International words in Russian: A few tips

To the great relief of any foreigners, finding themselves in Russia for the first time, there is a fairly long list of international words in use by Russians. Take, for instance, any poor foreigner running wildly around a giant shopping centre in search of a toilet: he'll be glad to learn that although the Russian word for `toilet' certainly has a very different sound - `too-al-yet' - it's similar enough that within a few seconds of gesturing wildly while repeating `toilet,' he'll successfully locate the toilets.
Many of these international words are especially convenient for travellers. Words like airport, taxi, and bank, for example, are virtually the same in Russian as in English: `airport' becomes `aeroport,' `taxi' stays the same but for switching the stress to the second syllable `tak-SEE,' and `bank' remains `bank' but with a soft `a' sound. Similarly, though the Russian word for hotel is usually `gos-teen-eetsa,' the word `o-tel'' is also commonly used. So for any tourist just off the plane, it's relatively simple to find a taxi and a hotel.

A night on the town would also be quite manageable for anybody unfamiliar with Russian. Finding your way to the nearest bar, cafe, or park would require only a slight change in pronunciation: for `bar,' and `park,' simply roll the `r' sound as best you can, and `cafe' is the same.

On several occasions, I have heard the very misguided belief from tourists that the Russian language lacks character and simply borrows words from other languages. Anybody familiar with Russian knows very well that nothing could be further from the truth, but the fact these tourists often notice the prevalence of international words goes to show that the list of such words is steadily expanding - and Russian, not a language to be left behind, has adapted. Thus, there have been many new additions to the Russian vocabulary in recent years, and many of them are almost identical to their English counterparts, except for the ending, which is almost always `-ovat'. So, words like `adapt' and `compensate' become `adapt-eer-ovat' and `compen-seer-ovat' in the nominative form in Russian. Many adjectives in Russian are also instantly recognisable to foreigners: `roman-tee-chis-kiy' (romantic), `drama-tee-chis-kiy' (dramatic).

Then, of course, who could forget the so-called `false friends' in Russian - words which sound deceptively similar to English words but in fact mean something entirely different. This is why it's important not to become too dependent on `international words', or too easily deceived by similar sounding words. It's very common for beginners studying Russian to cling to every aspect of the language that sounds familiar to them and associate these familiar sounding words with their counterparts in other languages. This is not always a wise decision. An American friend of mine recently visited Moscow and recounted to me a tale of his first night, where he was approached by a wild-eyed, drunken man on the metro. As this friend of mine knew very little Russian, the only word he could seem to remember to shout at this strange man was one that held the same meaning in both Russian and English.

"What did you say to him?" I asked him.

"I shouted the Russian word for `lunatic.' Loon-a-tik. And I guess it offended him, because he looked pretty angry when I said that."

As much as I did not want to spoil this moment of pride for him, I couldn't help but laugh.

"What?" he asked.

"I don't think he was angry. He was probably confused. You called him a sleepwalker."

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