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According to most ethnologists, ethnic Russians originated from the earlier Rus people (East Slavs or Kievan Rus) and gradually evolved into a different ethnicity from the western Rus peoples, who became the modern-day Belarusians and Ukrainians. Early ancestors of the Russians were East Slavic tribes migrating to the East European Plain in the early Middle Ages. Most prominent Slavic tribes in the area of what is now European Russia included Vyatichs, Krivichs, Radimichs, Severians and Ilmen Slavs. By the 11th century, East Slavs assimilited the Finno-Ugric tribes Merya and Muroma and the Baltic tribe Eastern Galindae that used to populate the same area with them (now Central Russia).
Russian is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia, the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages, and the largest native language in Europe.
Written examples of Old East Slavonic are attested from the 10th century onwards. Today Russian is widely used outside Russia. Over a quarter of the world's scientific literature is published in Russian. It is also applied as a means of coding and storage of universal knowledge — 60–70% of all world information is published in English and Russian languages. Russian also is a necessary accessory of world communications systems (broadcasts, air- and space communication, etc). Due to the status of the Soviet Union as a superpower, Russian had great political importance in the 20th century. Hence, the language is one of the official languages of the United Nations.
Russian distinguishes between consonant phonemes with palatal secondary articulation and those without, the so-called soft and hard sounds. This distinction is found between pairs of almost all consonants and is one of the most distinguishing features of the language. Another important aspect is the reduction of unstressed vowels, which is not entirely unlike that of English. Stress in Russian is neither indicated orthographically, nor governed by phonological rules.
Russian is a Slavic language in the Indo-European family. From the point of view of the spoken language, its closest relatives are Ukrainian and Belarusian, the other two national languages in the East Slavic. In many places in eastern Ukraine and Belarus, these languages are spoken interchangeably, and in certain areas traditional bilingualism resulted in language mixture, e.g. Surzhyk in eastern Ukraine and Trasianka in Belarus. An East Slavic Old Novgorod dialect, although vanished during the fifteenth or sixteenth century, is sometimes considered to have played a significant role in formation of the modern Russian language.
The vocabulary (mainly abstract and literary words), principles of word formation, and, to some extent, inflections and literary style of Russian have been also influenced by Church Slavonic, a developed and partly adopted form of the South Slavic Old Church Slavonic language used by the Russian Orthodox Church. However, the East Slavic forms have tended to be used exclusively in the various dialects that are experiencing a rapid decline. In some cases, both the East Slavic and the Church Slavonic forms are in use, with slightly different meanings.
Russian phonology and syntax (especially in northern dialects) have also been influenced to some extent by the numerous Finnic languages of the Finno-Ugric subfamily: Merya, Moksha, Muromian, the language of the Meshchera, Veps, et cetera. They came in contact with Eastern Slavic as far back as the early Middle Ages and eventually served as substratum for the modern Russian language. The Russian dialects spoken north, north-east and north-west of Moscow have a considerable number of words of Finno-Ugric origin. Over the course of centuries, the vocabulary and literary style of Russian have also been influenced by Tatar language, Polish, Latin, German, Dutch, French, English and other Western European languages.
According to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, Russian is classified as a level III language in terms of learning difficulty for native English speakers, requiring approximately 780 hours of immersion instruction to achieve intermediate fluency. It is also regarded by the United States Intelligence Community as a "hard target" language, due to both its difficulty to master for English speakers as well as due to its critical role in American world policy.
Russian is primarily spoken in Russia and, to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics of the USSR. Until 1917, it was the sole official language of the Russian Empire. During the Soviet period, the policy toward the languages of the various other ethnic groups fluctuated in practice. Though each of the constituent republics had its own official language, the unifying role and superior status was reserved for Russian. Following the break-up of 1991, several of the newly independent states have encouraged their native languages, which have partly reversed the privileged status of Russian, though its role as the language of post-Soviet national intercourse throughout the region has continued.
In Latvia, notably, its official recognition and legality in the classroom have been a topic of considerable debate in a country where more than one-third of the population is Russian-speaking, consisting mostly of post-World War II immigrants from Russia and other parts of the former USSR (Belarus, Ukraine). Similarly, in Estonia, the Soviet-era immigrants and their Russian-speaking descendants constitute 25,6% of the country's current population and 58,6% of the native Estonian population is also able to speak Russian. In all, 67,8% of Estonia's population can speak Russian.
In many Central Asian countries, Russian is still the lingua franca of commerce, education, et cetera. Despite it is no longer being the official language and many ethnic Russians having left these countries, large Russian-speaking communities still exist in northern Kazakhstan.
A much smaller Russian-speaking minority in Lithuania has largely been assimilated during the decade of independence and currently represents less than 1/10 of the country's overall population. Nevertheless more than half of the population of the Baltic states are able to hold a conversation in Russian and almost all have at least some familiarity with the most basic spoken and written phrases. The Russian control of Finland in 1809–1918, however, has left few Russian speakers in Finland. There are 33,400 Russian speakers in Finland, amounting to 0.6% of the population. 5000 (0.1%) of them are late 19th century and 20th century immigrants, and the rest are recent immigrants, who have arrived in the 90's and later.
In the twentieth century, Russian was widely taught in the schools of the members of the old Warsaw Pact and in other countries that used to be allies of the USSR. In particular, these countries include Poland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania and Cuba. However, younger generations are usually not fluent in it, because Russian is no longer mandatory in the school system. It was, and to a lesser extent still is, taught in Mongolia due to Soviet influence.
Russian is also spoken in Israel by at least 750,000 ethnic Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union (1999 census). The Israeli press and websites regularly publish material in Russian.
Sizable Russian-speaking communities also exist in North America, especially in large urban centers of the U.S. and Canada such as New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Baltimore, Miami, Chicago, Denver, and the Cleveland suburb of Richmond Heights. In the former two Russian-speaking groups total over a half of a million. In a number of locations Russians issue their own newspapers, and live in their self-sufficient neighborhoods (especially the generation of immigrants who started arriving in the early sixties). It is important to note, however, that only about a quarter of them are ethnic Russians. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming majority of Russophones in North America were Russian-speaking Jews. Afterwards the influx from the countries of the former Soviet Union changed the statistics somewhat. According to the United States 2000 Census, Russian is the primary language spoken in the homes of over 700,000 individuals living in the United States.
Significant Russian-speaking groups also exist in Western Europe. These have been fed by several waves of immigrants since the beginning of the twentieth century, each with its own flavor of language. Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Brazil, Norway, Austria, and Turkey have significant Russian-speaking communities totaling 3 million people.
Two thirds of them are actually Russian-speaking descendants of Germans, Greeks, Jews, Armenians, or Ukrainians who either repatriated after the USSR collapsed or are just looking for temporary employment.
Earlier, the descendants of the Russian émigrés tended to lose the tongue of their ancestors by the third generation. Now, because the border is more open, Russian is likely to survive longer, especially because many of the emigrants visit their homelands at least once a year and also have access to Russian websites and TV channels.
Russian is the official language of Russia. It is also an official language of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and the de facto official language of unrecognized Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Education in Russian is still a popular choice for both Russian as a second language (RSL) and native speakers in Russia as well as many of the former Soviet republics.
97% of the public school students of Russia, 75% in Belarus, 41% in Kazakhstan, 25% in Ukraine, 23% in Kyrgyzstan, 21% in Moldova, 7% in Azerbaijan, 5% in Georgia and 2% in Armenia and Tajikistan receive their education only or mostly in Russian. Although the corresponding percentage of ethnic Russians is 78% in Russia, 10% in Belarus, 26% in Kazakhstan, 17% in Ukraine, 9% in Kyrgyzstan, 6% in Moldova, 2% in Azerbaijan, 1.5% in Georgia and less than 1% in both Armenia and Tajikistan.
Russian-language schooling is also available in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, but due to education reforms, a number of subjects taught in Russian are reduced at the high school level. The language has a co-official status alongside Romanian in the autonomies of Gagauzia and Transnistria in Moldova, and in seven Romanian communes in Tulcea and Constanţa counties. In these localities, Russian-speaking Lipovans, who are a recognized ethnic minority, make up more than 20% of the population. Thus, according to Romania's minority rights law, education, signage, and access to public administration and the justice system are provided in Russian alongside Romanian. In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in Ukraine, Russian is an officially recognized language alongside with Crimean Tatar, but in reality, is the only language used by the government, thus being a de facto official language.
Despite leveling after 1900, especially in matters of vocabulary, a number of dialects exist in Russia. Some linguists divide the dialects of the Russian language into two primary regional groupings, "Northern" and "Southern", with Moscow lying on the zone of transition between the two. Others divide the language into three groupings, Northern, Central and Southern, with Moscow lying in the Central region. Dialectology within Russia recognizes dozens of smaller-scale variants.
The dialects often show distinct and non-standard features of pronunciation and intonation, vocabulary, and grammar. Some of these are relics of ancient usage now completely discarded by the standard language.
Russian is written using a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet. The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters.
Russian spelling is reasonably phonemic in practice. It is in fact a balance among phonemics, morphology, etymology, and grammar; and, like that of most living languages, has its share of inconsistencies and controversial points. A number of rigid spelling rules introduced between the 1880s and 1910s have been responsible for the latter whilst trying to eliminate the former.
The current spelling follows the major reform of 1918, and the final codification of 1956. An update proposed in the late 1990s has met a hostile reception, and has not been formally adopted.
The punctuation, originally based on Byzantine Greek, was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries reformulated on the French and German models.
The phonological system of Russian is inherited from Common Slavonic, but underwent considerable modification in the early historical period, before being largely settled by about 1400.
The language possesses five vowels, which are written with different letters depending on whether or not the preceding consonant is palatalized. The consonants typically come in plain vs. palatalized pairs, which are traditionally called hard and soft. The standard language, based on the Moscow dialect, possesses heavy stress and moderate variation in pitch. Stressed vowels are somewhat lengthened, while unstressed vowels tend to be reduced to near-close vowels or an unclear schwa.
The political upheavals of the early twentieth century and the wholesale changes of political ideology gave written Russian its modern appearance after the spelling reform of 1918. Political circumstances and Soviet accomplishments in military, scientific, and technological matters (especially cosmonautics), gave Russian a world-wide prestige, especially during the middle third of the twentieth century.
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