East Slavic languages

The East Slavic languages constitute one of the three regional subgroups of Slavic languages. These languages are currently spoken natively throughout Eastern Europe and extend eastwards to Siberia and the Russian Far East; while being also spoken as a lingua franca in many regions of Caucasus and Central Asia. Speakers of East Slavic languages far out-number the West Slavic and South Slavic language families.

East Slavic
Eurasia (Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and the Caucasus)
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
Early form
ISO 639-5zle
Lenguas eslavas orientales.PNG
Distribution of the East Slavic languages

The common consensus is that the existing East Slavic languages are Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian,[1] Rusyn is mostly considered as a separate language but some classify it as a dialect of Ukrainian.[2]

The East Slavic languages descend from a common predecessor, Rus' language, the language spoken in medieval Kievan Rus' (9th to 13th centuries), which later evolved into Ruthenian, the language of Grand Duchy of Lithuania (13th to 18th centuries) in the Dnipro river valley, and into Russian, the language of Grand Duchy of Moscow (13th to 16th centuries) in the Volga river valley accordingly. All these languages use the Cyrillic script, but with particular modifications. Belarusian and Ukrainian languages, descendants of Ruthenian, have a tradition of Latin alphabets, Belarusian Łacinka and Ukrainian Latin alphabet, also Rusyn uses Latin in some regions.




The East Slavic territory exhibits a linguistic continuum with many transitional dialects. Between Belarusian and Ukrainian there is the Polesian dialect, which shares features from both languages. East Polesian is a transitional variety between Belarusian and Ukrainian on one hand, and between South Russian and Ukrainian on the other hand. At the same time, Belarusian and Southern Russian form a continuous area, making it virtually impossible to draw a line between the two languages. Central or Middle Russian (with its Moscow sub-dialect), the transitional step between the North and the South, became a base for the Russian literary standard. Northern Russian with its predecessor, the Old Novgorod dialect, has many original and archaic features. Due to the influence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth over many centuries, Belarusian and Ukrainian have been influenced in several respects by Polish, a West Slavic language / Lechitic. Ruthenian, the mixed Belarusian-Ukrainian literary language with a Church Slavonic substratum and Polish adstratum, was, together with Middle Polish, an official language in Belarus and Ukraine until the end of the 18th century.


sound Letters
Russian Belarusian Ukrainian Rusyn
/ʲe, je/ е е є є
/e/ э э е е
/i/ и і і і
/ʲi/ ї
/ji/ ї
/ɨ/ ы ы - ы
/ɪ/ - - и и
/ɤ/ - - - ы
/ʲo/ ё ё ьо ё


Isoglosses Northern
Standard Russian
(Moscow dialect)
Standard Belarusian Standard Ukrainian Examples
of unstressed /o/ (akanye)
no yes[n 1] no[n 2]
pretonic /ʲe/ (yakanye) /ʲe/ /ʲi/ /ʲa/ /e/[n 3] R. земля́ /zʲiˈmlʲa/,
B. зямля́ /zʲaˈmlʲa/,
U. земля́ /zeˈmlʲa/
Proto-Slavic *i /i/ /ɪ/[n 4] R. лист /ˈlʲist/,
B. ліст /ˈlʲist/,
U. лист /ˈlɪst/
Proto-Slavic *y /ɨ/
stressed CoC /o/ /i/[n 5][n 6] R. ночь /ˈnot͡ɕ/,
B. ноч /ˈnot͡ʂ/,
U. ніч /ˈnʲit͡ʃ/
Proto-Slavic *ě /e̝~i̯ɛ~i/ /e/ R. се́мя /ˈsʲemʲa/,
B. се́мя /ˈsʲemʲa/,
U. сі́м'я /ˈsʲimja/
Proto-Slavic *c /t͡s/[n 7] /t͡s, t͡sʲ/
Proto-Slavic *č /t͡ɕ/[n 8] /t͡ʂ/ /t͡ʃ/ R. час /ˈt͡ɕas/,
B. час /ˈt͡ʂas/,
U. час /ˈt͡ʃas/
"time (of day)"
Proto-Slavic *skj, zgj /ɕː/,[n 9] /ʑː/ /ʂt͡ʂ/, /ʐd͡ʐ/ /ʃt͡ʃ/, /ʒd͡ʒ/
soft dental stops /tʲ/, /dʲ/[n 10] /t͡sʲ/, /d͡zʲ/ /tʲ/, /dʲ/ R. де́сять /ˈdʲesʲitʲ/,
B. дзе́сяць /ˈd͡zʲesʲat͡sʲ/,
U. де́сять /ˈdesʲatʲ/
Proto-Slavic *v /v, f/ /w/ /v/
[v, w]
[β, w]
R. о́стров /ˈostraf/,
B. во́страў /ˈvostrau̯/,
U. о́стрів /ˈostriw/
/f/ (including devoiced /v/) /f/[n 11] /x~xv~xw~xu̯/
Prothetic /v~w~u̯/ no[n 12] yes
Proto-Slavic *g /ɡ/ /ɣ/ /ɦ/
Hardening of final soft labials no yes
Hardening of soft /rʲ/ no yes partially
Proto-Slavic *CrьC, ClьC,
CrъC, CrъC
/rʲe/, /lʲe/,
/ro/, /lo/
/rɨ/, /lʲi/,
/rɨ/, /lɨ/
/rɪ/, /lɪ/,
/rɪ/, /lɪ/
Proto-Slavic *-ъj-, -ьj- /oj/, /ej/ /ɨj/, /ij/ /ɪj/
Proto-Slavic adj. end. *-ьjь /ej/ /ij/,[n 13] /ej/ /ej/[n 14] /ij/ /ɪj/, /ij/
Proto-Slavic adj. end. *-ъjь /oj/ /ɨj/,[n 13] /oj/ /oj/[n 15] /ɨj/ /ɪj/
Loss of the vocative case no yes[n 16] no
3 sg. & pl. pres. ind. /t/ /tʲ/ /t͡sʲ/ /tʲ/ R. ду́мают /ˈdumajut/,
B. ду́маюць /ˈdumajut͡sʲ/,
Uk. ду́мають /ˈdumajutʲ/
"(they) think"
Dropping out
of 3 sg. pres. ind. ending (in e-stems)
no yes
3 sg. masc. past ind. /v~w~u̯/[n 17] /l/ /v, w/ R. ду́мал /ˈdumal/,
B. ду́маў /ˈdumau̯/,
U. ду́мав /ˈdumaw/
"(he) thought"
2nd palatalization in oblique cases no yes R. руке́ /ruˈkʲe/,
B. руцэ́ /ruˈt͡se/,
U. руці́ /ruˈt͡sʲi/
(locative or prepositional case)


  1. ^ Except for the Polesian dialect of Brest
  2. ^ Except for the Eastern Polesian dialect
  3. ^ Consonants are hard before /e/
  4. ^ Except for some dialects
  5. ^ In some Ukrainian dialects C/o/C can be /y~y̯e~y̯i~u̯o/
  6. ^ In some Ukrainian dialects PSl *ě can be /e̝~i̯ɛ/
  7. ^ Can be /s/ in South Russian
  8. ^ Can be /ɕ/ in Southern Russian
  9. ^ Can be /ɕt͡ɕ/, /ʂː/
  10. ^ In Russian light affrication can occur: [tˢʲ] , [dᶻʲ]
  11. ^ In some Northern Russian sub-dialects /v/ is not devoiced to /f/
  12. ^ Except for восемь "eight" and some others
  13. ^ a b Only unstressed, Church Slavonic influence
  14. ^ Stressed, unstressed is usually reduced to [ʲəj]
  15. ^ Stressed, unstressed is usually reduced to [əj]
  16. ^ In colloquial Russian, new vocative has appeared from a pure stem: мам, пап, Маш, Вань etc.
  17. ^ In the dialect of Vologda


When the common Old East Slavic language became separated from the ancient Slavic tongue common to all Slavs is difficult to ascertain, though in the 12th century the common language of Rus' is still referred to in contemporary writing as Slavic.

Therefore, a crucial differentiation has to be made between the history of the East Slavic dialects and that of the literary languages employed by the Eastern Slavs. Although most ancient texts betray the dialect their author or scribe spoke, it is also clearly visible that they tried to write in a language different from their dialects and to avoid those mistakes that enable us nowadays to locate them.

In both cases one has to keep in mind that the history of the East Slavic languages is of course a history of written texts. We do not know how the writers of the preserved texts would have spoken in everyday life.

Influence of Church SlavonicEdit

After the conversion of the East Slavic region to Christianity the people used service books borrowed from Bulgaria, which were written in Old Church Slavonic.[3] The Church Slavonic language was strictly used only in text, while the colloquial language of the Bulgarians was communicated in its spoken form.

Throughout the Middle Ages (and in some way up to the present day) there existed a duality between the Church Slavonic language used as some kind of 'higher' register (not only) in religious texts and the popular tongue used as a 'lower' register for secular texts. It has been suggested to describe this situation as diglossia, although there do exist mixed texts where it is sometimes very hard to determine why a given author used a popular or a Church Slavonic form in a given context. Church Slavonic was a major factor in the evolution of modern Russian, where there still exists a "high stratum" of words that were imported from this language.[4]


  1. ^ Sussex & Cubberley 2006, pp. 79–89.
  2. ^ "Dulichenko, Aleksandr The language of Carpathian Rus': Genetic Aspects" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-06-25. Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  3. ^ Sussex & Cubberley 2006, pp. 63–65.
  4. ^ Sussex & Cubberley 2006, pp. 477–478.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit