Influence of Old Novgorod Dialect on the Russian Literary Language

Jan 12, 2015 by

[This post is based largely on the work on Andrei Zaliznjak, particularly his lecture available here.]

In my earlier post, I noted that the Russian literary language (aka modern standard Russian) differs from its closest relatives, Ukrainian and Belarusian, in part because Russian has borrowed extensively from Old Church Slavonic, as well as other western European languages. In another post, I also noted that this split within the East Slavic branch into Russian vs. Ukrainian/Belarusian is also due to the Polish influences on Ukrainian and Belarusian. There is, however, a third reason for the divergence between Russian, on the one hand, and Ukrainian and Belarusian, on the other hand: the incorporation of elements of the Old Novgorod dialect into Russian (but not the other East Slavic languages).

The peculiar dialect of Old East Slavic, well-documented in birch bark documents, of which over 1,000 have been discovered to date, has been discussed in a three-part series (see part 1, part 2, and part 3). Another four-part series of posts focused to one particular phenomenon in the Old Novgorod dialect: the non-application of the Second Slavic Palatalization, which resulted in forms such as kělyj ‘whole’ instead of the standard Russian celyj (for a more detailed discussion, see part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4). Several other phenomena, characteristic of the Old Novgorod dialect but not of Old Russian as it is documented in manuscripts from Kiev and elsewhere in southern Russia, will be discussed below. Some of these dialectal peculiarities expectedly are lexical as dialects nearly always feature local words: for example, in Philadelphia a long sandwich with cold cuts, lettuce etc. is called hoagie, whereas in Long Island it is known as hero (most Americans call it sub). Similarly, in Russian ‘curb’ is called bordjur, whereas in Saint Petersburg it is known as porebrik. Importantly, however, peculiarities of the Old Novgorod dialect that separate it from Old Russian from the south are not limited to the vocabulary.

For years, it has been thought that the peculiar Old Novgorod dialect has disappeared from the linguistic map with the fall of the Old Novgorod city-state. At best, scholars thought, its more arcane features were retained in some local, rural dialects. However, Andrei Zaliznjak has recently shown quite convincingly that many of these distinctive Old Novgorod features have survived not merely in rural dialects but in the Russian literary language as well.

One important point is that the Old Novgorod dialect was spoken not only in the city of Novgorod and the neighboring Pskov but in a much larger territory under Novgorod’s control that extended to the White Sea (Archangelsk), northern Urals, and the Kola Peninsula. Thus, one can talk of the northern zone, in opposition to the southern area that included not only Kiev, but also Suzdal’, Rostov, the emergent center in Moscow, other southern Russian and Ukrainian, and parts of Belarus. (Zaliznjak calls them “northwestern” and “southeastern” zones, respectively, but such terms seem odd to me, since Novgorod is actually east of Kiev, and most of the territory under Novgorod’s control extended still farther east.) Importantly, this division did not correlate with the modern division into Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian.


An overview of properties that defined this north-south divide in Old Russian, to which I turn next, shows that while some properties of modern Russian come from the southern zone, others penetrated into standard Russian from the northern zone. The first peculiarity of the northern Old Russian dialects, mentioned above, is the non-application of the Second Slavic Palatalization. Besides forms like kělyj ‘whole’ instead of celyj, the reflexes of this phenomenon include forms such as na ruke ‘on the arm/hand’, whereas in the southern Old Russian it was pronounced na ruce. Modern standard Russian combines some forms from the southern zone that exhibit the palatalization, such as celyj ‘whole’, with forms without the palatalization that derive from the northern Old Russian, such as na ruke ‘on the arm/hand’.

Let’s now consider some declension paradigms of Russian nouns; here too, some forms in modern Russian come from the south and others from the north. For example, the nominative singular masculine (declension 1a) nouns in Old Novgorod had the ending –e, whereas in the southern zone, the corresponding ending was –ъ. (As we’ve seen in an earlier post, in Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic this letter, called “back jer” denoted a vowel, not a consonant. Recall also that in word-final position, jers became “weak” and eventually dropped out, in a process known as the jer-shift.) Take the word for ‘city’: citizens of Novgorod called it gorode, while residents of Kiev and Moscow called them gorodъ, where the word-final vowel eventually disappeared, hence the modern Russian gorod. In this respect, modern Russian sides with the southern dialects of Old Russian.

Similarly, the genitive singular form of feminine (declension 2) nouns had different endings in the northern and southern zones: in the north, ‘at the sister’ was u sestre, while in the south, it was u sestry. Once again, the form in the modern Russian literary language derives from the south. Likewise, the nominative plural forms of such feminine nouns in modern Russian—such as korovy ‘cows’—derives from the southern zone, whereas in the north, the corresponding form was korove.

But some of the northern declension paradigms penetrated into the Russian literary language. For instance, the prepositional case of both feminine and masculine nouns derive from the Old Novgorod dialect, which had v zemle ‘in the ground’, na kone ‘on the horse’, while Old Russian manuscripts from Kiev and elsewhere in the south contain forms such v zemli ‘in the ground’, na koni ‘on the horse’.

Another declension form that modern Russian acquired from the northern dialect is the former dual number (now these forms are called “paucal” and used with ‘two’, ‘three’, ‘four’, ‘half’, ‘one and a half’, and complex numerals that end in these numbers). In the northern dialect of Old Russian the dual form was dva sela ‘two villages’, whereas in the southern dialects it was dve sele. In modern Russian it is dva / tri / četyre sela, with the same ending as in the Old Novgorod dialect. Note that in this respect Ukrainian and Belarusian differ from Russian:


dva {bráty / *bráta /*bratý / *bratív}

two brother.QUANT / *brother.GEN.SG /*brother.NOM.PL /*brother.GEN.PL

‘two brothers’


b. Belorussian:

try {sjalý / *selá /*sëly /*sël}

three village.QUANT /*village.GEN.SG /*village.NOM.PL/*village.GEN.PL

‘three villages’

The grammatical elements of the northern dialects in modern Russian are not limited to nouns. Take the singular imperative form of verbs such as ‘help’: in the northern Old Russian it was pomogi ‘help!’, while in the southern Old Russian the corresponding form was pomozi. (Here too, the difference concerns palatalization.) Similarly, the plural imperative form for verbs like ‘carry’ in the northern Old Russian was vezite ‘carry!’, while in southern Old Russian it was pronounced vezete. Modern Russian incorporated the northern forms of both singular and plural imperative.

Another verbal form that modern Russian took from the northern dialects is the verbal participle (in Russian: деепричастие). The northern dialects featured the form vezja ‘carrying’, while southern dialects had veza—the northern form won over its southern competitor.

But some other verbal forms came from the southern dialects. This is the case, for example, with the 3rd person present tense forms: in the north, it was veze ‘(he) carries’, whereas in the south, it was vezet’. The form vezët in modern Russian derives from the southern dialectal form in Old Russian.

Thus, to use Zaliznjak’s metaphor, modern Russian resembles a pack of cards consisting of two half-packs of cards interleaved with each other. Some elements—lexical, phonological, and morphological—came, as expected, from the dialects of Kiev, Moscow and the rest of south, but numerous other elements were incorporated from the dialects of Novgorod and the rest of the Russian north.

One final curiosity is that peculiarities of the northern dialects not only penetrated into the Russian literary language, but over time their presence in the Old Novgorod dialect itself has weakened, as evidenced by the birch bark documents from different centuries. As Zaliznjak notes, in the documents dating from the 11th-12th centuries such peculiarities are the evident norm, but documents dating from the 13th-15th centuries exhibit fewer and fewer such peculiar dialectal forms, which appear to retreat under the pressure of forms from the southern dialects. Let’s consider, for example, the nominative singular ending of masculine nouns: as mentioned above, the ending in the northern dialects was ‑e, whereas in the southern Old Russian it was a back jer. In Old Novgorod birch bark documents from the 11th-12th centuries, the ending –e appears on such nouns in about 97% of all relevant nouns, and thus appears to be the norm. (The remaining 3% can be explained as calques from Old Church Slavonic or southern Old Russian as they typically occur with religious and other abstract terms.) But in birch bark documents from the 15th century, we find a different distribution of the two endings: they are found at about the same frequency. Thus, we see not only the adoption of northern dialectal forms into the literary Russian but also the gradual wearing off and disappearance of the northern dialects, in a process known as “linguistic convergence”.





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