Russian (русский язык) is the official language of Russia and Belarus and is widely spoken throughout the former members of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia and Estonia. It is also one of the official languages of the United Nations. There are an estimated 160 million native speakers and in total 275 million speakers worldwide, making it the fifth most spoken language in the world and the most widely spoken Slavic language. It is closely related to Ukrainian and Belarusian, and often used interchangeably with them; in some areas a mixed language has evolved (for example Trasianka, a Russian-Belarusian ‘interlanguage’).
Russian uses a modified Cyrillic alphabet with 33 letters. It may be transliterated using the Latin alphabet, though this practice is becoming less common as Unicode character encoding becomes more widely available. The original Cyrillic alphabet (known as ‘Slavonic’) was invented in the ninth century by two Greek missionaries.
Early borrowings came from Germanic languages as well as Old Church Slavonic and Byzantine Greek. During the period of the Russian Empire, specialised vocabulary was adopted from Western European languages, e.g. naval vocabulary from Dutch. A significant amount of modern vocabulary derives from English, particularly in the fields of science and technology, e.g. компьютер (computer) and вебсайт (website). English words derived from Russian include ‘vodka’, ‘tsar’ and ‘sputnik’.
Russia’s political and scientific accomplishments in the mid-twentieth century helped to establish Russian as a prestigious world language. Despite traditionally being considered a difficult language to learn, it has become more popular with language learners as it has gained in international prominence, and thanks to the esteemed literary works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, among others.
The first Grammar of the Russian Language was written in the mid-eighteenth century. Despite attempts to homogenise the Russian language after 1900, there are a number of dialects in existence which can be broadly categorised into the three following groups: ‘Northern’, ‘Central’ (including Moscow) and ‘Southern’. A major spelling reform in 1918 aimed to eliminate inconsistencies and simplify orthography.
The first Russian Academy was founded in the eighteenth century by Catherine II of Russia. These days the Russian Language Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, founded in 1944, regulates the Russian language.
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