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Linguistics 4: Language and Society in Medieval Novgorod


Admission requirements

BA degree and knowledge of Russian required.

Course description

In this course we will explore the language of medieval Novgorod, a unique merchant republic that stretched from the Baltic to the Urals and formed a vital link in trade between Europe and Asia. We will focus on the evidence provided by more than 1150 birchbark letters (berestjanye gramoty) that archaeologists have been discovering in yearly excavations since 1951. These documents have revealed a previously almost unknown East Slavic dialect that was strikingly different from the “standard” Old East Slavic seen in Kievan and, later, Muscovite texts – so different, in fact, that some linguists have proclaimed it a fourth branch of Slavic. Moreover, the birchbark letters provide a rich picture of medieval Novgorodian society, in which literacy was widespread and used by diverse social groups for a large variety of functions. In the course, we will do close readings of many birchbark letters, as well as other primary sources, in order to extract information about the language and culture of medieval Novgorod. We will also read some important works of secondary literature, including the most important description of the language, A.A. Zaliznjak’s Drevnenovgorodskij dialekt.

Course objectives

  • The principal aims are to re-create how birchbarks were used to establish and maintain interpersonal relations in particular communicative contexts, how they inter-acted with oral communication in specific spheres of activity, and how they related to writing produced on other kinds of materials.

  • Students will learn methodologies for working with primary sources and examine how written documents can be used to track linguistic changes in progress.



Mode of instruction


Course Load Total 280 hours Class 26 hours Literature study 73 hours Homework assignment 130 hours Research for resentation 50 hours Examination 1 hour

Assessment method

This course is offered as a 10 ects course as a regular part of the Master’s degree pro-gramme in Slavic Languages and Cultures. Assessment consists of three parts:

  1. Participation, effort, and professionalism: 20%. You are expected to come to class each time and to be punctual. You must be prepared to discuss the day’s read-ing. (This does not mean you are expected to understand it fully!) In class, you must participate actively. You are required to keep up with the reading assignments and to prepare for our in-class readings of texts. This class is a group effort. Thus it is essential for you to have a cooperative, collegial attitude.
  2. Birchbark presentation: 20%. You are required to lead the class discussion of one ample birchbark letter, chosen in consultation with the instructor. This means that you will be able to read the original from the drawing and comment on its language and content (after reading the relevant secondary literature). You will be evaluated on the basis of (a) the clarity and insightfulness of your presentation, (b) the quality of your handout/powerpoint, © the completeness of your presentation, and (d) your handling of questions. You are encouraged to go over your presentation with the in-structor in advance.
  3. An oral examination in which knowledge of the language of medieval Novgorod is tested using the texts read during the course of lectures: 60%.


This course is integrated into Blackboard

Reading list

  • (Part of) the corpus of birchbark documents, online available at http://gramoty.tu.

  • A.A. Zaliznjak, 2004: Drevnenovgorodskij dialect. 2nd ed. Moskva (online available at


Through uSis

Contact information

Simeon Dekker