From which languages has Russian borrowed the most?

Natalya Nosova
If all words of foreign origin were expunged from Russian, even native speakers would be very surprised: Their vocabulary would be significantly depleted. For centuries, the Russian language has been absorbing foreign words and they have become so ingrained that without them it’s impossible to properly and fully express oneself.

The first borrowings in the Russian language – when it was known as "East Slavonic" – were from Greek. They began to penetrate the language in the 10th–11th centuries. These new words were primarily religious terms (angel – angel, dyemon – demon, monakh – monk) or had to do with scientific terms. Also, there were words relating to everyday life:

  • krovat – bed, 
  • tetrad – notebook, 
  • korabl – ship, 
  • fonar – lantern.

They came via Old Church Slavonic or directly from the Greek language.

The next layer of borrowings came from the Nordic languages. These words appeared as a result of the cultural, social and trade contacts that had been developing between Ancient Russia and the Vikings since the 9th century.

Scholars have counted over 200 words borrowed from early medieval Scandinavian. These describe people and are related to social relations and occupations, as well as include proper names. Over time, some of these words have disappeared without a trace, while others have survived to our days:

  • varyag – Varangian, 
  • viking – Viking, 
  • vityaz – knight, 
  • yabeda in the sense of "judge", 
  • knut – whip, 
  • kofta – knitted jacket, 
  • kryuk – hook, 
  • khleb – bread, 
  • knyaz – prince, 
  • the names Olga and Igor.

Starting in the 9th century, the Russian language was also enriched with words from its southern neighbors, including from the Arabic, Persian, Turkic and Chinese languages. Before the Mongol invasion of Rus in the early 13th century, Russian was enriched by new vocabulary – for example, words such as:

  • boyarin – boyar (nobleman); 
  • shatyor – tent; 
  • bogatyr – hero, warrior;
  • vataga – mob, horde; 
  • zhemchug – pearl. 

This came about as a result of trade and military links with border tribes, primarily the Pechenegs, who controlled the famous trade route from the Varangians to the Greeks (from Scandinavia to Byzantium), as well as the Polovtsians.

From the middle of the 13th century to the end of the 15th century, the Russian principalities were vassals of the Mongol Empire and later the Golden Horde. During this period the language was substantially enriched with administrative vocabulary:

  • yamshchik – coachman; 
  • yarlyk – tag, label; 
  • denga – money; 
  • tyurma – prison; 
  • kazna – treasury; 

military vocabulary:

  • kazak – Cossack,
  • kinzhal – dagger, 
  • ataman – Cossack leader, 
  • sablya – saber; 

and everyday vocabulary:

  • khozyain – proprietor, manager; 
  • sarafan – sleeveless dress; 
  • bashmak – shoe, boot; 
  • stakan – drinking glass; 
  • almaz – diamond; 
  • tuman – fog, mist; 
  • bazar – marketplace.  

After shaking off the Mongol yoke, the Russian state began to interact actively with the West. Foreign specialists had been coming to the country since the 12th century, but in the 15th and 16th centuries their number increased many times over. A particular role in the development of contacts with Europe was played by the first crowned Tsar of All Russia, Ivan the Terrible (reigned 1533-1584). He established regular diplomatic and trade relations with the Netherlands and England, and even proposed marriage to Queen Elizabeth I. He also invited doctors, architects, gunsmiths and military specialists to Russia. In his era, words such as admiral – admiral and soldat – soldier (borrowed from Dutch or German); kapitan – captain (from Italian); and many others made an appearance in the Russian language.

In the 17th century, Western European vocabulary frequently penetrated the Russian language via Polish. It was through the intermediary of Polish that French-derived words appeared in the spoken language; these included

  • kastryulya – saucepan,
  • dama – lady,
  • kuryer – courier.

There were also German-derived words:

  • bunt – mutiny,
  • vakhta – work shift,
  • kukhnya – kitchen;

as well as the Italian-derived

  • brichka – britzka (a type of horse–drawn carriage or trap),
  • kareta – carriage.

Simultaneously, Russian also acquired a large number of words directly from Polish;

During the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), the inflow of foreign borrowings was directly proportional to the scale of the Petrine reforms. Words appeared in the language to accompany the new realities, and new terms emerged to denote new phenomena:

  • prezident – president,
  • komissiya – commission (from the Latin),
  • gazeta – newspaper (from the Italian).

Researchers have calculated that administrative vocabulary contributed the most foreign-borrowed words in the Petrine period, although words denoting the new social realities also made an appearance (galstuk – tie, opera – opera, simfoniya – symphony). The most active donor languages in this period were German, Dutch, French and English.

Despite the language’s accelerating enrichment, the adoption of borrowed words could not be described as haphazard and uncontrolled. “Peter himself demanded from one of his diplomats that he should not use foreign linguistic borrowings to excess, observing: ‘It is impossible to fathom things with them.’ In other words, he was guided by considerations of linguistic appropriateness”, says Yelena Generalova, a senior lecturer at St. Petersburg State University's Russian Language Department.

The early 19th century in Russia was marked by a blossoming of Francomania. Despite the fact that only a particular stratum of society, the gentry, spoke French the country's culture was precisely shaped by this class during this period. This was why the French language exerted a strong influence on 19th century Russian.

Alexander Pushkin noted this linguistic trend in his novel in verse 'Eugene Onegin'. This is how he introduces his heroine Tatyana:  

“Her grasp of Russian was defective,
Our journals left her unreceptive,
Being faced with having to explain
Herself in native Russian was a strain
And thus it was she wrote in French”. 

Attitudes to linguistic borrowings were also one of the bones of contention between supporters of the “old” and “new” linguistic styles; a bitter dispute took place between the two factions in the early 19th century.

“French at that time was seen as the language of the most educated and enlightened nation. The French orientation of the supporters of the new style can be viewed as a continuation of the reforms of Peter the Great. It can be seen in terms of the idea of the Europeanization of the language”, Generalova notes.

Pushkin played a conciliatory role in the dispute and his writings laid the foundation for the modern Russian literary language.

“After Pushkin, arguments about the path of development of the Russian language ceased. There is room for everything in his writings: In Pushkin we find the vernacular language, foreign borrowings and words derived from Church Slavonic, and all this is put to the service of artistic expression. Pushkin's writings reflect an ideal sense of moderation. And it turned out that there is room for everything in the language”, Generalova comments.

At the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, the Russian language borrowed words from the foreign political lexicon (proletary – proletarian, sotsializm – socialism). In the 1920s, this was supplemented, incidentally, by a wave of Sovietisms – “self-coined” terms designed to describe the new realities of the young Soviet Russian state:

  • rabfak – worker's faculty,
  • sovkhoz – state farm,
  • narkom – people's commissar.

The next wave of robust foreign borrowings into the Russian language came in the 1970s. These were primarily slang terms derived from English that spread into the everyday vocabulary of youth culture: 

  • shuzy (shoes), 
  • oldy (parents), 
  • flet (flat, apartment). 

Secondly, there were words drawn from the science fiction novels that were rapidly gaining in popularity (blaster – ray gun, kiborg – cyborg).

Wide-ranging socioeconomic changes took place in Russia in the 1990s: a change of political system, the switch to a market economy, the development of a banking system, an explosive growth in foreign contacts, the abolition of censorship and the cultural expansion of the West. The period was characterized by a growing interest in everything that was foreign and had previously been inaccessible. The Russian language again experienced a mass invasion of Anglicisms. Some came along with the new realities:

  • vaucher – voucher, 
  • grant – grant, 
  • blokbaster – blockbuster, 
  • riyeltor – realtor, 
  • piar – PR, 
  • marketing – marketing, 
  • impichment – impeachment,

While others were a substitute for old words:

  • klining – cleaning,
  • dansing – dancing,
  • shou – show,
  • trek – trek,

and almost all of them found a place in the spoken language. 

In addition, borrowings actively entered youth slang:

  • pipl – people, 
  • boi – boy, 
  • vaib – vibe, 
  • drink – drink, 
  • luk – look, 
  • kripovy – creepy.

They also influenced professional jargon in various fields, and in particular computerese: from the now-familiar imeil (email) to kopipast (copy & paste) and skrolling (scrolling). 

The digitization of the media and the emergence of social networks and online forums and blogs have led to a situation in which Russian native speakers now borrow foreign words more and more frequently, even in contexts where they are inessential or superfluous. This tendency of the last couple of decades is prompting officials to attempt to manage the process, something that is perfectly predictable and logical.

“Linguistic borrowings have always attracted much attention and been something the state might wish to regulate: The ideological aspect here is obvious. Nevertheless, it is impossible to rid a language of borrowed words – particularly a language with such a rich and long history as Russian. Borrowings have been appearing in the language throughout its existence: Some have stayed, filling important gaps, while others have subsequently fallen out of use. The language crunches everything for itself and sets everything in its place. Foreign borrowings are an absolutely natural process in the development of any language – a process inherent in any linguistic contact,” notes Generalova.

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