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Review of  Topics in the History of Russian

Reviewer: Olena Tsurska
Book Title: Topics in the History of Russian
Book Author: Ian Press
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Russian
Issue Number: 19.2861

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AUTHOR: Press, Ian
TITLE: Topics in the History of Russian
SERIES: LINCOM Studies in Slavic Linguistics 31
YEAR: 2008

Olena Tsurska, Department of English, Arizona State University, PhD student

This volume presents a collection of ''answers'' to the History of Russian
questions generally asked at the University of London finals examinations.
According to the author, each ''answer'' is ''a compact, note-based, guideline to
data of the sort the answer might include'' (p. 1). The essays in the volume are
meant to be used by students studying Russian History and Grammar and are
grouped into four subsections (''General Topics - Borrowings - The Role of Church
Slavonic'', ''Phonology'', ''Morphology (and some Syntax)'', and ''Dialects'') followed
by the three appendices on sounds, grammatical forms, and notes on Old Church
Slavonic (OCS).

In a brief introduction, Press describes the purpose and contents of this
collection and lists XI-XVII century Russian texts commonly studied in the
History of the Russian Language course and referred to in the finals questions.
He also explains the standard notation used in the book.

The first section of the volume includes brief answers to the questions on the
position of Russian among other Slavonic languages, the evidence for the
existence of the written Russian before the conversion of Rus' to Christianity,
the elements of Church Slavonic origin in the contemporary Russian, and the main
sources of loanwords in Russian. This section also contains answers to several,
very specific questions about the etymology of some Russian verbs and nouns as
well as the linguistic relevance of the words like 'mlekopitajuscee', 'letucij',
'vozrozdenie', 'neboskreb' etc, and pairs of words such as 'lecu'-'letis'',
'xozu'-'xodis'', 'grazdanin'-'gorozanin' among others [editor's note: the haceks
over consonants have been omitted]. The section also includes a sample answer to
a question asking for a translation of several Russian historical texts and
linguistic comments of the various underlined words, which include nouns,
participles, pronouns, and verbs.

The section on phonology contains sample answers to the questions on the
comparison of the consonantal system of Modern Russian and Common Slavonic, the
sound system of Old Russian and Old Church Slavonic, and the Russian innovations
in the Common Slavonic vowel system. Press also includes here discussions on the
phonological processes that have occurred in the history of Russian such as
pleophony, which ''consists in the reflex of a medial or inter-consonantal liquid
(r, l) diphthong as the repetition of the vowel after the liquid'' (p. 37),
jotation (the influence of the palatal phoneme jot on consonants), and
palatalization of velars. In addition, this section includes brief discussions
on the following changes in the Russian sounds: changes undergone by the 'jers',
or reduced vowels; the change of e to o; and cokan'je, or ''the reduction of
hushing and hissing fricatives and affricates to one series (mostly and
specifically voiceless hissing affricates...)'' (p. 46). There are also essays on
the origin of palatalized k and g as well as the sounds of various palatals in
Russian. In addition, Press discusses the Russian treatment of jat', the Common
Slavonic reduced vowels, nasal vowels, and *tj, *kt, *dj. Finally, this section
concludes with an overview of the main phonological differences between Russian
and Ukrainian and the date when Ukrainian started to be considered a separate

In the section entitled ''Morphology (and some Syntax)'', Press discusses various
questions on the relationship of the Common Slavonic and Modern Russian nominal
declension of singular, plural, and dual forms (the latter lost in Modern
Russian) and the origins of the Modern Russian nominative plural of masculine
nouns. Also included in this section is the ''answer'' to the question about the
Common Slavonic and Modern Russian system of the declension of short and long
adjectives (it is generally considered that only long adjectives are declined in
Modern Russian). Press also talks here about the origin of the Russian compound
(pronominal) adjectives that are verbal, extended by complements (i.e. locative
phrases or infinitives) and do not have a long form (p. 70). In this essay,
Press examines the historical development of the genitive and dative singular
masculine (-(a)ago/-j(a)ago, -ogo/ -ego and -omu/-emu in Modern Russian) and
feminine (-oj in Modern Russian) adjectival forms. This section concludes with a
very interesting summary of the development of the Russian conjugation system
beginning with the Old Russian period and the discussion of the types of the
aorist formation in Old Russian and reasons for its disappearance.

The last section on dialects is the shortest and includes discussions on the
main features of North Russian (e.g. no reduction of unstressed vowels, i.e.
okan'e, simplification of consonantal clusters (dn->n, bm->m), etc), Central
Russian (e.g. akan'e, stressed e becomes o before a hard consonant, etc), and
South Russian (e.g. g is not pronounced as a stop, only three vowel phonemes are
distinguished in unstressed syllables, etc) dialects. The phenomenon akan'e is
discussed in detail in one of the essays, and there is also an overview of the
pronunciation of g in various Russian dialects.

After the four main sections, Press includes a brief Afterword, in which he
expresses his hopes for the usefulness of his book to the students of the
History of Russian and briefly comments on the purpose of the following appendices.

In Appendix 1, Press gives a brief overview of the Common Slavonic phonemes,
their evolution, and their influence on the later developed sound system of
Russian. Appendix 2 focuses on the nominal, pronominal, numeral, and verbal
forms in the history of Russian.

Appendix 3 provides a general overview of Old Church Slavonic, and this choice
is explained by the fact that OCS can be, according to Press, ''considered as a
point of reference for the study of the modern Slavonic languages'' (p. 104).
After a brief discussion of the place of OCS among other Slavonic languages, its
alphabet, and syntactic structure, Press includes a summary of the OCS forms:
noun stem classes, adjective declension, participial, pronominal, and verbal
forms. Press also includes a small section on the sound system of OCS. By no
means exhaustive, this appendix is intended to give the readers some basic
information about the grammar of OCS and guide them to the relevant sources for
further information.

Written mainly to complement Press (2007), this volume is a useful reference for
students and linguists who are just starting their inquiries in the history of
Russian as well as those who are quite familiar with the topics discussed in the
book. Those who are new to Russian historical linguistics will find this
collection of essays helpful because many essays provide concise comprehensive
summaries of a variety of topics and can be a great starting point for further
research on a specific topic. Some of the ''answers'', particularly the
discussions on the position of Russian among other Slavic languages, elements of
the Church Slavonic origin in the contemporary Russian, the comparisons of the
Common Slavonic and Modern Russian nominal and adjectival declension, the
characteristics of the North, Central, and South Russian dialects, and the three
appendices, provide very informative overviews of their respective topics,
familiarize the readers with the key facts and help better formulate further
questions for research. The bibliography is also a wonderful resource, and the
author, following the recommendations of the readers, deliberately includes not
only the works referenced in the volume, but also the works that could provide
the readers with more information on a particular topic.

One of the advantages of the book, which stems from the goal and the audience
that Press has in mind, is that the essays cover very narrow topics in the
History of Russian. In this sense, one may argue that the book is quite unique;
it gives the author a certain flexibility and allows him to make assumptions
about the background knowledge of the readers and cover very specific topics
such as, for example, the origins of the forms 'lob', 'lba', 'ogon'', 'ognja',
or pleophony in Russian, a process that is a specific feature of the East
Slavonic languages. It thus serves as a great resource for students learning the
History of Russian in much detail. At the same time, it is hard to cover all
possible topics (which Press fully understands and comments on in his
Afterword), which leaves the author with a hard choice of the questions to be
included in the volume. Press covers many questions on the phonological and
morphological changes in the History of Russian. However, it would be nice to
see more ''answers'' on the syntactic changes, which we find in such works on the
history of Russian as Borkovsky (1978), and comparisons of different syntactic
structures (negative, impersonal sentences, etc) in Common Slavonic or Old
Church Slavonic and Modern Russian.

Overall, this volume succeeds in presenting the basic information on a variety
of phonological, morphological, and dialectal topics in the Russian historical
linguistics and inviting the readers (students, teachers, researchers) for
further inquiries in this broad and exciting field.

Borkovsky, V. I. (ed.) (1978). _Istoricheskaya grammatika russkogo yazyka_.

Press, I. (2007). _A history of the Russian language and its speakers_. Munich:

Olena Tsurska is a PhD candidate in Linguistics and a Teaching Associate at the
Department of English at Arizona State University. She is currently working on
her dissertation entitled ''Sentential Negation in Slavic Languages'' and writing
an article on the Negative Cycle in Early Russian. Her research interests
include Minimalist Syntax, Slavic Historical Linguistics, and Linguistic Cycles.