Sunday, December 5, 2021


Birchbark scribblings from Russia, some by children, have informed us about the linguistic landscape of Eastern Europe at around the same time that Middle English was spoken (the excerpts below are from three Wikipedia articles for the first word(s) noted in bold in each entry).

Onfim (Old Novgorodian: онѳиме, Onfime; also Anthemius of Novgorod) was a boy who lived in Novgorod (present-day Russia) in the 13th century, some time around 1220 or 1260. He left his notes and homework exercises scratched in soft birch bark which was preserved in the clay soil of Novgorod. Onfim, who was most likely six or seven at the time, wrote in the Old Novgorodian dialect of Old East Slavic. Besides letters and syllables, he drew "battle scenes and drawings of himself and his teacher".

Old East Slavic (traditionally also: Old Russian, Belarusian: старажытнаруская мова; Russian: древнерусский язык; Ukrainian: давньоруська мова) was a language used during the 10th–15th centuries by East Slavs in Kievan Rus' and its successor states, from which the Belarusian, Russian, Rusyn, and Ukrainian languages later evolved.

Old Novgorod dialect (Russian: древненовгородский диалект, romanized: drevnenovgorodskij dialekt; also translated as Old Novgorodian or Ancient Novgorod dialect) is a term introduced by Andrey Zaliznyak to describe the dialect found in the Old East Slavic birch bark writings ("berestyanaya gramota"). Dating from the 11th to 15th centuries, the letters were excavated in Novgorod and its surroundings. For linguists, Old Novgorodian is particularly of interest in that it has retained some archaic features which were lost in other Slavic dialects, such as the absence of second palatalization. Furthermore, letters provide unique evidence of the Slavic vernacular, as opposed to the Church Slavonic which dominated the written literature of the period. Most of the letters feature everyday business and personal correspondence, instructions, complaints, news, reminders etc. Such widespread usage indicates a high level of literacy, including among women and children. For language history the notes are also valuable because they retain original spelling of the time as they were not copied, rewritten or edited by later scribes unlike copied chronicles where over the centuries spelling may have been changing from the changes in scribes' speech. Today, the study of Novgorodian birch bark letters is an established scholarly field in Russian historical linguistics, with far-ranging historical and archaeological implications for the study of the Russian Middle Ages.

Hat Tip to Marginal Revolution

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