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The language of the 19th century (even at its beginning), judging from the poetry and prose of Pushkin and Lermontov, was much the same language that we speak today. If somebody decided to compose something similar today, they would arrive at much the same result.

The language of the 18th century, that of Peter the Great and Lomonosov, was quite different. It used many service words considered archaic today, and, more importantly, used a very different word order. While the Russian language has free word order, a certain syntax is still considered the default, and this is the most prominent feature that distinguishes it from the language of the 18th century. It's still very comprehensible, and for the most part, remains grammatically valid.

But if we consider the language of the 17th century, it's unlikely that a modern speaker would understand it without prior training. Actually, it's a different language altogether, no more comprehensible than modern Ukrainian.

What led to this dramatic change in the Russian language in the 17th century, and what caused the change in word order in the 18th century?

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    Actually it is a different language, almost before the mid-18th century they wrote mostly in Church Slavonic, not in Russian, and before Pushkin they used the Church Slavonic syntax when writing in Russian. It was actually Pushkin who established the tradition to use the Russian language the way we see it now.
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 7, 2013 at 5:56
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    @Anixx: could you please provide an example of incomprehensible XVII century's Russian (as opposed to CS) prose?
    – Quassnoi
    Dec 7, 2013 at 17:19
  • @Quassnoi well possibly I indeed confused the two. It seems there is some stereotype of how people of 16th-17th century should speak, for example, the speech of the Ivan IV in film "Иван Васильевич меняет профессию" is hardly understandable, I do not know whether he speaks Russian or CS. Also there is so-called "боярский язык" a stylization of how supposedly people of 16th-17th century should talk, also little comprehensible.
    – Anixx
    Dec 8, 2013 at 0:13
  • “The language of the 19th century, ... was exactly the same language that we speak today. . " - this is some exaggeration. "The language of the 18th century ... is completely different." - also an exaggeration. The overwhelming majority of those words that you call as "archaisms" are somehow known to any modern lettered person. Nov 26, 2021 at 3:31
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    f.e. vostlit.info/Texts/rus17/Nikitin_A_II/frametext1.htm - Хождение за три моря... И прочие древнерусские тексты вполне понятны, и даже более древние, по большей части в их составе Nov 26, 2021 at 3:46

3 Answers 3

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Actually, if you consider secular texts — especially those whose compilers were not likely to have been much influenced by the bookish style (in particular, that of the Church Slavonic language), they are, despite containing some dialect words, clichés uncommon in the modern language and historicisms, perfectly understandable, as the examples below show. (Archaic letters were removed, either way the spelling is preserved).

Из Таможенных книг Курска (1620 г.): Марта в 5 день приехол с Елца Степан Шерапов [.] товару у него три бочки дехтю [.] пошлин взято двадцать алтын без алтына

Из Таможенных книг Старого Оскола (1651-52) Да в том же месяце в торговые дни и в будни с продажных товаров с хлеба и с воску и с вощин с коров и с волов с овец и козлов и со всяких мелких товаров пятна и пошлин и мимоезду с ыногородцов продажных товаров взято рубль три алтына две денги

Царь Алексей Михайлович в одном из писем: От царя и великого князя Алексея Михаиловича... нарядись в ездовое платье да съезди к сестрам бутто ты от меня приехал да спрошаи о здоровъе да скожи што я буду в воскресенья...

Из любовных писем (1686): ... я головы своие не щажу[.] был я у вас ночес и в ызбе а у вас никово не было... вчерась я к тебе писал чтобы ты вышла а ты и не вышла а я приходил [.] впрям ныне ты меня водиш в узде

Examples from: Хрестоматия по истории русского языка: Учеб. пособие для стдентов пед. ин-тов по спец. № 2101 "Рус. яз. и лит." / Авт.-сост. В.В. Иванов, Т.А. Сумникова, Н.П. Панкратова. -- М.: Просвещение, 1990. -- 496 с.

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  • Thanks, your examples mostly differ from modern language by their word order.
    – Anixx
    Dec 8, 2013 at 0:15
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    Anixx, Лишь кажется вам это, допустимы вполне сии порядки и в русском современном :) Nov 26, 2021 at 5:06
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    "Лишь кажется вам это" incorrect. Correct: "Лишь кажется вам это, милостивый государь".
    – markvs
    Nov 26, 2021 at 13:23
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This is a great, multilayered question.

Here's an opinion expressed by a school of thought represented by the contemporary writer, Mikhail Veller. I quote it in full, as it is very relevant to this discussion.

Пушкин и русский язык

Весь восемнадцатый век на русский язык, фигурально выражаясь, натягивалась по возможности немецкая грамматика; общеизвестно. А в первой трети девятнадцатого у Пушкина (в прозе) и особенно у Лермонтова – у него это просто ясно видно – появляется нечто совсем новое: они как бы пишут французским языком по-русски, или русским языком на французский лад, если угодно: строй фразы, ее синтаксис – не русские, с точки зрения русской грамматики – местами буквально не мотивированы, а калькированы с французского. Любимые лермонтовские точка с запятой между отдельными словами, двоеточие как знак скорее интонационно-оттеночный, нежели несущий какую бы то ни было конкретную грамматическую функцию, – столь же характерны для художественного французского языка той эпохи, сколь нехарактерны для русского.

Вот это изящное и фривольное офранцузивание русского языка и стало началом и основанием языка русского литературного классического.

Дивная тема для кучи диссертаций. А что? Образованные дворяне того времени овладевали французским часто раньше и основательнее, чем русским; вот вышеупомянутые и впали в ересь: смешали языки – в хорошем, высоком смысле – придворный аристократический французский и житейский родной русский: вот и легкость, и гибкость, и блеск, и длинное дыхание фразы.

[ Source: http://book-online.com.ua/read.php?book=7484&page=86 ]

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  • Mikhail Veller is a talented but, shall we say, very opinionated kind of author. Holding a Masters degree in linguistics, he never worked as a researcher. So his judgement on the language history should be taken with caution. May 17, 2023 at 23:44
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And Ekaterina's II decrees... http://krym.rusarchives.ru/dokumenty/ukaz-imperatricy-ekateriny-ii-ob-ustroystve-krepostey-v-ekaterinoslavskom-namestnichestve

And Trediakovsky poetry... http://az.lib.ru/t/trediakowskij_w_k/text_0170.shtml

And "The novel about walking beyond the Three Seas"... https://www.vostlit.info/Texts/rus17/Nikitin_A_II/frametext1.htm

And even the Russian Primary Chronicle, (much part of this is understandable)... https://studfile.net/preview/4199237/ etc..

All these things are understandable to any modern educated Russian.


"I wonder what led to this dramatic change in the Russian language in the 17th century and also what caused the change in word order in the 18th century. " -

You'll be really surprised and magically enchanted if you study a little, albeit bite-size piece of the history, and not just the linguistics. https://youtu.be/Dh-NJU13im8?t=23

https://youtu.be/M65mswPJN80 ....

https://youtu.be/aePYhB1VHfY?t=2399

https://youtu.be/klytKWgeikw

Et cetera.

And the questions will dissipate. However, these changes mostly relate to the emergence of new concepts and words, and not to grammar in general; and the old words had nowhere to lost, in mass.

"Actually, it's a different language altogether, no more comprehensible than modern Ukrainian." - just absurd :) And the modern Ukrainian language isn't that "incomprehensible" either. :> The closest language to Russian, not counting Belarussian. Not to mention that one single Ukrainian language just doesn't exist - there are a number of dialects that differ - in this parameter - from east to west.

In general, your question is based on absolutely incorrect preconditions and conclusions.

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