Thirteen Russian words that come from German
Every language has its loan-words, but they pilfer their vocabularies from various victims. We may be familiar with French’s le weekend (weekend), or Germany’s das Handy (mobile phone)—cases where English has furnished the semantic arsenal of other European languages. Russian is no different. During its long history it has amassed a veritable nest egg of foreign phrases, cloaked in Cyrillic to put even the discerning philologist off the trail. And its treasure trove of иностранных слов (foreign words) includes a German motherlode.
The influence of the German language on its Russian counterpart comes from a millennium of historical entanglements. From the traders who crossed the Baltic and encountered Russian-speakers in frontier ports, to the settlers of the Volga valley who brought with them artisanal skills and foreign vocabularies; Germans have been involved in Russia’s story from the start. Today, I’m going to look at some of the words diffused from their language.
German Words of Three Varieties
1) Война, Krieg, War
The early history of German-Russian relations was bloody. Medieval warfare in the Baltics led to the dissemination of German military words. Later, in the 17th century, Boris Godunov pioneered the use of German mercenaries which led to further borrowings.
- ‘Вахта’ comes from the German Wacht, meaning ‘watch’ in the military context of ‘to keep watch’. Today, ‘вахта’ is used in Russian to refer to a shift, for example in a factory.
- ‘Вахтёр’ is a close relative, from German Wächter, meaning ‘watchman’; in a more modern sense it can refer to a caretaker or a porter.
“Он видел, как Людмила Николаевна поднялась по ступенькам, стала объясняться с вахтером.” – Гроссман, Жизнь и судьба
- ‘Штурм’, like its English homophone, means the ‘assault’ or taking by force of a military target. It has a corresponding verb.
“Взять крепость не трудно, трудно кампанию выиграть. А для этого не нужно штурмовать и атаковать, а нужно терпение и время.т” – Толстой, Война и мир
- ‘Лагерь’ is a borrowing of German Lager, meaning ‘camp’ in both languages. This word is used in the more famous acronym ГУЛАГ or ‘Гла́вное Управле́ние Исправи́тельно-трудовы́х Лагере́й’ (Chief Administration of Corrective-Labour Camps).
- ‘Рыцарь’, finally, is the Russian word for ‘knight’. It came through the Polish from German Ritter—also ‘knight’— and
“Он сказал, что придет сам благодарить рыцаря.” – Гоголь, Тарас Бульба
2) Еда, Essen, Food
Nothing brings people together like a banquet, and that certainly seems to me the case when it comes to the food words that Russian and German share.
- ‘Картофель’ is a Russian word meaning ‘potato’, identical to its German counterpart Kartoffel. Outside of the German and Slavic-speaking world, European languages tend to opt either for a variety of ‘potato’ or the French ‘apple of the earth’.
“Этот небольшой дворик, или курятник, переграждал дощатый забор, за которым тянулись пространные огороды с капустой, луком, картофелем, свеклой и прочим хозяйственным овощем.” Гоголь, Мёртвые души
- ‘Глинтвейн’, from German Glühwein, or glowing wine, is what we would in England called ‘mulled wine’. There is a long history of the drink in Germany, with the oldest extant Glühwein tankard—made for one Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen—being dated to the 15th century.
- ‘Бутерброт’ is the Russian word for ‘sandwich’, and comes from the German Butterbrot. However, the meaning has shifted: the German refers exclusively to an open sandwhich, while the Russian has a broader meaning.
- And where to eat all this food? Perhaps in the ‘Зал’, the ‘hall’, from the German Saal. The word came into Russian under the reign of Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century. He strived to emulate the success of western Europe and in so doing his court visitors brought with them this new vocabulary.
“Николай Петрович с сыном и с Базаровым отправились через темную и почти пустую залу,” – Тургенев, Отци и дети
3) Мода, Mode, Fashion
The Germans were a fashionable bunch, and the last set of left-behind words we’re going to look at all relate to the domain of dress.
- ‘Галстук’ comes from the German word Halstuch, and is the standard Russian word for a ‘tie’. However, in the original German, it is used exclusively to refer to a neckerchief, like those worn by the Scouts. Not one to get mixed up!
- ‘Фартук’ is an oddity of a word, meaning apron. It migrated through Polish from a regional German word Vortuch with the same meaning. However, the modern Germans would call this a Schürze.
“Добывайте командировку, — говорил ему носильщик в белом фартуке.” – Пастернак, Доктор Живаго
- It’s not just clothes that the Germans pioneered. When it comes to facial hair, ‘бакенбартды’ or a Backenbart was once the height of style. It refers to sideburns, and is made up of the word for cheeks, Backen, and the word for beard, Bart.
- A ‘парикмахер’, or hairdresser, might look after your бакенбартды for you. Its etymology is a bit elusive as the Germans would call this a Friseur. In fact, the word derives from Perückenmacher or ‘wigmaker’, a reminder of the days when real hair wasn’t en vouge.
“Абрикосовая дала обильную желтую пену, и в воздухе запахло парикмахерской.” – Булгаков, Мастер и Маргарита
German Russian Word Migration
It’s true, the Germans have mostly left Russia now. The Volga is no longer a German river in Russia. Many migrated at the end of the 19th century and others were targeted in Stalin’s Great Purge. Still, their words outlive them, and if you are speaking Russian today, you are, in a small way, breathing life into their legacy. You can find a full list of German words in Russian here.
Luke is a history and languages student interning at Liden & Denz, Riga.
Image credit to Skylar Kang at Plexels.com.