Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Homogeneity of Russian

I have long wondered about my native tongue's mysterious homogeneity. 90% of the time it's completely impossible to tell a Russian's home town by his speech. Siberians talk exactly like St. Petersburgers who talk exactly like Moscovites, etc. There are two very provincial non-standard accents, but they're dying. This is pretty bizarre. Of all the large European languages Polish comes closest to this level of homogeneity, but unlike Russia Poland is a relatively small, compact country.

How did this situation come about? I've had a chance to ask a couple of professional linguists this question and they didn't have a clue. Some will tell you that this homogeneity was created by the strictness of the Soviet educational system, but they're most likely wrong. Early Communism had a much harsher impact on Ukraine than on Russia and Ukrainian is as heterogeneous linguistically as Russian is homogeneous. In fact a large part of Ukraine forms a dialect continuum from Russian to Polish with pronunciation and vocabulary typically changing every few miles as you go from east to west and from south to north.

Normally languages that have appeared in their current homes recently are more homogeneous than languages that have been developing in the same place forever. This is why North America hosts fewer English accents than England does. But Russian spread across the European part of the modern Russian Federation roughly 1,000 years ago, so this shouldn't be an issue either.

If anybody out there has any ideas on this, I'd love to hear them.


  1. I could be wrong about this, but Ukrainian might have escaped standardization because the Soviet educational system pushed standardization of Russian but not Ukrainian. In the USA during the 1950s and 1960s, television erased much of the differences in regional pronunciation. Consider 3 hypotheses:
    (1) Modern Russian originated in the early nineteenth century.
    (2) Modern Russian was, to a considerable extent, established by Pushkin.
    (3) Spelling reform in 1918 followed by Soviet education and military conscription standardized modern Russian to a surprising degree.

  2. Anonymous, first of all, thanks for stopping by my little blog. Your comment made me think about all of this some more.

    If one looks at this issue technically and practically (the mutual intelligibility test) "Ukrainian" is really a group of Russian dialects. Only the far western 10% of Ukraine speaks something a Moscovite wouldn't understand. If the Soviet state was capable of wiping out Russian dialects in Russia, why couldn't it wipe out Russian dialects in Ukraine?

    On the emotional, nationalistic, historical level Ukrainian, at least to some Ukrainians, is more than a bunch of Russian dialects and Ukraine is more than a wayward chunk of Russia. I guess during the centuries of Polish rule the idea was born in what was then not yet called Ukraine that it can and maybe even should go its own way, independent of Poles and even of other Russians who never lived under any Poles.

    Perhaps the Soviet educational system could wipe out Russian dialects in Russia, but not Russian dialects in Ukraine because Ukrainians, for nationalistic reasons, were kind of proud of their dialects. In this model Russian provincials, in contrast to Ukrainians, would have taken the official standard taught in schools as a new, improved and extra-shiny version of what they already spoke anyway. Unlike in Ukraine, none of their nationalistic pride would have been wounded by it. And in this way an imaginary (or half-imaginary) difference between two entities would have slowly become a little more real. The power of ideas, eh?

    This is all just a guess though.