Are French and Russian linguistic cousins?

Are French and Russian linguistic cousins?
05 December 2023

Starting Russian as a beginner can often be intimidating, especially for those who don’t have a background in Slavonic languages. But don’t be fooled by the Cyrillic alphabet and unfamiliar cases! If you look closely enough, you’ll find similarities with languages commonly spoken throughout Europe, such as German, French and Italian. 

As a French student, Russian seemed at first a language completely alien to any other I’d spoken before. However, throughout my studies, I have come to appreciate the language  as a gateway to Russian. 

In this article, I’m going to explore the historical influence of French upon the Russian language, and how how having a grasp of a European language like French can help to improve your understanding of spoken Russian. 

The history of French influence in Russia

The Imperial Age 

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the Russian language underwent one its most significant evolutions under the rule of Tsar Peter the Great, (1682-1725). Following his Grand Tour of Europe in 1717, the Tsar returned to his kingdom with an insatiable thirst for modernisation and industrial development. In his efforts to both modernise and westernise the emerging Russian Empire, Peter succeeded in opening ‘a window to Europe’ and fostered an influx of francophone architects, engineers and artists. 

In this environment of fundamental social change and development, French evolved from the language of diplomacy, to the lingua franca of the Russian nobility and emerging intelligentsia. This was furthered under the reign of Catherine the Great, as French surpassed Russian as the everyday language of the nobility and became the basis of contemporary social and political ideologies. Indeed, it is thanks to such influence that a great number of borrowed phrases exist in spoken Russian to this day, such as архитектор, кафе, ресторан, and быстро!

The influence of Pushkin

Now, if we’re going to talk about the development of the Russian language, we have to talk about Alexander Pushkin, the Shakespeare of Russia and the father of Russian literature as we know it. 

Raised and educated in French, Pushkin was known for his love and command of the language. Throughout his life, the author dedicated himself to developing and reintroducing the Russian language, particularly within academic and literary circles. As a result, much of the common vocabulary and grammar found in Russian today has its roots in French. For example, in both languages you will find the reflexive form of verbs and impersonal constructions such as ‘нужно’, or the French ‘il faut’. Another key similarity are the ‘ты’ and ‘вы’ constructions, which follow the French ‘tutoiement‘ and ‘vouvoiement’. 

The significance of French and its influence upon the development of Russian remains a widely debated topic amongst linguists and scholars, particularly following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Regardless, I would argue that having a strong foundation in the French language is the perfect gateway to Russian!

Darcie Peters, a student at Liden and Denz. 


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