Ruthenian language

Not to be confused with Rusyn language.
"Old Belarusian" redirects here. It is not to be confused with Classical Belarusian.
Old Ruthenian
рус(c)кий языкъ[1][2] rus(s)kij jazykŭ
Native to Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (language of administration of Grand Duchy of Lithuania until 1699)
Extinct developed into Belarusian, Ukrainian and Rusyn.
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Linguist list
Glottolog None

Ruthenian (or Old Belarusian, Old Ukrainian, see other names) was the group of varieties of Eastern Slavonic spoken in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and later in the East Slavic territories of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The written form is also called Chancery Slavonic by Lithuanian linguists.[3]

Scholars do not agree whether Ruthenian was a separate language, or a Western dialect or set of dialects of Old East Slavic, but it is agreed that Ruthenian has a close genetic relationship with it. Old East Slavic was the colloquial language used in Kievan Rus' (10th–13th centuries).[4] Ruthenian can be seen as a predecessor of modern Belarusian, Rusyn and Ukrainian. Indeed, all these languages, from Old East Slavic to Rusyn, have been labelled as Ruthenian (Ukrainian: рутенська мова, русинська мова).


Ruthenian language grammar by Stepan Smal-Stotsky

In modern texts, the language in question is sometimes called "Old Belarusian" or starabiełaruskaja mova (Belarusian: “Старабеларуская мова”) and "Old Ukrainian" or staroukrajinska mova (Ukrainian: “Староукраїнська мова”). As Ruthenian was always in a kind of diglossic opposition to Church Slavonic, this vernacular language was and still is often called prosta(ja) mova (Cyrillic проста(я) мова), literally "simple language".

On the other hand, there exists a school of thought that Old Belarusian and Old Ukrainian must be considered as separate historical languages.

Names in contemporary use
Names in modern use

Note that ISO/DIS 639-3 and SIL currently assigns the code rue for the language which is documented with native name "русин (rusyn)", that they simply named "Ruthenian" in English (and "ruthène" in French) instead "modern Ruthenian" (and "ruthène moderne" in French) : this code is now designated as the Rusyn language.

Divergence between literary Ruthenian and literary Russian

As Eastern Europe gradually freed itself from the "Tatar yoke" in the 14th century, two separate mainly East Slavic states emerged: the Grand Duchy of Moscow (Muscovy), which eventually evolved into the Tsardom of Russia and subsequently the Russian Empire; and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which covered roughly the territories of modern Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, and western Russia, and later united with Poland to form the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Linguistically, both states continued to use the regional varieties of the literary language of Kievan Rus', but due to the immense Polish influence in the west and to the Church Slavonic influence in the east, they gradually developed into two distinct literary languages: Ruthenian in Lithuania and the Commonwealth, and (Old) Russian in Muscovy. Both were usually called Ruskij (of Rus’) or Slovenskij (Slavonic); only when a differentiation between the literary language of Muscovy and the one of Lithuania was needed was the former called Moskovskij 'Muscovite' (and, rarely, the latter Lytvynskij 'Lithuanian').

This linguistic difference is confirmed by the need for translators during the mid-17th-century negotiations for the Treaty of Pereyaslav, between Bohdan Khmelnytsky, ruler of the Zaporozhian Host, and the Tsardom of Russia.

Continuing Polish influence

After the Union of Lublin in 1569, the southern territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania came under direct administration by the Polish Crown, whereas the north retained some autonomy. It is possible that this resulted in differences concerning the status of Ruthenian as an official language and the intensity of Polish influence on Ruthenian. However, in both parts of the Commonwealth inhabited by Eastern Slavs, Ruthenian remained a lingua franca, and in both parts it was gradually replaced by Polish as a language of literature, religious polemic, and official documents.

New national languages

With the beginning of romanticism at the beginning of the 19th century, literary Belarusian and literary Ukrainian appeared, descendant from the popular spoken dialects and little-influenced by literary Ruthenian. Meanwhile, Russian retained a layer of Church Slavonic "high vocabulary", so that nowadays the most striking lexical differences between Russian on the one hand and Belarusian and Ukrainian on the other are the much greater share of Slavonicisms in the former and of Polonisms in the latter. In his 1827 Little Russian Folksongs Mykhaylo Maksymovych used a new orthography for the Ukrainian language which was based on etymology. Maksymovychivka looked quite similar to Russian, but it was a first step towards an independent orthography. In 1834, Maksimovich was appointed professor and the first rector of Russian literature at the newly created Saint Vladimir University in Kiev, established by the Russian government to reduce Polish influence in Ukraine.[6]

The split between literary Ruthenian and the successor literary languages can be seen at once in the newly designed Belarusian and Ukrainian orthographies.

The interruption of the literary tradition was especially drastic in Belarusian: In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish had largely replaced Ruthenian as the language of administration and literature. After that Belarusian only survived as a rural spoken language with almost no written tradition until the mid-19th century.

In contrast to the Belarusians and Ukrainians, the Western Ruthenians who came to live in Carpathian Mountains in Austria-Hungary retained not only the name Ruthenian but also much more of the Church Slavonic and Polish elements of Ruthenian. For disambiguation, in English these people are usually called by the native form of their name, Rusyns.

Thus, in the 19th century, the literary Ruthenian language had evolved into three modern literary languages. For their further development, see Belarusian language, Rusyn language, and Ukrainian language.

See also


  1. Ж. Некрашевич-Короткая. Лингвонимы восточнославянского культурного региона (историчесикий обзор) // Исследование славянских языков и литератур в высшей школе: достижения и перспективы: Информационные материалы и тезисы докладов международной научной конференции / Под ред. В. П. Гудкова, А. Г. Машковой, С. С. Скорвида. — М., 2003. — С. 150 — 317 с.
  2. Начальный этап формирования русского национального языка, Ленинград 1962, p. 221
  3. e.g., Elana Goldberg Shohamy and Monica Barni, Linguistic Landscape in the City (Multilingual Matters, 2010: ISBN 1847692974), p. 139: "[The Grand Duchy of Lithuania] adopted as its official language the literary version of Ruthenian, written in Cyrillic and also known as Chancery Slavonic"; Virgil Krapauskas, Nationalism and Historiography: The Case of Nineteenth-Century Lithuanian Historicism (East European Monographs, 2000: ISBN 0880334576), p. 26: "By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Chancery Slavonic dominated the written state language in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania"; Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction Of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (Yale University Press, 2004: ISBN 030010586X), p. 18: "Local recensions of Church Slavonic, introduced by Orthodox churchmen from more southerly lands, provided the basis for Chancery Slavonic, the court language of the Grand Duchy."
  4. Ukrainian language, Encyclopædia Britannica
  5. Cited in Улащик Н. Введение в белорусско-литовское летописание. — М., 1980.
  6. Mykhaylo Maksymovych


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