Watch the video on YouTube about the discovery on 21 July 2010 of birchbark letter no. 1000!

From Kyas and from Zhirochko to Tverdjata and to Ivan. We both are doing well.

Read more about no. 1000 (mid-12th. century).


2011-12: Language and Society in Medieval Novgorod

birchbaar letter 1000, found on 21 July 2010

Course description

In this course (USIS code 5824ILSMN) we will explore the language and society 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 1000 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 birchbarks 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 get a good overview of the specific linguistic features of birchbark documents and to re-create how birchbarks were used to establish and maintain interpersonal relations in particular communicative contexts and how they interacted with oral communication in specific spheres of activity.

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

Place and time

The course will take place in Lipsius 227 (click here for a map). There will be twelve meetings on Wednesdays, 11-13 h.


This course is offered as a 10 ec course as a regular part of the Master’s degree programme 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 reading. (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, which has to include a fully glossed birchbark letter, (c) the completeness of your presentation, and (d) your handling of questions. You are encouraged to go over your presentation with the instructor in advance.
  3. An oral examination in which knowledge of the language of medieval Novgorod is tested on the basis of the texts read during the course of lectures: 60%.


Required reading