written down) was influenced as regards style and vocabulary by religious texts written in Church Slavonic. Surviving literary monuments include the legal code ''Justice of the Rus'' (''Руська правда'' ), a corpus of hagiography and homily, the 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 earliest dated specimen of Old East Slavic (or, rather, of Church Slavonic with pronounced East Slavic interference) must be considered the written ''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 East Slavic 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. Other eleventh-century writers are Theodosius, a monk of the Kyiv Pechersk 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 East Slavic literature, starting with the two Lives of Sts Boris and Gleb, written in the late eleventh century and attributed to Jacob the Monk and to Nestor the Chronicler. With the so-called 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 seventeenth century. Besides the work attributed to Nestor the Chronicler, 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 Herodotus, dry details alternating with here and there a picturesque incident; and many of these annals abound with the quaintest stories. In the twelfth century we have the sermons of bishop Cyril of Turov, which are attempts to imitate in Old East Slavic 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. There are also admirable works of early travellers, as the igumen Daniel, who visited the Holy Land at the end of the eleventh and beginning of the twelfth 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 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 Novhorod-Siverskyi against the Cumans. It is neither epic nor a poem but is written in rhythmic prose. An interesting aspect of the text is its mix of Christianity and ancient Slavic religion. Igor's wife Yaroslavna famously invokes natural forces from the walls of Putyvl. Christian motifs present along with depersonalised pagan gods in the form of artistic images. Another aspect, which sets the book apart from contemporary Western epics, are its numerous and vivid descriptions of nature, and the role which nature plays in human lives. Of the whole bulk of the Old East Slavic 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. Indeed, the meanings of many words found in it have not been satisfactorily explained by scholars. 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 laws of Rus’ 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.


The earliest attempts to compile a comprehensive lexicon of Old East Slavic were undertaken by Alexander Vostokov and Izmail Sreznevsky in the nineteenth century. Sreznevsky's
Materials for the Dictionary of the Old Russian Language on the Basis of Written Records
' (1893–1903), though incomplete, remained a standard reference until the appearance of a 24-volume academic dictionary in 1975–99.

Notable texts

* ''Bylinas'' * ''The Tale of Igor's Campaign'' – the most outstanding literary work in this language * ''Russkaya Pravda'' – an eleventh-century legal code issued by Yaroslav the Wise * ''Praying of Daniel the Immured'' * ''A Journey Beyond the Three Seas''

See also

* Old Church Slavonic * Belarusian language * History of the East Slavic languages * Russian language * Rusyn language * Ruthenian language * Slavic languages * Ukrainian language * List of Latvian words borrowed from Old East Slavic


* *

External links

Old Russian Online
by Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum, free online lessons at th
Linguistics Research Center
at the University of Texas at Austin
Ostromir's Gospel Online

Online library of the Old Russian texts

The Pushkin House
a great 12-volumed collection of ancient texts of the 11th–17th centuries with parallel Russian translations
library of Old East Slavic chronicles with Ukrainian and Russian translations {{Authority control Category:Belarusian language Category:Russian language Category:Ukrainian language