The East Slavic languages constitute one of three regional subgroups of the Slavic languages, distinct from the West and South Slavic languages. East Slavic languages are currently spoken natively throughout Eastern Europe, and eastwards to Siberia and the Russian Far East.[1] In part due to the large historical influence of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Russian language is also spoken as a lingua franca in many regions of Caucasus and Central Asia. Of the three Slavic branches, East Slavic is the most spoken, with the number of native speakers larger than the Western and Southern branches combined.

East Slavic
Eurasia (Eastern Europe, Northern Asia, and the Caucasus)
Linguistic classificationIndo-European
Early forms
ISO 639-5zle

The common consensus is that Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian are the existent East Slavic languages;[2] some linguists also consider Rusyn to be a separate languages,[3][4] although it is sometimes considered to be a dialect of Ukrainian.[5]

The modern East Slavic languages descend from a common predecessor spoken in Kievan Rus' from the 9th to 13th centuries, which later evolved into Ruthenian, the chancery language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the Dnieper river valley, and into medieval Russian in the Volga river valley, the language of the Russian principalities including the Grand Duchy of Moscow.

All these languages use the Cyrillic script, but with particular modifications. Belarusian and Ukrainian, which are descendants of Ruthenian, have a tradition of using Latin-based alphabets—the Belarusian Łacinka and the Ukrainian Latynka alphabets, respectively (also Rusyn uses Latin in some regions, e.g. in Slovakia). The Latin alphabet is traditionally more common in Belarus, while the usage of the Cyrillic script in Russia and Ukraine could never be compared to any other alphabet.[6]



Modern East Slavic languages include Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian. The Rusyn language is sometimes considered the fourth living language of the group, its status as an independent language being the subject of scientific debate.[7]

Distinctive features




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.

Ruthenian, the ancestor of modern Belarusian and Ukrainian, was the official language of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as "Chancery Slavonic" until the end of the 17th century when it was gradually replaced by the Polish language. It was also the native language of the Cossack Hetmanate until the end of the 18th century, when the Ukrainian state completely became part of the Russian Empire in 1764.[8] The Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk from 1710 is one of the most important written sources of the Ruthenian language. Due to the influence of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth over many centuries, Belarusian and Ukrainian have been influenced in several respects by Polish, a Lechitic West Slavic language. As a result of the long Polish-Lithuanian rule, these languages had been less exposed to Church Slavonic, featuring therefore less Church Slavonicisms than the modern Russian language, for example:

Comparison of the word "sweet"
Ukrainian Belarusian Russian
солодкий (solodkyj) салодкі (salodki) сладкий (sladkij)

Additionally, the original East Slavic phonetic form was kept in many words in Ukrainian and Belarusian, for example:

Comparison of the word "unit"
Ukrainian Belarusian Russian
одиниця (odynycia) адзінка (adzinka) eдиница (edinica)

In general, Ukrainian and Belarusian are also closer to other Western European languages, especially to German (via Polish). At the same time Russian was being heavily influenced by Church Slavonic (South Slavic language), but also by the Turkic and Uralic languages.[9] For example:

Comparison of the word "to search"
Ukrainian Belarusian Russian
шукати (šukaty) шукаць (šukać) искать (iskat́)
Compare Polish "szukać" and Old Low German "sōkian" (German "suchen") Compare Bulgarian "искам" (iskam) and Serbo-Croatian "искати" (iskati)

What's more, all three languages do also have false friends, that sometimes can lead to (big) misunderstandings.[10] For example, Ukrainian орати (oraty) — "to plow" and Russian орать (orat́) — "to scream", or Ukrainian помітити (pomityty) — "to notice" and Russian пометить (pometit́) — "to mark".





The alphabets of the East Slavic languages are all written in the Cyrillic script, however each of them has their own letters and pronunciations. Russian and Ukrainian have 33 letters, while Belarusian has 32. Additionally, Belarusian and Ukrainian use the apostrophe (') for the hard sign, which has the same function as the letter Ъ in Russian.

Cyrillic alphabets comparison table
East Slavic languages
Russian А Б В Г Д Е Ё Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш Щ Ъ Ы Ь Э Ю Я
Belarusian А Б В Г Д Е Ё Ж З І Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ў Ф Х Ц Ч Ш ' Ы Ь Э Ю Я
Ukrainian А Б В Г Ґ Д Е Є Ж З И І Ї Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш Щ ' Ь Ю Я

Some letters, that are not included in the alphabet of a language, can be written as diagraphs. For example, the letter Ё, which doesn't exist in the Ukrainian alphabet, can be written as ЙО (ЬО before and after consonants), while the letter Щ is written as ШЧ in Belarusian (compare Belarusian плошча and Ukrainian площа ("area")).

There are also different rules of usage for certain letters, e.g. the soft sign (Ь) cannot be written before and after the letter Ц in Russian, because such combination straightforwardly doesn't exist in the Russian language, while in Ukrainian and especially Belarusian, on the contrary, it's a relatively common maneuver. Moreover, the Russian Щ is always pronounced softly (palatalization).

Standard Ukrainian, unlike all the other Slavic languages (excl. Serbo-Croatian), does not exhibit final devoicing. Nevertheless, this rule is not that clear when listening to colloquial Ukrainian. It's one of the typical deviations that occur in the Ukrainian spoken language.[11]

Other orthographic differentiations (false friends)


Besides the differences of the alphabets, there are also quite many false friends. For example, one of the common false friends, the letter И (romanized as I for Russian and Y for Ukrainian), which in Russian is mostly pronounced as /i/ (identical with the Ukrainian І), while in Ukrainian it's mostly pronounced as /ɪ/ (very similar to the Russian Ы). Other examples:

"False friends"
Letter Pronunciation
Belarusian and Russian Е Ukrainian Є /je/, /ʲe/
Belarusian and Russian Э Ukrainian Е /e/
Belarusian and Russian Ы Ukrainian И /ɨ/ (B. and R.), /ɪ/ (U.)
Belarusian and Ukrainian І Russian И /i/, /ʲi/
Belarusian and Ukrainian Г no sound in Russian /ɦ/
Russian Г Ukrainian Ґ (rarely used) /ɡ/


Isoglosses Northern
Standard Russian
(Moscow dialect)
Standard Belarusian Standard Ukrainian Examples
of unstressed /o/ (akanye)
no yes[n 1] no[n 2] R. голова́ /ɡɐlɐˈva/,
B. галава́ /ɣalaˈva/,
U. голова́ /ɦɔlɔˈʋa/
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/ R./B. ты /ˈtɨ/,
U. ти /ˈtɪ/
"thou, you"
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/
/e/>/o/ change before nonpalatalized consonants[n 7] always under stress after /j/, /nʲ/, /lʲ/, /ʒ/, /ʃ/, /t͡ʃ/ R. зелёный /zʲiˈlʲonɨj/,
B. зялёны /zʲaˈlʲonɨ/,
U. зеле́ний /zeˈlenɪj/
Proto-Slavic *c /t͡s/[n 8][n 9] /t͡s, t͡sʲ/
Proto-Slavic *č /t͡ɕ/[n 10][n 9] /t͡ʂ/ /t͡ʃ/ R. час /ˈt͡ɕas/
B. час /ˈt͡ʂas/,
U. час /ˈt͡ʃas/
"time (of day)"
Proto-Slavic *skj, zgj /ɕː/,[n 11] /ʑː/ /ʂt͡ʂ/, /ʐd͡ʐ/ /ʃt͡ʃ/, /ʒd͡ʒ/
soft dental stops /tʲ/, /dʲ/[n 12] /t͡sʲ/, /d͡zʲ/ /tʲ/, /dʲ/ R. де́сять /ˈdʲesʲitʲ/,
B. дзе́сяць /ˈd͡zʲesʲat͡sʲ/,
U. де́сять /ˈdesʲatʲ/
Proto-Slavic *v /v, f/[n 13] /w/ /v/
[v, w]
[β, w]
R. о́стров /ˈostraf/,
B. во́страў /ˈvostrau̯/,
U. о́стрів /ˈostriʋ/
/f/ (in loanwords) /f/ /x~xv~xw~xu̯/ /f/
Prothetic /v~w~u̯/ no[n 14] yes R. о́стров /ˈostraf/,
B. во́страў /ˈvostrau̯/,
U. о́стрів /ˈostriʋ/
Proto-Slavic *g /ɡ/ /ɣ/ /ɦ/ R. голова́ /ɡɐlɐˈva/,
B. галава́ /ɣalaˈva/,
U. голова́ /ɦɔlɔˈʋa/
Hardening of final soft labials no yes R. степь /sʲtʲepʲ/,

B. стэп /stɛp/, U. степ /stɛp/


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 15] /ej/ /ej/[n 16] /ij/ /ɪj/, /ij/
Proto-Slavic adj. end. *-ъjь /oj/ /ɨj/,[n 15] /oj/ /oj/[n 17] /ɨj/ /ɪj/
Loss of the vocative case no yes[n 18] 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 19] /l/ /v, w/ R. ду́мал /ˈdumal/,
B. ду́маў /ˈdumau̯/,
U. ду́мав /ˈdumaʋ/
"(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. ^ Also at the end of words (in Russian and Belarusian). In Belarusian (unlike Russian), the change is not present in stressed 2 and 3 sg. pres. ind. endings.
  8. ^ Can be /s/ in South Russian
  9. ^ a b In some Northern Russian dialects, Proto-Slavic *c and *č have merged into one sound, variously pronounced as /t͡s, t͡sʲ, t͡ʂ, t͡ɕ/ depending on a dialect.
  10. ^ Can be /ɕ/ in Southern Russian
  11. ^ Can be /ɕt͡ɕ/, /ʂː/
  12. ^ In Russian light affrication can occur: [tˢʲ] , [dᶻʲ]
  13. ^ In some Northern Russian sub-dialects /v/ is not devoiced to /f/
  14. ^ Except for восемь "eight" and some others
  15. ^ a b Only unstressed, Church Slavonic influence
  16. ^ Stressed, unstressed is usually reduced to [ʲəj]
  17. ^ Stressed, unstressed is usually reduced to [əj]
  18. ^ In colloquial Russian, new vocative has appeared from a pure stem: мам, пап, Маш, Вань etc.
  19. ^ In the dialect of Vologda



Influence of Church Slavonic


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 (a South Slavic language).[12] The Church Slavonic language was strictly used only in text, while the colloquial language of the Bulgarians was communicated in its spoken form.[citation needed]

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.[13]

See also



  1. ^ "Официальный интернет-портал правовой информации". Archived from the original on February 5, 2022. Retrieved 2018-11-04.
  2. ^ Sussex & Cubberley 2006, pp. 79–89.
  3. ^ Pugh 2009, p. 7.
  4. ^ Moser 2016, p. 124-139.
  5. ^ "Dulichenko, Aleksandr The language of Carpathian Rus': Genetic Aspects" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-06-25. Retrieved 2009-12-12.
  6. ^ Comrie, Bernard; Corbett, Greville G. (1 September 2003). The Slavonic Languages. Taylor & Francis. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-203-21320-9. Archived from the original on 15 February 2017. Retrieved 22 November 2017. ...following Vuk's reform of Cyrillic in the early nineteenth century, Ljudevit Gaj in the 1830s performed the same operation on Latinica, using the Czech system and producing a one-to-one symbol correlation between Cyrillic and Latinica as applied to the Serbian and Croatian parallel systems
  7. ^ Moser, Michael A. (2018). "The Fate of the Ruthenian or Little Russian (Ukrainian) Language in Austrian Galicia (1772–1867)". Harvard Ukrainian Studies. 35 (2017–2018) (1/4): 124–139. JSTOR 44983536. Archived from the original on 5 May 2021. Retrieved 28 June 2021.
  8. ^ "Указ об учреждении губерний и о росписании к ним городов". Retrieved 2024-01-15.
  9. ^ "Turkic words in Russian". Languages Of The World. 2011-02-14. Retrieved 2024-01-15.
  10. ^ "Database of False Friends in Slavic Languages". Danish Portal for East European Studies. Retrieved 2024-01-16.
  11. ^ "Фонетика й вимова - Олександр Пономарів". Retrieved 2022-11-11.
  12. ^ Sussex & Cubberley 2006, pp. 63–65.
  13. ^ Sussex & Cubberley 2006, pp. 477–478.



Further reading

  • Comrie, Bernard; Corbett, Greville G, eds. (1993). "East Slavonic languages". The Slavonic languages. London, New York: Routledge. pp. 827–1036. ISBN 0-415-04755-2.