LINGUIST List 25.4835

Mon Dec 01 2014

Review: Historical Linguistics: Matthews (2013)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 19-May-2014
From: Heather Smyser <>
Subject: The Structure and Development of Russian
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: William Kleesman Matthews
TITLE: The Structure and Development of Russian
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Heather Smyser, University of Arizona

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


First published in 1953 and now appearing in a contemporary reprint, Matthews’ “The Structure and Development of Russian”, a 225 page book including the index, provides a broad overview of both synchronic (Part I) and diachronic (Part II) views of the Russian language before providing excerpts of a variety of texts (Part III) that trace the development of written Russian from the 11th century up until the time of original publication. The introduction in Part 1 provides information on the orthography, sounds, and sentence structure before going into more detail in subsequent sections. The chapter on sounds first delves into the production of the five identified phonemic vowels and how they vary with regard to stress before continuing with a discussion of consonants and intonation patterns. Chapter II then discusses words in Russian and how they are divided into different word classes before tackling each class separately, treating in each class basic morphological concerns. The next chapter introduces formal and semantic analysis of sentence structure and uses both to analyze the most common sentence structure patterns in Russian. Chapter V concludes Part I and introduces known dialects of Russian within the territory of the country itself presents characteristic features of each.

Part II provides a historical explanation of the development of Russian, with Chapter VI describing how development from Proto Indo-European to Old Russian might have occurred. This chapter also gives an introduction to the reconstructed sounds of Old Russian and its morphology and syntax. Chapter VII continues to trace this development by focusing on the 11th to 14th centuries; it introduces texts believed to be written at this time and their respective genres, which provide some clues on how the language was evolving. Chapter VIII treats the rise of Moscow from the 15th to 17th centuries, texts written during this period, and the evolution of the written language used. Chapters IX-XI trace the development of the written literary language in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, respectively. Finally, Part III is a collection of excerpts in chronological order of written texts in Russian at its various stages from the 11th century to the modern era with their translations in English in a parallel format. The book also includes a bibliography arranged by topic and an index of terms.


Apart from a few minor problems, Matthews’ “The Structure and Development of Russian” is a timeless work that still serves as a useful reference to scholars and others interested in the Russian language. While it does not go into exhaustive detail in any of its chapters, each section is a concise yet complete overview of the aspect of the Russian language under review. The bibliography lists the leading works of major theorists in all areas, covering synchronic linguistics particularly well. While necessarily broad in order to address both the structure and historical development of modern Russian, the chapters are well developed without giving the impression that important topics were glossed over. Indeed, the book makes for a quick, informative read that does not suffer from disjointedness.

Matthews’ explanations of both synchronic and diachronic developments in Russian are accessible to the majority of modern readers, although for those not familiar with formal linguistics, descriptions of the verbal system might prove challenging because they use terms like “aorist”, “focal”, and “ablative”. Even so, the descriptions of both verbal aspect and the numerical systems are particularly clear and concise; they would serve as excellent resources to teachers of Russian at all levels, aiding them in developing clearer explanations of the grammar for students. In particular, the description of the verbal aspectual system and the illustrative chart provided in Chapter III, part 7 could be incorporated into textbook descriptions of grammar to clearly illustrate the encoding of aspect in Russian verbs and the nuances of choosing one aspect over another. This section also could be useful as a way to increase metalinguistic awareness in more advanced students, who already have some understanding of the language’s structure. One minor problem in Part I is the figure providing the waveforms of cardinal vowels (p. 23) as none of the front vowel waveforms are labeled with their corresponding vowels, leaving the reader to infer which waveform corresponds to which vowel. That said, the discussion of vowel reduction depending on stress location and the presentation of the corresponding allophones in stressed and unstressed positions would benefit instructors wishing to improve students’ language production, as long as they did not rely on the comparisons with vowels in other languages in the description section. Although the comparisons themselves are not flawed, few students today in the U.S. have sufficient knowledge of Western European languages for the comparisons to be beneficial.

The synchronic section should also be of interest to sociolinguists and anthropological linguists, as it provides a basis for comparison not only of the standard literary language but also of dialects within the Russian territory at the time of the book’s publication. The dialects of Russian, their distribution, and their characteristic phonological features are not topics often treated in Russian courses, yet researchers should be aware of these dialects and the phonological, morphological, and syntactic features that make them unique. Unfortunately, this section only briefly surveys morphological variation among the dialects; it would have benefitted from inclusion of a description of the morphological and syntactic variants that mark a dialect as being North, Central, or South Russian. Additionally, no mention is made of the dialects of Russian spoken within the satellite states of the U.S.S.R. or even of the far eastern varieties. Such a discussion could have served as a basis for a modern study of how use of Russian in these regions has changed with the fall of the U.S.S.R and the rise of national identities.

Given the rise of national identities after the fall of the Soviet Union, the most glaring weakness of the work is the retention of dated terms with no editorial explanation or mention of the terminology currently accepted in the field. In the first part, for example, “White Russia” is used for “Belarus”; while historically accurate, the term raises the concern of identity, colonialism, and politics. The use of the term “Old Russian” in Part II to describe the language used in texts dating from the 11th century is also problematic in that it implies that the language of these texts is differentiated from Old Ukrainian and Old Belarusian, when in fact one can easily argue that it is not and instead that one can see aspects of Eastern Slavic languages present in these early examples. Schenker (1995) opts for the more politically correct term by identifying the language in question as East Slavic, which was distinct from West and South Slavic.

Although approximate dates are provided for the excerpts in Part III, the location where the manuscript was found as well as a discussion of traits that were hallmarks of East Slavic would have lent more credence to including these as older forms along a continuum of development towards modern Russian. Presented as they are, one gets the impression that all of these texts are distinctly Russian in nature even though some of the earlier ones might adhere more closely to official Church Slavic forms. Some indication of East Slavic and Russian features in each text would have been useful, especially for those who have never before seen old East Slavic texts. Also, although English glosses are present for each of the old texts, a glossary of Old Russian to Modern Russian and a chart detailing modern equivalents for letters no longer in use would have been extremely beneficial since this would more clearly demonstrate the evolution of the language. Comprehension of earlier texts might prove problematic unless one is already familiar with these changes. That said, the texts do appear to have been carefully chosen, and the reader with advanced proficiency in modern Russian should be able to decode their basic meaning, particularly that of later texts, with the assistance of the changes referenced in Part II.

Even with these relatively small issues, the work serves as a comprehensible and succinct introduction to both contemporary and historical Russian linguistics; and the information it presents is still relevant to a modern understanding of the structure and development of the Russian language. his work would be of great value to graduate students preparing for traditional exams in Russian linguistics as its compact summaries are enough to prompt recall of more detailed information. It should also serve as a reference text for modern studies of Russian dialect variation, allowing modern scholars to ascertain how the dialectal situation has changed since the 1950s by providing a snapshot of Russian as it was used at the time of publication. Finally, in terms of historical linguistic inquiry, this work should spur more research on the development of the Russian lexicon from the earliest texts to the modern era to better understand diachronic developments in the language.


Schenker, A. M. (1995). The Dawn of Slavic: An introduction to Slavic Philology. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Heather Smyser is currently a graduate student in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona. Current research is investigating ties between the L2 and L3 in the multilingual lexicon through masked priming to determine the relationship between these and lexical access. Previous and secondary research includes lexical and syntactic influence of French on 18th century Russian, particularly in the works of Karamzin through an analysis of his use of calques in the povest' Bednaya Liza and their relation to French sentimentalism.

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