Monday, October 29, 2012

Language Profile: Russian

This week we're taking a look at Russian, the most geographically widespread language of Eurasia. Russian is a Slavic language with over 144 million native speakers. It's an official language in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and you guessed it... Russia! It's also a recognized regional language in Tajikistan, Moldova and Ukraine, and is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.

Russian is written in a form of Cyrillic script known as the Russian alphabet. It was developed in the 10th century, and consists of 33 letters. Cyrillic script is actually derived from Greek script and is named for Saint Cyril. Cyril and his brother Methodius were Greek missionaries who introduced written language to the area that is now known as Russia. They're said to have developed the Cyrillic alphabet as well as the scary-sounding Glagolitic alphabet (the oldest known Slavic alphabet) in their attempts to convince Slavs to convert to Christianity. Poor Methodius... his little brother got the language named after him, and he got nothing... well, except for being named a co-patron saint of Europe with his brother and another guy in 1980! 

Saints Cyril and Methodius holding a scroll
with the Cyrillic alphabet. The Methodiusic
alphabet just doesn't have the same ring to it.

The phonology of Russian can get to be a bit controversial if you ask how many vowels the language has! A group of linguists from St. Petersburg believe that the language has six vowels, and that the phoneme [ɨ] should be considered as a vowel distinct from [i]. However, most other linguists agree that Russian only has five vowels because the two phonemes are allophones, which are sounds used to pronounce a single phoneme. With allophones, you can generally predict which of the two sounds will be used based on the surrounding phonemes. Despite the fact that most linguists are in agreement that the language only has five vowel phonemes, most schools teach that there are six vowels. How confusing!

Russian isn't just an important language on Earth... it's also an official language in space! Well... aboard the International Space Station (ISS) anyway. Apparently, most NASA astronauts who are going to be working with Russian cosmonauts learn the Russian language for communication purposes while aboard the ISS. Sounds like a good reason to learn a language!

Междунаро́дная косми́ческая ста́нция (We're pretty sure
 that's how you write International Space Station in Russian...)