A few years ago I wrote about Tomasz Kamusella’s book The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Central Europe (which sparked quite an interesting discussion); now he has an article in Acta Slavica Iaponica called “The Change of the Name of the Russian Language in Russian from Rossiiskii to Russkii: Did Politics Have Anything to Do with It?” It’s available as a pdf file at this link, where it’s followed by a response (in Russian) by Oksana Ostapchuk, “Русский versus российский: исторический и социокультурный контекст функционирования лингвонимов” [Russkii versus Rossiiskii: Historical and sociocultural context of the functioning of language names]. He explains the genesis of the article in this passage:

As remarked above, between the 1750s and 1830s, the name of Russia (Rossiia) corresponded unambiguously to the name of the Russian language (Rossiiskii), as is the norm in the case of other states across Central and Eastern Europe. I do not know why the name of this language changed to Russkii and why this occurred in the 1830s. Until 2007, I worked at one of Poland’s best centers of Russian studies. I thought that colleagues more knowledgeable than I in the history of Russian and other Slavic languages would have readily provided an explanation. To my surprise, no answers were forthcoming. It appeared that they either did not know of this issue or considered it unimportant. I was flabbergasted […]

And he lays out the essence of the situation here:

The gap between Russkii and Rossiiskii was never very wide in the early modern period, because at that time, it was bridged by intermediary forms that are not current (at least in standard Russian) today. They included the following forms for the Rus’/Muscovian male, namely Rossiianin, Rosiianin, Rusianin, Rusin, Rus, Ruski, and Russkii. A similar series can be extended between Rus’ and Rossiia, namely, Rus’, Rusiia, Rusa, Russa, Roseia, Rosiia, and Rossiia. And likewise, a similar net of words may be hung between the adjectives Russkii and Rossiiskii, that is, Russkii, Rus’kii, Ruskii, Ruski, Roskii, Rosskii, Rosiiskii, and Rossiiskii.
This plethora of forms and their varied and variously overlapping meanings are a testimony to the natural variability of a language before a standard form is imposed on it with authoritative dictionaries and grammars that constitute the normative basis for any printed matter in a standard language (in the Western meaning of this word) and for school textbooks published in it. […]
But as evidenced by the titles of the Russian dictionaries recorded by Stankiewicz, in the course of the standardization of Russian during the second half of the eighteenth century, a consensus was reached. The state was dubbed Rossiia, its population, Rossiiane, and the language, Rossiiskii. This consensus began to unravel in the 1830s and 1840s, and was definitively broken by the 1850s. It was replaced with Russkii for the empire’s population and its language, while the polity’s name remained the same as before, Rossiia.

His proposed solution involves the Russianization of Poland after the Uprising of 1830, and I won’t try to summarize it here; I’ll just quote a couple of footnotes so you can see how much fascinating detail is involved (if, of course, you’re fascinated by this kind of detail). Here’s one:

“Galicia” was invented by Austria as its administrative of how to organize and legitimize its seizure of part of Poland-Lithuania. Officially, the territory was named Regnum Galiciæ et Lodomeriæ in Latin and the Königreich Galizien und Lodomerien in German, meaning the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. (The Latin term appeared for the first time in 1205 when on his coronation, the Hungarian king, Andrew II, among others adopted the title of Rex, or King, of Galicia and Lodomeria.) “Galicia” and “Lodomeria” in this name are Latinized forms of the names of the late medieval Rus’ duchies of Halich (Halych) and Vladimir (Volodymyr) in Volhynia. Following the Mongolian invasions, Halich remained the sole powerful (almost) independent Rus’ duchy and managed to seize Volhynia from the Mongols. In 1245, the pope made it a kingdom (Regnum Galiciæ et Lodomeriæ) and eight years later, crowned its ruler, Daniel (Danylo), the first-ever King of All Rus’ (Rex Rusiae). In the mid-fourteenth century, Poland annexed this kingdom in a piecemeal manner.
Importantly, the western half of Austria’s Galicia with the former Polish capital of Cracow at its center never formed part of the medieval Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. Before the partitions, it had been known as Małopolska or Lesser Poland; the extension of the name Galicia westward conveniently (for Vienna) eliminated the name of Poland. Larry Wolff, The Idea of Galicia: History and Fantasy in Habsburg Political Culture (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).

And here’s another:

The German terms Ruthenen and Ruthenisch were proposed as official names in 1843 by the Greek Catholic bishop, Mykhailo Levits’kyi of the Przemysl (Przemyśl) Eparchy, as the parallel German terms Russinen and Russinisch sounded too Russian. Vienna approved and adopted the bishop’s proposal. Tomasz Kamusella, The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008), p. 383.

Another interesting tidbit: the use of “the Ukraine” in English, with the definite article, is a direct loan from the German coinage die Ukraina.


  1. It’s funny that some have so much trouble with naming their country (Irish Isles, USA) and others (France) not so much.

  2. Does he discuss the Rusyns, who are apparently distinct from the Russians? Thanks.

  3. the linguistic concept “Russian language” may have been referred to by a variety of related terms, but simply “to speak Russian” must have remained unchanged: говорить по-русски. Which might be related to a cause of switch to “русский” as the name of the language, coinciding with the formative years of literary Russian and the purge of excessive Germanisms? Just a thought.
    BTW it goes w/o saying that the supposed direct relation between toponyms and linguonyms isn’t w/o myriad exceptions.

  4. It’s confusing in Polish too, from what I can tell. “Rosyjski” is the term for “Russian”, i.e. both “русский” and “росийский”. “Ruski” is supposed to mean “Ruthenian”, or “the people of Rus” in the larger sense. Although I have been told it can also be used in the modern world as a derogatory term to refer to Russians. “Jezyk Ruski” means Ruthenian, or apparently is sometimes used to apply to Eastern Slavic languages in general.

  5. Dahl apparently didn’t like the -ss- spelling at all; he has an indignant note in his dictionary blaming it (who knows why) on the Poles: “Встарь писали Правда Руская; только Польша прозвала нас Россией, россиянами, российскими, по правописанию латинскому, а мы переняли это, перенесли в кирилицу свою и пишем русский!”

  6. I should add that the note is under the headword руский, which he stubbornly spells with one s.

  7. I wish they brought back terms Great Russia and Great Russian.

  8. A proposal: let’s cal the modern international English just English, and give variations regional names. American English will become just American, UK English, err, Britannish, etc.

  9. —UK English, err, Britannish,
    Great British!

  10. But there isn’t one modern international English, and if we write rules and start policing “English”, we’ll have to have some Académie française-type body to arbitrate and tell us what’s “correct” – and implying that our dialectal forms are inferior – eek! No thanks! This is exactly why (some) people in England hate the EU.

  11. I just reviewed a list of members & former members of the Académie française, showing their occupations, and it’s dreadful, just totally filled with the most dreary establishment types. There’s the occasional Jean Cocteau or Marguerite Yourcenar listed, a few international big names from Louis Pasteur to Jacques Cousteau, no artists (unless you count Cocteau), but 125 “ecclesiastics” (not counting bishops), many of them quite recently sitting, and tons of magistrates and other minor functionaries. I’m shocked. Shocked.

  12. John Emerson says

    Reading the biographies of Gautier, the Goncourts, Flaubert, et al, I found that admission to the Académie française was normally the result of an extended behind the scenes lobbying campaign. The process is about as noble and idealistic as local politics in New Jersey.
    Satie lobbied to get into the Académie des Beaux-Arts, but unknown persons named Paladilhe and Lenepveu won it his place. I’ve never really been sure whether this was one of Satie’s jokes, or whether he was wistfully hoping that the Académie would do the right thing. Satie was very heavily armored, as he had to be.

  13. …the result of an extended behind the scenes lobbying campaign. The process is about as noble and idealistic…
    I wouldn’t go near it, if I were you. I’m sending a letter, in English, to say I’m not interested. It’s a Groucho-club place, I can get that stuff at home & the food’s better.

  14. Lutefisk? I think not.

  15. I just reviewed a list of members & former members of the Académie française, showing their occupations, and it’s dreadful, just totally filled with the most dreary establishment types
    From the first act of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (translated by Anthony Burgess). A citizen gets excited when he sees members of the Académie sitting in the theatre:
    CITIZEN: The Academy?
    They are they there, most of them. Can you see?
    Boudu, Boissat, Cureau, Forchères, Colomby,
    Bourzeys, Bourdon, Arbaud – what an honour to sit
    Near names that can never die. Just think of it.

  16. Harry Colomby was Thelonius Monk’s manager. He may have been talking about a different Colomby.

  17. In the 16th century the English name for what we call “Russia” was “Muscovy” –Moscow. Their term for the language was “Muscovite”… They used “Russia” for ‘goods imported from Russia’, furs, pelts, leather. Just so we still use “China” for porcelain. China closet …

  18. It’s true that Standard English is not absolutely invariant across all countries, but I believe it constitutes a single dialect of English nonetheless. There are variations in grammar and slightly wider ones in lexis, but never so many as to come close to preventing mutual intelligibility and acceptability. (Pronunciation is out of the case: there is no standard pronunciation of English, as even RP is local, if slightly more widely distributed than other accents.)

  19. Dietz Ziechmann says

    I recall terms used for Russians and related Slavic people within the former Czarist and Soviet empires and other subject peoples (Uzbeks, Chechens, etc.) speaking the Russian language within the army and government services, somewhat like Macedonians in Greater Greece (Hellas) at the time of Phillip and Alexander (“the Great”).
    Any suggestions?

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