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Russian Dialects in Moscow
10 January 2011
Russian Dialects in Moscow

Russian Dialects in Moscow
By Karen Politis Virk,
Director of Biotech and Pharmaceutical Research,
Language Connections

Russian is the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia and the largest native language of Europe. A Slavic language that belongs to the Indo-European family, Russian is most closely related to Belarusian and Ukrainian. Linguists believe that at one time Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian were actually different dialects belonging to and originating from the same language. Evidence of this remains, as for the most part these three languages are mutually comprehensible especially in their written form among native speakers.

Over time Russian evolved as a separate language, and eventually developed its own regional dialects. In the eighteenth century, among the first to study these dialects was the famous Russian scientist and poet Mikhael Lomonosov, after whom Moscow State University was named. Lomonosov helped to categorize the existing spoken and written Russian styles.

"Standard Russian" is generally recognized as that Russian spoken by educated Muscovites. This version of Russian developed through the literary influences of Pushkin, Lomonosov, Derzhavin, and Karmzin. These influences converged and evolved during the 1800s to form what is the common literary language that most modern Russians speak.

Although the majority of Russians speak a common literary language, regional dialects are still in use, despite language unification efforts during the 1900s. Linguists are not entirely in agreement as to the actual number of divisions, but in general regional Russian dialects can be divided according to their geographic location relative to Moscow. Many linguists believe there are only two groups: the Northern and Southern, while others recognize three: Northern, Central, and Southern. In addition to these, there are dozens of lesser divisions.

For the most part, Russian dialects do not differ significantly - probably due to a lack of major geographic barriers other than size. However, there are some important phonetic differences as well as lesser morphological, syntactical and lexical differences. Dialects outside of the central region tend to use a more phonetic pronunciation. In contrast, the standard Muscovite Russian, on which the Central dialects are based, has an elaborate declination system for pronouncing ‘o’ and ‘a’ relative to their proximity to the stressed syllable. For example, the word for milk in Russian, "moloko," is pronounced by Muscovites as "mah-lah-ko" while those who speak Russian dialects tend to say "mo-lo-ko". The Southern dialects are further distinguished by their pronunciation of a ‘soft g’ in contrast to the ‘hard g’ used by other dialects (1). For example, the letter "g" in the Russian word for "city," "gorod" is pronounced with a "hard g" in Muscovite Russian (like in English), while people who speak Southern Russian dialects use a "soft g" which causes the word to something like "yorod."

The Northern Russian dialects have been influenced to some extent by Finnic languages. As a result, the Russian dialects spoken north of Moscow have a considerable number of words of Finno-Ugric origin. The Southern dialects, as a result of influences from neighboring Ukraine, tend to speak using a pronunciation which is closer to Ukrainian in some respects. The Central dialects are of Northern Russian origin, but also have some characteristics from Southern Russian. This is partly due to the migration and mixing of northern and southern Russian populations during the formation of the Muscovite state -since the Central Russian dialects were formed during this time they were influenced by dialects from both the south and north.

As Moscow came to be considered a part of Europe and experienced rapid economic development and westernization, this resulted in further expansion of the city– Moscow’s current population is estimated at more than ten million. Much of its growth has come from ambitious people from the regions migrating there to try to grab a slice of the growing wealth the city offered. As a result, many regional dialects are now spoken in Moscow. Although differences between these regional dialects do not hinder communication among Russian speakers, they may ultimately create barriers due to generalized attitudes. For example, a native speaker of the Muscovite dialect may look unfavorably upon Russian spoken by someone from the north, and visa versa.

Studies in social psychology concerned with interpersonal relationships have consistently shown that people tend to form relationships based more on similarities rather than differences. Thus, perceived differences in physical appearance and even speech can result in creating barriers between people that are otherwise similar. It is not necessarily differences in the spoken language that create communication barriers among different Russian speakers, therefore, but rather the attitudes toward these differences. Of course Russians are not alone in this, as people in many other countries demonstrate similar attitudes toward such perceived differences among their own compatriots.

Speakers of provincial Russian dialects are declining as younger generations in the Russian Federation tend to speak standard Muscovite Russian. However, regional differences among Russians remain a divisive issue and continue to pose barriers. There are prevalent examples of this in Moscow society. For example, someone who has migrated to Moscow from another part of Russia may receive lower wages for doing the same job as someone who is a native of the city. As these differences become less pronounced, so do the barriers that they create. On the other hand, some individuals may choose to preserve their own identity. It will be up to the new generations of urban Russians, therefore, to decide what they prefer.


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