The Influence of Old Church Slavonic on Russian

Jan 12, 2015 by

As mentioned in my earlier post, besides being the liturgical language used by the Russian Orthodox Church, Old Church Slavonic (OCS) played a pivotal role in the formation of the Russian literary language. In the Middle Ages, OCS co-existed with Old Russian in a state of diglossia: OCS was used in Kievan Rus’ for liturgical and other types of “higher” literature (such as saints’ lives and even chronicles), whereas Old Russian served as the vernacular. As a result, numerous elements of OCS penetrated into Old Russian and were subsequently retained in the language, “in spite of various movements in favor of the vernacular” (Sussex and Cubberley 2006: 49). These elements include numerous words, as well as phonological patterns and even grammatical elements. Despite the fact that OCS served (and still serves) as the liturgical language of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Ukrainian—and to some extent, Belarusian—“have gone much further towards adapting these words to native phonological patterns” (ibid). As a result, Russian has many OCS-derived forms absent or adapted in Ukrainian. For example, Russian has the OCS-derived prefixes iz-, so-, and voz- where Ukrainian features vy-, s-, and vz-: compare Russian izgonjat’ ‘exile’ vs. Ukrainian vyhanjáty (also Russian vygonjat’ ‘cast out’), Russian sobirat’ vs. Ukrainian zbiráty, Russian vozbudit’ vs. Ukrainian zbudýty. Other OCS elements in modern Russian, alongside the East Slavic patterns retained in Russian and Ukrainian, are summarized in the following table (based on Zaliznjak 2014, Sussex and Cubberley 2006: 50).

OCS pattern examples retained in modern Russian Russian pattern examples in modern Russian Ukrainian pattern examples in modern Ukrainian
-ra- vrag ‘enemy’ -oro- vorog ‘enemy’ -oro- nahoróda ‘reward’
-la- glava ‘head, chapter’ -olo- golova ‘head’ -olo- holóvnyj ‘main’
a- agnets ‘lamb’ ja- jagnënok ‘lamb’ ja- jagnja ‘lamb’
e- edinyj ‘unified’ o- odin ‘one’ o- odin ‘one’
-šč (in OCS: -št) gorjaščij ‘burning’ gorjačij ‘hot’ osvíčennja ‘illumination’
-žd ograždenije ‘fence’ ogoraživat’ ‘to fence off’ odéža ‘clothing’


As can be seen from this table, modern Russian exhibits numerous pairs of OCS- and East Slavic-derived words. In some pairs, the difference between words is merely stylistic, e.g. breg and bereg ‘shore’. The OCS-derived breg is poetic: consider Alexander Pushkin’s Onegin, dobryj moj prijatel’, rodilsja na bregax Nevy ‘Onegin, my dear friend, was born on the shores of Neva’). It is also very rarely used noawadays, whereas its East Slavic counterpart is a frequently used, vernacular word. Likewise, straž ‘guard’ belongs to a higher register than storož. Similarly, agnets is a lamb in the Biblical context (e.g. agnets božij ‘God’s lamb’), whereas jagnënok is a lamb in the barn. Note also the OCS-derived grad in Leningrad and the East Slavic gorod in Novgorod. When it comes to verbs and deverbal nouns, OCS-derived forms typically denote more abstract actions, whereas their East Slavic-derived counterparts are concrete and physical: e.g. vozvrat ‘return’ can be v prošloe ‘to the past’, whereas razvorot ‘turn’ can only apply to physical entities. Similarly, OCS-derived prosvščenie is ‘enlightenment’ and osveščenie can be either physical or abstract illumination (osveščenie komnaty ‘illumination of the room’ vs. osveščenie ètogo voprosa ‘coverage of this issue’), but the East Slavic-derived svečenie is only concrete (e.g. lampa belogo svečenija ‘white light bulb’).

However, in some cases the meaning relationship is exactly the opposite: the OCS-derived word is the “normal”, frequently-used, vernacular term, whereas the East Slavic-derived word has been pushed to the “rare, archaic, poetic” category. This is the case, for instance, with vrag and vorog ‘enemy’. The latter, native-Russian word has a folkloric, poetic flavor, whereas its OCS-derived counterpart is stylistically neutral.

In other pairs, the differences between the two words are beyond mere stylistics: the two members of a pair developed entirely different meaning. For example, OCS-derived glava is a head of a corporation (as well as ‘chapter’), whereas golova is a head on one’s shoulders. Similarly, strana is ‘country’ and storona is ‘side’; branit’ is ‘to scold’ and boronit’ is ‘to plough’; xram is ‘temple’ and xoromy ‘palace’ (also metaphorically ‘large, excessively decorated housing’). A whole class of such pairs involves OCS-derived participles with the suffix –šč vs. East Slavic-derived deverbal adjectives with the suffix č: compare brodjaščij ‘roaming’ and brodjačij ‘vagrant’, gorjaščij ‘burning’ and gorjačij ‘hot’, etc. In these pairs, the deverbal adjectives denote more permanent qualities: for example, ležaščij means someone (or something) temporarily lying or placed down, whereas ležačij refers to someone unable to get up. Thus, ležaščij bol’noj may have only a minor illness, while ležačij bol’noj is a very sick patient indeed.

morphological-analysisMore generally, most of the various types of the modern Russian participles derive from OCS: delajuščij ‘doing’ (imperfective present tense active participle), delavšij (imperfective past tense active participle of the same verb), delannyj ‘done’ (imperfective passive participle), etc. (Recall from above that the OCS –šč corresponds to the Old Russian –č.) The only East Slavic-derived participles in modern Russian are the short form past tense passive participles, such as sdelano ‘done’. Even the long form past tense passive participles, such as sdelannyj ‘done’, come from OCS.

The availability of such OCS-derived participles has an effect on modern Russian syntax: it allows for the so-called participial constructions, which are largely synonymous with, and therefore can replace, relative clauses. For example, tufli, sdelannye v SSSR ‘shoes made in the USSR’ uses a participial construction (with the OCS-derived long form past passive participle) instead of a relative clause, which would employ an East Slavic-derived short form past passive participle, as in: tufli, kotorye byli sdelany v SSSR ‘shoes that were made in USSR’. Note that participial constructions are more common in written and/or bookish forms of modern Russian than in colloquial speech, which is expected because OCS-derived elements penetrated Russian via higher stylistic registers, for which historically OCS was the language de rigueur.

Reflexes of OCS syntactic and stylistic norms are found in other areas of modern Russian. For example, in colloquial speech, which has fewer OCS-derived elements, many sentences start with the discourse particle a, whose function is to draw the interlocutor’s attention: A ona skazala… A posle ètogo bylo to-to i to-to. ‘And she said… And after that, such-and-such happened…’ (The translation of the colloquial Russian a as ‘and’ is not perfect, but discourse particles are notoriously difficult to translate.) In written, and especially more bookish, registers the particle is not used—presumably because it was not used in OCS. (For a more detailed discussion of this issue, see Zaliznjak 2012.)



Sussex, Roland and Paul Cubberley (2006) The Slavic Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zaliznjak, Andrei (2012) Ob istorii russkogo jazyka (= On the history of the Russian language). Lecture.

Zaliznjak, Andrei (2014) Istorija russkogo jazyka (= History of the Russian language). TV interview.


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