Russia Languages

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Introduction

Most records used in Russian research are written in Russian. You need not be fluent in Russian, but you will need some knowledge of Russian to understand Russian records. Reading Russian script in archived records can be very difficult since the old Russian script is unlike the modern Russian, and script is always difficult to decipher.


For Russian to English translations of common genealogical terms see Russian Genealogical Word List.


Russian is the language of the Russian Federation and was the official language of the Soviet Union and of the Russian Empire. It was also used in official records of Poland, Finland, and Alaska. Russian is one of the Slavic languages, which are divided into three groups.

East
  • Russian
  • Belorussian
  • Ukrainian
West
  • Polish
  • Czech
  • Slovak
South
  • Bulgarian
  • Serbo-Croatian
  • Slovenian
  • Macedonian

Alphabetical Order and Spelling

The Russian alphabet consists of 33 Cyrillic letters; 21 consonants, 10 vowels, and two letters without sound. Russian dictionaries and indexes list use the following alphabetical order:

Аа Бб Вв Гг Дд Ee Ёё Жж Зз Ии Йй Kk Лл Mм Нн Oo Пр Pp Сс Тт Уу Фф Хх Цц Чч Шш Щщ Ъъ Ыы Ьь Ээ Юю Яя

However, prior to 1918 when the Russian Academy of Sciences instituted spelling reforms, the alphabet and the spelling rules were different.

Here is a chart that has the printed and handwritten upper and lowercase letters and their English, Polish, and German transliterations. It also includes the letters before 1918 and where they fit in in the alphabet.
File:Russian Alphabet Key.pdf

Other helpful alphabet resources include: For helpful alphabet resources see

The spelling changes you will be most likely to see include:

з changed to (in certain positions) c
i changed to и
ъ no longer used at the end of masculine words Ø
ѣ changed to e
θ changed to ф
v changed to и

Language Characteristics

Variant Forms of Words

In Russian, the endings of most words vary according to gender, number, and usage in a sentence. Who—Whose—whom, or marry—marries—married are examples of words in English with variant forms. Many sources (word lists, dictionaries, etc.) give only the basic, or nominative masculine form. As you read Russian records be aware that almost all words vary with usage.


Gender

Russian words for persons, places, and things (nouns) are classified as masculine, feminine, or neuter. For example, брат (brother) is a masculine word, дочь (daughter) is a feminine word, and свидетельство (certificate) is a neuter word.

Words that describe persons, places or things (adjectives) will have either masculine, feminine, or neuter endings depending on what noun they are describing. For example, in Russian you would write старый брат (old brother), старая сестра (old sister), and старое свидетельство (old certificate). In dictionaries and in the “Russian Genealogical Word List” generally only the masculine form is given.

старый, старая, старое (old) is listed only as старый
глухой, глухая (deaf) is listed only as глухой


Plurals

Plural forms of Russian words usually end in ы, и, а, or я. Thus:

отец—отцы father—fathers
муж—мужья husband—husbands
жена—жены wife—wives
книга—книги book—books
место—местa place—places
замечание—замечания remark—remarks

Again, usually in a dictionary the word is given in the singular, masculine form.


Grammatical Use

The endings of Russian words can also vary depending on the grammatical uses of the words. Russian grammar requires specific endings (called “cases”) on nouns used in the possessive, as the object of a verb, and with a preposition, among others.

Adjectives also must match the nouns they modify in gender, quantity, and grammatical form (case). Russian nouns fall into several classes, each with its own set of grammatical endings. Many dictionaries have grammatical sections which show complete noun and adjective endings.

The following table shows some examples of changing nouns:

Noun Use Translation
город Ø city
города мер города mayor of the city
городе Я жул в городе I lived in the city
сын Ø son
сына я крестил сына I christened the son
сыну я дал сыну I gave to the son
сыном я ушёл с сыном I left with the son
жена Ø wife
жены дом жены home of the wife
жену я видел жену I saw the wife
жене я дал жене I gave to the wife
женой я ушёл ц женой I left with the wife
жене я думал о жене I thought of the wife

The changing of word endings is called “declension” and there are six different cases in Russian. For a more in-depth discussion on Russian cases see Grammar -- Russian Cases (specifically for nouns, though other parts of speech change case depending on their usage as well).

An important note is that it is essential to recognize when a name is written in a different form, and to avoid misinterpreting it as another name. For example, “the child of Ivon” would be “ребенок ивана.” That only means that “иван” is in a different case. It does NOT mean that is a feminine form of the name, that his name is different, that he has variant names, or that “ивана” is a different person than “иван.”


Verbs
Words that show action (verbs) also vary depending on who and how many are doing the action and whether the action is past, present, or future. The variation for verbs is called “conjugation.”

For example, the Russian word жить (to live) will appear with various endings.

Present
я живу I live
ты живёшь you live (informal)
он/она/кто живёт he/she/who lives
мы живём we live
вы живёте you live (formal)
они живут they live
Past
жил singular masculine
жила singular feminine
жили plural or you formal

Not all verb conjugations follow the same pattern. See Russian For Everyone Present Tense of Verbs for more information.

Additional Resources

There are many online resources for Russian grammar and vocabulary. Finding one that works for you should be possible through a simple search engine query.

There are also some printed sources that can be of use. For example, In Their Words: A Genealogist's Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents (Volume 2) by Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman is an excellent resource. There is also A New Russian-English and English-Russian Dictionary by M. Golovinsky. This dictionary is from the 1940s and uses the old spelling rules. Available on microfilm at the Family History Library (Film 1045409 Item 1).

Other

Russian (русский язык tr.: russkiy yazyk, [ˈru.skʲɪj jɪˈzɨk]) is the most widely spoken language of Eurasia and the most widespread of the Slavonic languages.

Russian belongs to the family of Indo-European languages. Within the Slavic branch, Russian is one of three living members of the East Slavic group, the other two being Belarusian and Ukrainian.

Written examples of East Slavonic are attested from the 10th century onwards. While Russian preserves much of East Slavonic synthetic-inflectional structure and a Common Slavonic word base, modern Russian exhibits a large stock of borrowed international vocabulary for politics, science, and technology. A language of great political importance in the 20th century, Russian is one of the official languages of the United Nations.

Of Russia's estimated 150 million large population, it is thought that over 81% speak the official language of Russian as their first and only language. Most speakers of a minority language are also bilingual speakers of Russian. There are over 100 minority languages spoken in Russia today, the most popular of which is Tartar, spoken by more than 3% of the country's population.

Other minority languages include Ukrainian, Chuvash, Bashir, Mordvin and Chechen. Although few of these populations make up even 1% of the Russian population, these languages are prominent in key regional areas.

Although Russian is the only federally official language of the Russian Federation, there are several other officially-recognized languages within Russia's various constituencies. This is a list of languages that are official only in certain parts of Russia.

1. Abaza (in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic)

2. Adyghe (in the Republic of Adygea)

3. Altay (in the Altai Republic)

4. Bashkir (in the Republic of Bashkortostan)

5. Buryat (in Agin-Buryat Autonomous 6. Okrug, Buryat Republic, and Ust- Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug)

7. Chechen (in the Chechen Republic)

8. Chukchi (in Chukotka Autonomous Okrug)

9. Chuvash (in the Chuvash Republic)

10. Dolgan (in Taymyr Autonomous Okrug)

11. Erzya (in the Republic of Mordovia)

12. Evenk (in Evenk Autonomous Okrug)

13. Ingush (in the Republic of Ingushetia)

14. Kabardian (in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic and Karachay-Cherkess Republic)

15. Kalmyk (in the Republic of Kalmykia)

16. Karachay-Balkar (in the Kabardino-Balkar Republic and Karachay-Cherkess Republic)

17. Khakas (in the Republic of Khakassia)

18. Khanty (in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug)

19. Komi-Zyrian (in the Komi Republic)

20. Koryak (in Koryak Autonomous Okrug)

21. Mansi (in Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug)

22. Mari (in the Mari El Republic)

23. Moksha (in the Republic of Mordovia)

24. Nenets (in Nenets Autonomous Okrug)

25. Nogai (in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic)

26. Ossetic (in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania)

27. Tatar (in the Republic of Tatarstan)

28. Tuvin (in the Tuva Republic)

29. Udmurt (in the Udmurt Republic)

30. Yakut (in the Sakha Republic)

31. Yiddish (in Jewish Autonomous Oblast)

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