Common Russian

Common Russian (also called Common Eastern Slavic). The name of the hypothetical uniform language of the Eastern Slavs, which presumably arose after the disintegration of Common Slavic and which itself later disintegrated to form three new languages: Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian. The concept of Common Russian is typical of the neogrammarian school of linguistics, with its view of linguistic development as a ‘genealogical tree,’ symbolizing the gradual disintegration of larger languages into smaller ones, and with its concomitant underestimation of the opposite linguistic processes, the integration and hybridization of languages. Chronologically, Common Russian is considered by some to have existed from the 7th or 8th century to the 13th or 14th century (Aleksei Sobolevsky, Vatroslav Jagić, Fedot Filin, et al) and by others only to the 10th or 11th century (Oleksander Potebnia, Ahatanhel Krymsky, and, in part, Leonid Bulakhovsky). The theory of Common Russian is based on the fact that several morphological and important phonetic changes took place identically in all the East Slavic languages prior to the appearance of the first written texts (ie, to the mid-11th century). These changes included the following: (1) the ending -ě developed in the accusative plural of jo stems and in the genitive singular and nominative/accusative plural of ja stems (also in the West Slavic as opposed to the South Slavic -ę); (2) the ending -ьм’ъ, -ьмь developed in the instrumental singular of masculine and neuter nouns (also in the West Slavic as opposed to the South Slavic -oìь, -eìь); (3) pleophony, with the splitting of CealC into ColoC and CeleC, depending on pitch (molóty [to grind], but véleten' [giant]). C here represents any consonant; (4) CilC became CъlC (volk/ vovk [wolf]); (5) *tj became č (krutyty; kruču [to turn; I turn]); (6) *jea became o- (ozero [lake]); (7) the change of nasal vowels into u, a (dub [oak], v'jaz [elm tree]).

Attempts to refute the theory of Common Russian by the derivation of contemporary East Slavic languages directly from Common Slavic (Omelian Ohonovsky, Stepan Smal-Stotsky et al) were not generally accepted. Nevertheless, further study of the history of Ukrainian language and other East Slavic languages revealed the artificiality of the Common Russian theory, which stressed similar phenomena, but ignored differences peculiar to the dialects of the Eastern Slavs of that period. The first attempt to explain these discrepancies fully was made by Aleksei Shakhmatov, who accepted Common Russian as existing only for a short period—the 7th–8th century—and who posited its subsequent disintegration into three dialectal groups (the northern, from which he derived the northern Russian dialects; the southern, which gave rise to Ukrainian; and the southeastern, from which he derived the south Russian and Belarusian dialects); its new integration in the 11th and 12th century under the unifying influence of the Kyivan Rus’ state; and its definitive disintegration starting in the 13th century. Tadeusz Lehr-Spławiński and Nikolai Trubetskoi described the prehistoric peculiarities of the northern East Slavic dialects. Now it is possible to speak of four original East Slavic dialectal groups, which can conditionally be called the Galicia-Podilia, Kyiv-Polisia, Polatsk-Riazan, and Novgorod-Suzdal groups. The most characteristic features of the Galicia-Podilia group were as follows: the raising of the vowels e and o before a syllable with a weak jer, the shift from *dj to , and probably the dispalatalization of consonants before e. The main characteristics of the Kyiv-Polisia group were the diphthongal pronunciation of ě, the beginnings of the diphthongization of e and o under accent before a syllable with a weak jer, the dispalatalization of r', the preservation of k- in words of the type kvit (flower), and, dialectally, the shift from ę to e in the unaccented position. The Polatsk-Riazan group was characterized mainly by akan'e, the change of ě into e, and the splitting of ea into o and e under accent, depending on the palatalization/non-palatalization of the following consonant. The characteristics of the Novgorod-Suzdal group include, dialectally, cokan'e and the shift from ě to i, the second pleophony, the transition of jers into o and e before j. The Ukrainian language arose from the crossing of the first two groups, Belarusian from that of parts of the second and third groups, and Russian from the crossing of parts of the third and fourth groups.

Set against the dialectal fragmentation of the vernacular of Kyivan Rus’ was the determination of all the educated members of the Byzantine rite to share a standardized literary language. Church Slavonic was that literary language; imported mainly from Bulgaria, it was subject to adaptations to local speech habits in varying degrees, depending on the extent of a particular writer's mastery of the imported, bookish language. This language cannot be referred to as Common Russian.

Trubezkoy, N. ‘Einiges über die Auflösung der gemeinrussischen Spracheinheit,’ Zeitschrift für slavische Philologie, 1 (1924)
Smal'-Stots'kyi, S. Rozvytok pohliadiv pro sim'iu slov'ians'kykh mov (Prague 1927)
Filin, F. Proiskhozhdenie russkogo, ukrainskogo i belorusskogo iazykov (Leningrad 1972)
Shevelov, G. A Historical Phonology of the Ukrainian Language, esp chap 14 (Heidelberg 1979)

George Yurii Shevelov

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]

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