I’ve been reading Simon Franklin’s Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, c.950-1300, and I found the following passage so sensible and interesting I thought I’d quote it here (it’s near the start of chapter 2, “Scripts and Languages”):
For the present purposes the relevant variants are East Slavonic and Church Slavonic. In Rus, East Slavonic and Church Slavonic were both written and spoken, though in the relationships between written and spoken they are like mirror images of each other. In origin East Slavonic was the spoken vernacular of the East Slavs of the lands of the Rus, while Church Slavonic was the written medium which was developed in the process of translating Scripture for West and (eventually, mainly) South Slavs. In usage, spoken Church Slavonic was a means to disseminate the written forms (e.g. through liturgy, through sermons, through recitation and reading aloud), while written East Slavonic derives from (which is not to say that it is identical to) speech. Initially distinct both geographically and culturally, East Slavonic and Church Slavonic form the outer parameters of most discussion about language in Rus. Like Common Slavonic, they are abstractions, and hence contentious: should they, for example, be regarded as distinct languages, or as variants of the same language? If viewed separately, is either of them in fact an entity, or do they, too, dissolve into their own subvariants? If viewed together, what is their interrelationship?
Pristine Church Slavonic (the Cyrillo-Methodian translations) and pristine East Slavonic (the speech of the East Slavs) are irrecoverable from direct contemporary evidence. ‘Old’ Church Slavonic is normally deduced from a more or less agreed ‘canon’ of somewhat later manuscripts (mostly from the eleventh century) which are deemed to reflect it most accurately. In practice, however, virtually all Church Slavonic manuscripts already contain hints of their own linguistic milieu, and over time Church Slavonic divides into increasingly pronounced regional variants, or dialects, dubbed ‘Russian Church Slavonic’, ‘Bulgarian Church Slavonic’ (or ‘Middle Bulgarian’), and so on. Nevertheless, the differences in written convention are too trivial to be interpreted as disintegration, and throughout the Middle Ages, Church Slavonic – in the legitimately capacious sense of the term – continued to serve as a written lingua franca for Orthodox Slavs. Spoken forms of East Slavonic (aka. ‘Old Russian’, ‘Old Ukrainian’, or the ingenious coinage ‘Rusian’) are of course unrecorded, because our only evidence is filtered through the selective and more or less conventionalised medium of writing. We see spoken East Slavonic as if through occasional gauze-covered holes in a screen. There is no way in which we can reconstruct, for example, the rhythms and nuances of an authentic domestic conversation. Nevertheless, the glimpses are sufficient to reveal certain general features, as well as certain distinctive regional features. Accidents of survival mean that we are particularly well informed about the Novgorodian version.
How different from one another were Church Slavonic and East Slavonic? Linguistic comparisons cover four main categories: sounds (phonology), word-forms (morphology), sentence structures (syntax), and vocabulary and meaning (lexis and semantics). The sounds of pristine Church Slavonic, reflecting South Slav pronunciation, would have been somewhat strange to the ear of an untutored East Slav at the time of the official Conversion of the Rus; and stranger still by the late twelfth or early thirteenth century as the loss of reduced vowels brought about major changes in the sound structures (and word-forms) of East Slavonic. However, this is to some extent a false contrast, since the sounds of pristine Church Slavonic are unlikely to have been imported intact together with the writing system. Church Slavonic is a written language, but this does not mean that the conventions of writing ‘are’ the language. For readers and their listeners in Rus, Church Slavonic probably had a strong local accent. Our notional untutored East Slav might have been even less struck by the morphological contrasts between his spoken vernacular and Church Slavonic. Inflected word-endings, for example, were broadly similar, and one could quite easily get used to the consistent alternatives in word-formation. More exotic was the way in which words were strung together in clauses and sentences. Devised for the purpose of translating from Greek, Church Slavonic was apt to mirror Greek rhetorical structures unfamiliar to spoken East Slavonic: complex structures of subordination, or the widespread use of participles. But perhaps most alien of all were many of the words themselves, and their meanings. Although Church Slavonic and East Slavonic shared a common core of vocabulary, Church Slavonic brought a mass of concepts which were wholly new to the East Slavs. It was saturated with words and expressions which had no precise precedent in any pre-literate variety of spoken Slavonic: words borrowed or calqued from Greek, or familiar Slavonic words imbued with unfamiliar connotations.
What, then, does our East Slav make of Church Slavonic? If he listens to a catalogue of his debts read from a piece of birch-bark, and then to the Lord’s Prayer, is he experiencing two languages, or one? Compare the following assertions by modern linguists: (i) ‘all the evidence says that Old Church Slavonic and Rusian belong to a single language’; (ii) ‘the most striking feature of East Slav writing is the juxtaposition of two languages’; (iii) ‘[the language reflected in early Novgorodian sources is] simply a dialect of the Late Common Slavonic language’; (iv) ‘we must accept that there were . . . two types of Early Russian literary language’. Some of these assertions relate to language in general, others specifically to written language, but the underlying question is the same.
Linguistic argument alone cannot produce an adequate answer. There is no purely quantitative measure – a particular number of distinct phonological, or morphological, or syntactic, or lexicographic features – which determines whether the Rus version of Church Slavonic and the written derivatives of East Slavonic should be regarded as separate languages. Linguists can plausibly assert that substantial elements of Church Slavonic might have been incomprehensible to an audience of ordinary East Slavs, but comprehensibility is not the paramount criterion. I find great difficulty in comprehending some varieties of writing and speaking in English (such as computer manuals, or specialist discourses on literary theory, or the Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge, or the dialogue in a Newcastle pub), but I have no difficulty accepting that the language is English. What matters is perception: the perception of those who see themselves as within – or outside – the linguistic community.To put it crudely: language does not define community; community defines language. The wider community of early Rus – the silent majority – cannot tell us what it thought, but for the community of articulate Christians there was no doubt: the whole point of Church Slavonic lay in its affinity with the native tongue, in the fact that it was not Latin or Greek or Hebrew, in the fact that it was therefore, in principle at least, accessible. No source ever suggests that there might be two written languages, or even that there might be different languages for writing and speaking: ‘The Slavonic tongue is one.’
I wish all my readers a happy new year — удачи всем и здоровья!