Sergey Oboguev (oboguev) wrote,
Sergey Oboguev

Unbegaun, "The Russian Literary Language"

This article appeared in "The Modern Language Review", a quarterly magazine
of the Modern Humanities Research Association, vol. 68, no. 4 (October
1973). Posted without permission, for fair academic use only.

Ideas expressed by Unbegaun represent a radical formulation of the case
originally taken up by N.S. Trubetskoi in his 1927 article written for the
volume "K probleme russkogo samopoznaniia". Unbegaun's speech delivered
at a congress of slavists somewhere in the late 60's or early 70's started
an intense scientific war between the factions of "slavonicists" who
emphasized a key role of Church Slavonic as a backbone in the historical
development and contemporary structure of Russian literary language,
and "populists" who maintained that modern Russian literary language
derives primarily from the vernacular, with Church Slavonic having no
significant impact on the contemporary Russian.

Over 20 years of research and heated argument culminated in the development
of comprehensive scheme presenting an integration and fusion of two lingual
subsystems (Church Slavonic and "native" Russian) within a single language,
and their co-existence and interaction within the framework of this
synthetic ("two-dimentional", in Unbegaun's definiton) language. (See for ex.
a number of books and articles by B.A. Uspenskii, such as his "Kratkii
ocherk istorii russkogo literaturnogo iazyka", Moskva, 1994;
or V.M. Zhivov, "Iazyk i kul'tura v Rossii XVIII veka", Moskva, 1996).

In the view of contemporary theory, some of Unbegaun's statements can be viewed
as obsolete and imprecise. However, one can hardly overestimate the role
his speech and his article, presenting the concept with such an extreme clarity,
played as major pivotal points in the development of modern theory of Russian
literary language.


The Russian Literary Language:
A Comparative View


The Presidential Address of the Modern Humanities Research Association
read at University College, London, on 5 January 1973*

*) This is the text of the Address read on the President's behalf by
Professor Robert Auty on 5 January 1973. To our great sorrow
Professor Unbegaun died on 4 March 1973 and was unable to complete
the fuller version of his Address which he had intended for

The title of my Address calls for an explanation. "Literary language" is, I
am afraid, a Russianism or a Gallicism: "literaturnyj jazyk" or "langue
literaire". The proper English term would have been "standard language", the
German - "Hochsprache". If I have, none the less, chosen "literary language",
it is for historical reasons, as you may very soon discover.

The first written language the Russians learned was not their vernacular,
but the so-called Old Church Slavonic, brought to them as a Church language
when they were Christianized, at the very end of the tenth century. At the
origin, this Old Church Slavonic was an obscure Macedonian dialect, of
Bulgarian type, spoken by Slavonic peasants and shepherds on the outskirts
of a great Greek city, Salonica. It had, however, the unexpected luck of
being known and spoken by two Greeks, natives of Salonica, two brothers,
one a learned theologian and a linguist, another a monk and a former high
administrator of the Byzantine Empire. Later the two brothers were
canonized and are now known as Saints Cyril and Methodius. With the help of
their native Greek, they succeeded in elevating the Macedonian vernacular
of Salonica to the dignity of the first Slavonic written language, even
more than that - to the status of a fully-fledged liturgical language. The
birth certificate of this language bears the date of 863. Phonetically and
morphologically it was purely Slavonic, but in its syntax, principles of
word-formation, and vocabulary, it was strongly influenced by Byzantine

This Old Church Slavonic was imported to Kiev and Novgorod, as the language
of the church, at the end of the tenth century. At that time the non-divided
Common Slavonic language, which still existed in the middle of the first
millennium A.D., had already been split into individual Slavonic languages,
but the young scions were still so close one to another that Old Church
Slavonic could be accepted and understood without any difficulty by the
Eastern, as well as by the Southern and the Western Slavs. Everywhere it
was welcomed as a form of the local vernacular, but of a higher, and
sacred, nature. Nowhere was the need felt to translate it into the

It was but natural that in the Middle Ages the language of the Church
should become the language of theology, of philosophy, of science, and of
literature (almost exclusively religious), briefly a "literary language" in
the broad sense of the word. And Old Church Slavonic became all that in
ancient Russia, as well as in other Slavonic Orthodox countries. The
analogy with Latin in countries of Western and Central Europe is obvious.
There are, however, a few points of characteristic difference.

Firstly, Old Church Slavonic was so close to the local vernacular, both in
Kiev and Novgorod the two main cultural centres in the eleventh and twelth
centuries, that it could be understood without difficulty, at least in its
simpler usages, as, for example, in the Church services. Such affinity with
the local idiom inevitably exposed Old Church Slavonic to a certain
influence by the vernacular, a process which also occurred in other
Orthodox Slavonic countries. This more recent and slightly contaminated
type of Old Church Slavonic is conventionally called Church Slavonic. Old
Church Slavonic ceased to be "Old". Compared with the familiarity this
Church Slavonic enjoyed in Russia, Latin was utterly exotic to an English
or German reader. Nor was it any more understandable to a Frenchman of the
same period.

Secondly, Latin became the language of the Church because it already had a
long existence as a language of civilization in the Western World. In
Russia, conversely, Old Church Slavonic became the language of
civilization because it had already been the language of the Church. This
should explain, to a certain extent, the eminently religious character of
Old Russian literature.

Thirdly, Latin covered all the needs of a language of civilization. To the
functions which were assumed by Church Slavonic - as a language of the
Church, of theology, philosophy, science, and literature - medieval Latin
added also those of the language of law and of administration - a natural
inheritance of the Roman Empire.

Here lies a fundamental difference which separates the Russian practice
from that of the Western World. From the very beginning, law and all that
was related to it - commercial transactions, diplomatic relations, and, of
course, all administration - princely, municipal, and private - was left
outside the province of Church Slavonic. These matters were conducted
exclusively in the vernacular. This paradox may be satisfactorily explained
by a presumed existence, in the pagan period, of an oral customary law.
When the Russians, as a consequence of baptism, received the Old Church
Slavonic alphabet, and were able, for the first time, to record their law
in writing, they did it in the only form in which this law was familiar to
them - in the vernacular.

Thus, from the beginning, Russians were handling two written languages.
One, the imported Church Slavonic, was used for higher purposes - to
express religious, ethical, philosophic, scientific, and aesthetic values.
The other, the vernacular, was used for practical purposes, as the language
of law and administration. Church Slavonic was the literary language in the
broad sense of the word. It was not used in speech, but was intelligible
when read or heard. In principle it was a dead language, but it was able to
absorb some elements of spoken Russian. The other, the administrative
medium, was a non-literary language. It was a living idiom based on the
vernacular. Such a dichotomy was peculiar to Russia where it lasted until
the eighteenth century and left its indelible stamp on modern Standard

The coexistence of two different, though closely related languages, and I
emphasize - LANGUAGES and not STYLES - with different functions, was
something totally unknown in the whole Western World, including Poland and
Bohemia. It seems that in the Western World the literary quality of a
vernacular text, at the beginning, was determined by its having been
written in verse. Only verse merited the honour of the precious parchment,
a fact which is in perfect agreement with the Aristotelian principle of
poetry’s primacy. The use of the vernacular both for literary prose and for
administrative purposes came much later.

Here the Russian practice is at variance with that of the Western World:
medieval Russian literature is all in prose. Learned poetry appears in the
seventeenth century under Western that is Ukrainian, Belorussian, and
Polish stimulus, and it is still written in Church Slavonic by Ukrainian
and Belorussian poets settled in Moscow. It was switched on to a Russian
track in the thirties of the eighteenth century, at a time when Polish and,
later, German influence was still palpable. No link with Russian oral
folk-poetry can be detected.

It has already been pointed out that the Russian linguistic dichotomy had
no counterpart in any country of the Western World. It was shown that the
relation of Church Slavonic to Russian was of a quite different nature from
the relation of Latin to the various European vernaculars. And yet it is
not so difficult to find some analogies in the subsequent development of
both Latin and Church Slavonic. Both languages were dead languages. Their
normal usage was the written one, although occasionally they could be
spoken, but by the scholarly initiated only, and usually in relation to
rather lofty subjects. In this respect Latin was used more often than
Church Slavonic. As dead languages used by living men they inevitably
deteriorated with time, Church Slavonic faster than Latin, because of its
dangerous closeness to the spoken idiom. In both languages there were
reactions against such a deterioration. There is only one way to salvage a
deviating dead language, and that is to revert it to its primeval purity.

In Russia an attempt in this direction was made in the fifteenth century,
with the help of Serbian and Bulgarian scholars who fled to Moscow before
the victorious Turkish army invading their countries. Not only was
deterioration arrested, and correct Church Slavonic orthography and
morphology were restored, but the syntax and phraseology became more
flexible, and the vocabulary was more than doubled along the traditional
lines of derivation. The price to pay for this face-lifting was high, but
not excessive: the regenerated Church Slavonic moved away considerably from
both the non-literary administrative language and the spoken idiom.

Here again another analogy in the Western World comes to mind: the feeling
of the Latin language's permanence, as opposed to that of the ever changing
nature of the vernacular. How much of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century
philosophical and scientific literature was written in Latin, because Latin
was regarded as an eternal vehicle of learning? Curiously enough, even
writers in the vernacular had doubts about its lasting quality. It is
perhaps not surprising that Edmund Waller, flexible in character and verse,
thought in the middle of the seventeenth Century that to express oneself in
English was to write in sand. More unexpectedly, Montaigne regretted having
compiled his "Essais" in French and not in the more permanent Latin. Such
clear statements are not to be found in ancient Russia, probably simply
because the very idea of writing in the vernacular would appear
preposterous. But the Old Russian writer's fidelity to Church Slavonic
certainly owes a good deal to the feeling of its permanence, so similar to
the feeling of a Western writer for Latin.

Another advantage of Latin was its uniformity as compared with the
dialectal or local variety of the written vernacular. This is particularly
palpable in England and Germany, less in France, because of the early
adoption of "francien" the dialect of Ile-de-France, as the national
language. Particularly in Germany the splitting of the country into
territories after the death of Henry VI (1197) resulted in a number of

In Russia, too, it would have been over-optimistic to speak of a Russian
language without a local qualification. Various local traditions, indeed,
may be found in the chancery non-literary language: the Central tradition,
that of Moscow, the Northern, that of Novgorod and its vast dependencies;
the Western, that of Pskov small, but culturally important; the
South-Eastern, that of Rjazan', short lived and culturally of lesser
importance. In the sixteenth century they all began to be absorbed by the
rising Central tradition, the Muscovite usage, but not even in the
seventeenth century was the process entirely completed. Opposed to this
dialectal variety of the chancery language stood the monolith of literary
Church Slavonic unchanging in space and time, and yet easily accessible
even to the non-initiated. No wonder ancient Russian writers clung so
tenaciously to this monolith as long as it was possible.

The monopoly of Church Slavonic as the sole literary language had, however
also its negative side. Towards the middle of the seventeenth century the
chancery language acquired considerable breadth and flexibility. But it
lacked the refinement that only literary usage can give to the written
vernacular. Such a refinement was the privilege of Church Slavonic, not of

To put it briefly: Russia lacked both its William Tyndale and its Martin
Luther. Having had no Tyndale, it had no King James Version of the Bible,
one third of which is worded exactly as Tyndale left it. Both in England
and Germany the translation of the Bible into the vernacular was decisive
for the creation of an all-purpose prose language. Not only did nothing of
the sort happen in Russia but the very principle of Luther's translation
"ich rede nach der sachsischen Kanzlei" - would have horrified the pious
Muscovites as utterly heretical. The Church Slavonic Bible (both the New
and the Old Testament) was translated into Standard Russian only at the
beginning of the nineteenth century and, curiously enough under the aegis
of the British and Foreign Bible Society. This translation passed
unnoticed and had no influence whatsoever on the Russian literary
language, already embodied in Pushkin's masterpieces. The Russian Orthodox
Church refused to accept this translation and has kept to the Holy Writ in
its Church Slavonic version to this very day.

The strength of Church Slavonic as the literary language of Russia was
rooted in its being the language of the Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox
Church penetrated the whole spiritual and intellectual life of medieval and
Muscovite Russia. It was but natural that the language of the Church should
continue to serve as vehicle for this religiously orientated, and somehow
totalitarian, civilization. One appeared made for another. At the end of
the seventeenth century this Muscovite type of civilization was shaken to
its foundations by an ever increasing pressure of the Western way of life
and thought. It finally collapsed in the eighteenth century. A Westernized
Russia was born.

There was every reason to expect a parallel collapse of the Muscovite
cultural medium - the Church Slavonic literary language. The opportunity
seemed at hand when, following the great example of the rest of Europe,
Russia would at last firmly establish her all-purpose language on the
vernacular. Surprisingly enough, nothing of the kind did happen. In the
general cultural shake-up the structure of literary Church Slavonic held
astonishingly firm. Of course, it adapted itself to the new situation by
removing some dead wood in morphology. Three archaic past tense verbal
paradigms were dropped. They had already been badly confused in the
seventeenth century. A few obsolete declensional endings, which Church
Slavonic shared with Old Russian, were replaced by their more modern
Russian equivalents. Two new endings of the nominative plural were
incorporated. On the whole, the changes in declension affected less than a
half dozen endings.

The greatest, and the most fateful, concession to the vernacular was,
however, the absorption of non-literary administrative Russian and of the
spoken idiom into literary Church Slavonic. This process of integration
took approximately a hundred years, after which the two separate written
languages of Muscovite Russia emerged, in the middle of the eighteenth
century, as a single all-purpose Standard language of Imperial Russia. It
has remained unchanged.

Church Slavonic was, of course, pronounced from the beginning in the
Russian way, very much as Latin has been pronounced, and still is, in half
a dozen varieties across the continent of Europe. When, twenty years ago,
with my Russian, that is German, habits of Latin, I had, at my first
Encaenia in Oxford, the opportunity of enjoying Lord Halifax's (the then
University's Chancellor's) Latin, I knew it was Latin, because I suddenly
ceased to understand his speech in English. Such must have been the case
with Church Slavonic in Russia, and it was inevitable and natural.

Church Slavonic morphology, so similar to that of Russian, was finally
adjusted to it at the end of the seventeenth century. A few islands,
however, have remained Church Slavonic, as, for example, the whole
participial system, and some declensional endings, mainly in the genitive,
in singular and plural. All the rest - the syntax, the acquired vocabulary
and the means for its extension - the wide set of suffixes remained Church
Slavonic, a living mechanism which is still productive of new Church
Slavonic words and expressions. What is important is that the continuity
remained unbroken, the old and well-tried Church Slavonic structure held
firm. There was no linguistic revolution. But the Church Slavonic framework
was now allowed to absorb as much Russian material as it could hold -
Russian of both types: the spoken idiom and the written non-literary
administrative language.

When later, in the eighteenth century, the new literary Russian was flooded
with German and French "calques" they normally were rendered into Church
Slavonic, not into native Russian. Such a Russian word as "ravnovesie" is a
Church Slavonic calque of German "Gleichgewicht" (itself a calque of Latin
"aequilibrium"), and the Russian expression "vlachit’ zhalkoe
sushchestvovanie" is a word-for-word Church Slavonic translation of the
French "trainer une miserable existence".

The integration of the vernacular into the Church Slavonic framework
resulted in a two-dimensional construction. A Russian writer was now free
to give his work the bias of his choice - either a Church Slavonic bent or
a Russian one. The choice concerned, mainly, the vocabulary, but some
option was possible even in syntax and morphology. The vast mass of neutral
words and forms, that is those common to Church Slavonic and Russian, then
gravitated naturally to one or the other side - the way of the author's
choice. It was a delicate and often a subconscious operation.

The originality of the Russian solution can be fully appreciated only when
compared with languages which originally were in the same linguistic
conditions as Russian, but opted out of the Church Slavonic frame and built
their all-purpose standard on the vernacular. Such languages exist, they
are the two other East Slavonic languages: Standard Ukrainian and Standard
Belorussian. Compared with Standard Russian, they are, so to say,
one-dimensional languages.

If one disregards the numerous loanwords, one can see that the Russian
abstract, learned, and figurative vocabulary (precisely that which stamps
an idiom as a language of civilization) continues to develop mainly along
the traditional lines of Church Slavonic derivation. Quite naturally, it
has annexed also the administrative area, which, in ancient Russia, was the
exclusive privilege of the vernacular. In general the more abstract, or
learned, or metaphoric, or ceremonious, the context, the more probable its
expression in Church Slavonic elements. For example, the newspaper "Pravda"
usually describes the landing of Soviet astronauts in a flawless modernized
Church Slavonic.

The most obvious conquest of the vernacular within the Church Slavonic
fortress was its use in fiction, in what Russians call "belletristika",
"belles-lettres". Old Russian literature had no problem in using Church
Slavonic chiefly in moralizing or narrative prose. A modern Russian writer,
especially in a dialogue, tries to get away from the obviously Church
Slavonic stock, more frequently than not by using a vocabulary common to
both Church Slavonic and Russian. The delicate question of dosage is left
to his skill. It is not impossible, although rather difficult, to write a
half page exempt of any Church Slavonic word, and such half pages exist,
for example, as simple dialogues between simple people. A few Russian
writers went further either by coining new words on a purely Russian
pattern, or even by borrowing words from dialects, usually through
dialectal dictionaries. More often than not it was a linguistic success but
an artistic failure. The most recent example is Solzhenitsyn.

The undeviating development of Modern Standard Russian from Church Slavonic
has conferred on it a few privileges which are unknown to Western
languages. Its literary, non-vernacular origin preserved Standard Russian
from local varieties, the "Literaturdialekte", which plagued the German area
for a long time. The German "Hochsprache" finally got rid of them, but not
before the eighteenth century, when first the Imperial Chancery of Vienna,
and then the Swiss Calvinist Church adopted Luther's slightly reshaped East
Central German. But even so, a short walk in the streets of Frankfurt,
Vienna and Zurich may sow some seeds of doubts about the consummation of
Luther's work. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the all-purpose
written Russian was also adopted as the spoken standard by educated
society, a process common to the whole of Europe. In England, by the way,
it took place almost simultaneously with its occurrence in Russia. This
was another conquest of Church Slavonic which saved spoken Russian from the
local colouring so characteristic of spoken educated German or Italian, and
even French.

Of course, the vernacular which fleshed out the Church Slavonic frame had
its own dialectal basis: it was, as one might expect, the Central one - the
dialect of Moscow - the capital, as the dialectal basis of French was the
dialect of Paris, and that of English, the dialect of London. The dialectal
provenance of Standard Russian is, however, secondary to its Church
Slavonic genealogy, which has been primordial. Here again the Russian
development has been strikingly different from that of the Western World.
Modern Standard English, based on the East Midland tradition, has a number
of words whose pronunciation betrays their non-Midland origin: for example,
"left" (as opposite to right) and "bury" are Kentish, "one" and "vixen" are
Southern, and "raid" is Northern. The pronunciation of Standard Russian is
Muscovite throughout, but not necessarily unchanging, simply because there
has been no literary tradition in the written vernacular. Perhaps only two
words may point to a Northern origin because of their initial "ts"; instead
of the expected "ch": "caplja" (heron), and "cep'" (chain). Not a single
vocalic deviation from the Muscovite pattern can be detected in the speech
of the educated.

And here Modern Standard Russian stands, a naturalized alien with an
uninterrupted tradition of nine hundred years, first as a Church language,
then as a literary language, and, finally, as an all-purpose standard, and
the spoken idiom of the educated. Such a development is unique in the
Slavonic world. It is unparalleled among the languages of Europe.

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