Why does Russian not have any major dialects?

by | Apr 2, 2015 | English, Regional Linguistic Differences

Russian is today an official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as, in certain regions that are de jure part of Georgia (Abkhazia & South Ossetia), Moldova (Transnistria & Gagauzia), Ukraine (almost 10 oblasts), Romania (several municipalities in Tulcea and Constanța countries) and Norway (Russian EZ in Spitsbergen).

Moreover, Russian is still widely spoken across the former USSR and Israel.

Interestingly to a language learner, Russian has relatively few accents and dialects, especially considering the vast geographic space the language is spoken in and its number of speakers (around 250 million). A person from Saint Petersburg really has no problem understanding someone from Vladivostok almost 10,000 kms away.

So how is it possible that Russian would appear to be less diverse in variation than Irish, a language spoken regularly by less than 100,000 in a very small geographical area?

Geographical extent of the Russian Language

Map Russia

Russia: From Saint Petersburg in the west to Vladivostok in the east

Russian dialects and accents

The two main differences I have observed in Russian pronunciation are the ‘e’ and ‘o’ sounds on the unstressed ‘o’ letters. In Northern European Russia the ‘o’ tended to pronounced clearly (IPA: /o/) while in the rest of the country an unstressed ‘o’ is pronounced as an ‘a’ or an unstressed ‘e’ in English (IPA: /ɐ~ə/).

Another difference I’ve noticed is the ‘г’ letter pronounced like ‘h’ (IPA: /ɣ/) in southern Russia (and parts of Ukraine) while it is pronounced like a ‘g’ (IPA: /g/) in the rest of the Russian speaking world. There are some other differences but not many.

One exception being that in parts of Ukraine, ‘surzhyk’ is widely spoken which tends to use Ukrainian grammar and syntax with a lot of Russian vocabulary. It is more common in villages than cities and I have had to opportunities to hear it spoken on my travels through Ukraine.

Chernovtsy University

The limit of the Russian-speaking world – Chernovtsy University in western Ukraine

Possible explanations for such linguistic homogeneity

The following 5 factors have, I believe, had a significant influence on the relative homogeneity of the Russian language:

1. Modern literary Russian arrived late (early 18th century)

2. Soviet policy of moving groups of people around the country – again limited the likelihood of regional variants.

3. Soviet industrialization of the USSR meant the need for peasants to move from the countryside to become workers in the cities – forced standardization

4. Soviet universal standardized education (including linguistic) was strictly enforced

5. Russian is the ‘язык великий и могучий ‘ (‘language of the great and mighty’) so speakers make a bigger effort to speak standard Russian

Koktebel Memorial

WW2 Memorial in Koktebel, Crimea

I cannot find any studies that clarified the reasons for this phenomenon so if you are a Russian speaker or a lover of the Russian language, I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on why the language of Pushkin has so few dialects and accents. Please write in your ideas below in the comments section. Спасибо! 🙂

*Featured image courtesy of Giammetti Foundation

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