Chapter 14. A Visit from Novgorod: The Language of the Birch Bark Letters

Tore Nesset



Today, Novgorod is a small provincial town in northwestern Russia. However, in medieval times Novgord was a major city that served as a contact point between Rus’ and Scandinavia, and later between Rus’ and the Hanseatic League, the organization of German merchants that became an important trading partner for Rus’. From the perspective of Old Rusian language and literature, Novgorod is important because most of the birch bark letters have been found here. In section 2.3.7, you learned that these letters are a unique source of information about daily life in the Middle Ages. While birch bark letters can be fun to read, they display a number of dialect features that make them hard to penetrate. This chapter prepares you for the reading of birch bark letters by providing a survey of important dialect features. We explore orthography (section 14.1), phonology (sections 14.2–14.4), morphology (sections 14.5–14.6), and syntax (section 14.7). In section 14.8, we briefly discuss the role of the Old Novgorod dialect in the formation of the Russian language. This chapter is mainly based on Zaliznjak’s monograph Drevne­novgorodskij dialekt (2004), which contains much more information than could be included in this short chapter.


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14.2 Birch bark letter 247 and the second palatalization


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