The Ancient Russian Language

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Let's get acquainted with the Ancient Russian language!


Imagine yourself a medieval warrior, a noble or maybe a monk. Imagine, that there is a Xth century AD behind your door. A christianity is not divided yet, there are no catholic or orthodox churches. Fearless vikings rule over the whole North Europe. Erik the Red discovers the Greenland, and his son Leif Erikson travels even further, to North America. In Britain people speak in Anglo-Saxon language, and nobody thinks about any Norman invasions. In France a Capetian dynasty establishes, in the place of Carolings. Mieszko becomes a first king of Poland, the young state at that moment. A Bulgarian army gains victory over Byzantine Empire in the battle of Achelous. On the far East, in Corea, the united state is established. In Chinese chronicles the first battle use of gunpowder is fixed. The classic literature work, “The Tale of Genji”, is created in Japan.


This is the time of the Ancient Russian state. On the vast territory, from White Sea to Black sea, many cities emerge. There live many different tribes – mostly Slavic (Krivichs, Vyatichs, Polans, Severyans, Dregovits etc) and Finno-Ugric (Merya, Meshchera, Muroma etc). By the way, among warriors and merchants you can find many vikings – Varangians – here. Xth century AD is truly the age of vikings! A new Russian state quickly grows and becomes a serious power. Russian princes destroy Khazar Khanate in the East and threaten to a Byzantine Empire in the South. The main language of the new state is the Ancient Russian language.


Why do we need to study the Ancient Russian? Many of people, studying Russian language (as well as Ukrainian and Belorussian), know, that in these languages there are many things, that seem to be strange and illogical. But (surprise!) most of those things can be easily decrypted with a help of the Ancient Russian. For example, when studying a plural number in Russian, students often ask – why a word “приказ” (= a command) in plural gives us a form “приказы”, “алмаз” (= a diamond) - “алмазы”, “камаз” (= a KAMAZ truck) - “камазы”, but a word “глаз” (an eye) unexpectedly gives us a form “глаза” (and not “глазы”)? Where is the logic? The Ancient Russian language helps us to reveal the secret. In the Ancient Russian a special dual number, along with singular and plural, existed (as for modern languages, you can find a dual number, well, in Arabic). And the form “глаза” (since each of us has two eyes on the face) – it is not the “true” plural, it is the ancient dual number.


Another example – declination of nouns. Why a dative case of the word “сын” (= a son) gives us a form “сыну”, but a word “сон” in the same situation gives us a form “сну”? Or, well, a word “олень” (a deer) in the same dative case gives us “оленю”, but a word “пень” (= a treestump) - “пню”? Why a vowel dissappears? With the help of the Ancient Russian we can reveal this secret too. A word “пень” in the Ancient Russian was written as “пьнь”, and a letter “ь” wasn't a silent “soft sign” (as it is in modern Russian), but it was a real vowel with a sound close to “e”. And in the dative case a word “пьнь” gave a form “пьню” - notice, there is no any vowel dissappearance! But later a sound “ь” in Russian language vanished. In positions, where it was under a stress, it turned into a vowel “e” (“пень”), and where it was not stressed, it turned into a – BANG! - empty space (“пню”).

By the way, the Ancient Russian language was more alike English and other Germanic languages, than a modern Russian. For example, everybody knows, that a modern Russian (unlike English) has a very simple verb tenses system (past, present, future). Or, unlike English, a modern Russian doesn't use a word “to be” in the present tense – Russians say “я ученик” (= I am a pupil), “мы люди” (= we are people), “она дочь” (= she is a daughter). In the Ancient Russian a verb “to be” was used in a present tense - “азъ ieсмь оученикъ”, “мы iесмъ люди”, “она iесть дъчерь”. In the Ancient Russian, just like in English, existed a complex system of verb tenses. In a modren Russian it is impossible to find a construction like “я был ходил” (= I was gone), but in the Ancient Russian such a construction (“азъ былъ ходилъ”) was absolutely normal.


Some phenomena of the Anicent Russian have dissappeared from the modern Russian, but are preserved in Ukrainian and Belorussian languages. For example, the Ancient Russian sentence “имамъ въ роуце книгоу” (= I have a book in my hand) can be translated in a modern Russian as “у меня в руке книга”. Notice, that in the word “рука” (= a hand) a sound “к” in the nominative case doesn't transform into a sound “ц” in the locative case. But Ukrainian and Belorussian languages keep this interesting phenomena: “у мене в руці книга” (Ukrainian), “ў мяне ў руцэ кніга” (Belorussian). But what is the most surprising – most of all the Ancient Russian sentence is alike a sentence in a modern Czech language: “mám v ruce knihu”!


A modern Russian language differs rather strongly from the Ancient Russian. Many ancient words disappear, e.g. “стрый” (= a father's brother, modern Russian “дядя”), “волхв” (= a wizard, MR “волшебник”), “сеча” (= a battle, MR “битва”), “смерд” (= a peasant, MR “крестьянин”), “послух” (= a witness, MR “свидетель”). Some words was changed – for example, AR “камы” vs MR “камень”, AR “козьля” vs MR “козлёнок” etc. Other words changed their meaning, like “муж” (AR “a man” vs MR “a husband”), “жена” (AR “a woman” vs MR “a wife”), “лето” (AR “a year” vs MR “a summer”), “лоб” (AR “a scull” vs MR “a forhead”), “стол” (AR “a throne” vs MR “a table”). On the gold coins of prince Vladimir (end of Xth century) you can find an inscription “Владимiръ на столе а сь его сьребро” - surely, it must be translated as “Vladimir is on the throne, and this is his coin”, not as “Vladimir is on the table...” *lol* 

Nevertheless, the difference between Ancient Russian and modern Russian language is not as deep, as the difference, well, between modern English and Anglo-Saxon language. If you know some Russian (or Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish, Slovak or any other Slavic language), you can begin to read Ancient Russian texts rather quickly.


Let us try to read a small fragment of the Ancient Russian text. First, you should study a following table with the Ancient Russian alphabet. It is alike a modern Russian alphabet, but it has more letters, and some letters are written in different way. More, in Ancient Russian numbers were written by letters, for example, a letter “a” was used as “1”, a letter “б” - as “2”, a letter “г” - as “3”, a letter “д” - as “4”, a letter “л” - as “30” and so on (check the rightmost column of the table). To indicate numbers and abbreviated words, like “глъ” instead of “глаголъ” (= a word) or “кнзь” instead of “кънязь” (= a prince), a special sign (“titlo”) was put above letters.

Let us take some Ancient Russian text. Here I use a fragment containing a legend about prince Oleg's death (Oleg was a prince of Novgorod since 879 and prince of Kiev since 882) from the marvelously illustrated “Radziwill Manuscript”. This manuscript (also known as a Koningsberg Chronicle) nowdays is kept in the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. The legend of Oleg's death is dated to 912 year AD. (NB: You can easily find a full resolution versions of these pictures in the Photo Gallery of this site). (NB2: The transcribed fragment begins in the middle of the 3rd line on the 1st page and ends at the end of the 3rd line of the second page).

Interesting, ain't it? Let me ease your task a bit - I will rewrite the ancient text and add spaces between single words and dots between sentences.

Here's a translation onto a modern Russian language.


И жил Олег, княжа в Киеве, мир имея со всеми странами. И пришла осень, и вспомнил Олег коня своего, которого прежде поставил кормить, решив никогда на него не садиться. Ибо спрашивал он волхвов и кудесников: "От чего я умру?". И сказал ему один кудесник: "Князь! От коня твоего любимого, на котором ты ездишь, - от него тебе и умереть". Олег же обдумал слова эти и сказал так: "Никогда не сяду на него и не увижу его больше". И повелел кормить его и не водить его к нему, и прожил несколько лет, не видя его, пока не пошел на греков. А когда вернулся в Киев и прошло 4 года, - на пятый год помянул он своего коня, от которого волхвы предсказали ему смерть. И призвал он старшего конюха и сказал: "Где конь мой, которого приказал я кормить и беречь?". Тот же ответил: "Умер". Олег же посмеялся и укорил того кудесника, сказав: "Неверно говорят волхвы, но все то ложь: конь умер, а я жив". И приказал оседлать себе коня: "Хочу увидеть кости его". И приехал на то место, где лежали его голые кости и череп голый, слез с коня, посмеялся и сказал: "От этого ли черепа смерть мне принять?". И ступил он ногою на череп, и выползла из черепа змея, и ужалила его в ногу. И от того разболелся и умер. Оплакивали его все люди плачем великим, и понесли его, и похоронили на горе, называемою Щековица; есть же могила его и доныне, слывет могилой Олеговой. И было всех лет княжения его 33.


And here's a translation onto English.


And dwelled Oleg, being prince in Kiev, and having peace with all countries. And the autumn came, and remembered Oleg about his steed, that he had set to feed with the decision never to ride him. Since he asked wizards and mages: “Of what shall I die?”. And told him one mage: “Prince! Of thy favorite steed on who thou ride – of him thou shalt die”. Oleg thought about these words and said so: “Never shall ride him and never shall see him”. And ordered to feed him and not to lead him to him. And lived for several years not seeing him, until went to war on Greeks. And when he returned to Kiev and 4 years passed, on the fifth year he remembered about his steed, of whom his death mages had predicted. And called he for a main stableman and said: “Where is my steed, who I ordered to feed and to keep?”. That one answered: “Died”. Oleg laughed and reproached that mage, saying: “Wrong say wizards, but everything is a lie – the steed is dead, and I am alive”. And ordered to saddle a steed: “I wish to see bones of him”. And rided to a place, where naked bones were lying and a naked scull, dismounted, laughed and said: “Whether of this scull shall I die?”. And stepped his leg on the scull, and out of the scull a snake crawled, and stinged him in his leg. And from that became sick and died. Mourned him all people with a great weep, and carried him, and buried on the mountain, that is named Shchekovitsa; there's still his grave and is known as Oleg's grave. And was all years of his being prince 33.