Echoes from the Past: The Influence of other Languages on Russian

Echoes from the Past: The Influence of other Languages on Russian
17 August 2023

The Russian language has been influenced by a variety of other languages over its history, reflecting its interactions with neighbouring and distant cultures. Whilst some words, such as блогер (blogger), президент (president), теннис (tennis) are almost direct synonyms from English, I want to investigate how other languages, especially lesser-known and old languages, have impacted Russian, and what value they still hold in today’s version of the language.

Old Church Slavonic

Old Church Slavonic was the first Slavic literary language and a liturgical language. Developed in the First Bulgarian Empire, it was used in the Eastern Orthodox Church and played a significant role in shaping the early phonological, grammatical, and lexical aspects of the Russian language. As this language was created so everyone could understand the liturgy in the same language for more than a thousand years, it has undoubtedly had a lasting effect.

While both Russian and Old Church Slavonic are Slavic languages, some early Slavic sound combinations evolved slightly differently. Therefore, the following words have the same meanings, yet different pronunciations. The first word is in Russian, the second in Old Church Slavonic.

золото / злато – gold

город / град – city

горячий / горящий – hot

рожать / рождать – to give birth

Furthermore, an aspect of this ancient language’s grammatical structure is still being used today. For example, all words with the prefix пре- or participles with the suffixes -ущ/-ющ, -ащ/-ящ come from Old Church Slavonic.

Old Norse and Old East Slavic

Contact with Scandinavian traders and warriors in the early medieval period led to the incorporation of Old Norse words and grammatical structures into Old East Slavic, which eventually influenced the Russian language. Even the noun “Russia” comes from Old Norse, deriving from the name of a Viking tribe from Sweden called “Rus”. This tribe founded the kingdoms which are now Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Some lasting examples of Old Norse and Old East Slavic are:

Акула– shark

Кнут – whip

Селедка – herring

Шелк – silk

Scholars estimate that there are only around one hundred words being used in Russian today that derive from Old Norse. Some more critical scholars estimate even lower, to around thirty. However, it is notable that these nouns that have stood the test of time were merchandise being sold by Scandinavian traders. In a sentimental light, they are echoes of the past from the bustling medieval markets and merchants, unaware that they would have such a lasting impact upon linguistic tradition.

Turkic Languages

The influence of Turkic languages, particularly Tatar and Mongol, is evident in Russian vocabulary related to trade, governance, and cultural exchange during the Mongol domination of Russia.

Mongolic influences that still survive include:

Мерин – gelding

Телега – a simple horse-drawn four-wheeled vehicle

Furthermore, there are still many Turkic loan words in the Russian language. For example:

богатырь – heroic warrior

Казна – government money

деньги – money

палач – executioner

On the contrary, the amount of ‘false friends’ in modern Turkish and Russian is astounding. To name a few, кулак meaning an ear in Turkish yet a fist in Russian, and табак meaning a plate in Turkish yet tobacco in Russian.

Despite these language influences, Russian has a unique grammar, phonology, and overall structure that distinguish it from its influences. On your language learning journey, I am certain you will find many more examples that nod to modern day languages such as French, German, and Spanish, and I hope this inspires you to research how these languages have become welded together.

This blog was brought to you by Emily Gray, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz in Riga

This image was taken from Pexels

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