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Russian language geography continues expanding

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Russian language geography continues expanding


Anna Loshchikhina

Everyone knows that Russian has been borrowing foreign words. But the fact that Russian has enriched other languages is less known. Scientists from the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences have come to a rather unusual conclusion: the growing global influence of English is based on the power of American science, while the Russian language today has a different trump card - everyday life.

“I would say that over the past twenty years, the Russian language has easily leaped into the world and, paradoxically enough, its geography has expanded rather than shrunk," says Andrei Kibrik, director of the Institute of Linguistics of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Somewhere, of course, the use of Russian speech has decreased, somewhere it has increased, but altogether it is a matter of deep scientific research - the Russian language is entering foreign languages again.”

Vagaries of globalism

During his business trip to Ireland, it was a revelation for Andrei Kibrik when he discovered that the Russian language was alive there not only in the inscriptions in train stations and shopping malls. It was also heard on the streets. Reading the local newspapers brought even more surprises to him. He couldn't believe it when he read that Irish President Mary McAleese said: "Russian is our second language. It's spoken by about 100,000 people."

Dublin pub. Photo credit:

The explanation is quite simple: lots of migrants from the Baltic republics came to Ireland to work as they have been able to move freely around Europe since their countries joined the EU. And even those of them, for whom Russian was not their mother tongue, still communicate with each other in Russian. Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian are completely different languages; their speakers often know English poorly, and they have no other convenient common language but Russian.

Moreover, they speak Russian with Poles, Czechs, and other Eastern Europeans who have come, like the Balts or Ukrainians, to earn money. As a rule, Ukrainians, Moldavians, Georgians, and Belarusians also speak among themselves and with other nations coming to the EU in Russian to be understood.

The results of this "cultural invasion" have been already visible: according to the 2016 and 2020 studies of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Cambridge International Dictionary of English, three Russian words - borscht, dacha, and a short toast "Na zdorovie!" - are becoming an integral part of English, especially American English.

The West firmly associates the borscht with Russian culture although the word and the dish’s origins are controversial. The Borscht Restaurants where Russian cuisine is served can now be found everywhere, including Arab countries and China. And one of the resort areas in Florida (USA) is even called the Borscht Belt.

It is somewhat different with dacha. The Russian word first got into French and Japanese, and only then into English. Whatever vocabulary is, the word means "to have a dacha in nature" as a second or summer house with a vegetable patch and a garden, not so much for contemplation, but rather for homesteading.

Finally, "Na zdorovie!" is the favorite toast of Russian migrants to the US, as well as Baltic, Ukrainian, and Moldovan migrants to the EU. It first became the toast of Hollywood's bohemia and the European Union's business establishment, and then made its way to the people. However, as experts from the Cambridge International Dictionary admit, "the toast is more of a household fashion that will pass" since the EU and the US have different drinking cultures.

Torg in Russenorsk

But the main thing that linguists are convinced of is that the Russian language again, as in the past, marks its identity through a special culture of living principles and everyday life expressed in the language. And then the lifestyle of other peoples and history adopt unusual words and phrases that take root in foreign languages as if they were the original ones.

The first records of Russian words made by West European merchants, sailors, and travelers date back to the 15th – 16th centuries. They wrote down the words that helped to understand each other. Even back then the English traders’ vocabulary included such words as rouble, copeck, voivoda, boyar.

Veliky Novgorod, the Trade Side. Photo credit: Lite /

Also, the modern Swedish word torg (meaning square) came from the Old Russian torg, a trading place.

This word is a living reflection of a rare phenomenon that survived despite its complicated history. Its name is Russenorsk, the Russian-Norwegian colloquial language. It is a special language of communication between the Russian Pomors, Norwegian, and partly Swedish fishermen and traders.

Russenorsk was formed at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries. The vocabulary of this pidgin absorbed Russian and Norwegian words somewhat equally, while Swedish words were noticeably less; and the grammar was simplified as much as possible. The sentences went something like this, "En voga mokka, så galanna voga treska", that is "One cart of flour for half a cart of cod.” The comprehensible language of the two- and sometimes three-way trade survived until the Russian-Swedish wars in the 18th century. But then another "window to Europe" was opened, so it shrank and almost disappeared by the early 20th century. Nevertheless, against all odds, Russenorsk has still survived in the polar archipelago of Spitzbergen; however, only rare linguistic expeditions show some interest in it.

Sterlet, Vodka and “Ikura”

Russian cuisine is one of the most surprising discoveries awaiting foreign travelers. Not surprisingly, the largest group of words that have come from Russian to other languages is "tasty" vocabulary - the names of various "exotic" dishes.

One of the first Russian words borrowed by the English language was sterlet. Etymological (English) dictionaries date its ingress into the English language back to the 14th century. Two other famous Russian fish - beluga and sevruga - first entered French, and then English and German languages by the 16th century, in the heyday of the Hanseatic League, which also included the Russian city of Veliky Novgorod. Today there is a synonym for sevruga in English - stellate sturgeon. As to Beluga, the European Union uses this word not only for the fish, a brand of vodka but also for one of the models of the Airbus international aircraft project. A fish-related word has even migrated from Russian to the Japanese language, although the latter makes effort to avoid external influence. Ikura means red or "Russian" caviar as a dish in Japanese. The Japanese, who know a lot about the fruits of the sea, use their own words to refer to caviar in general.

Sterlet fish – photo of the sterlet from the English-language Wikipedia. Photo credit: 5snake5 /

But still, the most famous example of a Russian word borrowed by many languages of the world is Vodka (Wodka). Its origin is unknown. One of the main versions says that the Slavic word voda (water) is the root of vodka. There are versions of its Finno-Ugric, Polish-Lithuanian, Pomor, and even Scandinavian origin, but today the word and the drink are globally perceived as exclusively Russian.

The word vodka is found in English, Arabic, French, German, and many languages of the world. Moreover, vodka has become “male” in German. The word acquired the masculine article - der Wodka. And French has two words - wodka, for Polish vodka, and vodka, for Russian vodka. The word has five different spellings in Japanese, while there are as many as seven spellings in Chinese.

The Russian non-alcoholic beverage kvas is no less popular in various languages, especially in Spanish and Portuguese. Kvas came into English through other Slavic languages - Polish and Czech. And the nations who, like the Russians, made kvass, have their own names for this drink - kali (Estonian) or gira (Lithuanian).

The neighbors of the Russians - the Baltic and Finno-Ugric tribes - have also borrowed dozens of words from Russian. In Finnish and in Estonian the words for bread came from the Slavs - leipä (Finnish) and leib (Estonian). Those who speak Russian will find the words lusikka (Finnish) and lusikas (Estonian) familiar. Both have a common ancestor - the Russian word lozhka (spoon).

Another Russian word, pirozhki, is also found in a variety of languages. Pirozhki came into English through the mediation of Polish. In Polish, there are Ruskie pierogi (Russian pies). These are dumplings (or vareniki in Russian) filled with a mixture of cottage cheese and potatoes and served with fried onions, sour cream, or bacon crisps. But here is a special case: ruski in Polish historically meant rather Ukrainian than Russian in the contemporary sense (Great Russian). That is, Ruskie pierogi means Ukrainian pies. And there is a relevant confirmation in Russian: vareniki are recognized as a Ukrainian national dish in our cookbooks.

There are pirozhki in two German dialects (birocks or pirogen), as well as in Serbo-Croatian, and Greek - piroski. However, Greeks, Serbs, and Croats refer to the deep-fried dough rather than baked in the oven as pirozhki. The Japanese word for pirozhki is also recognizable to the Russian ear - pyrosiki. This word was borrowed from the Russian language in the plural only; there is no equivalent in the singular. And all these "edible" Russian words live their foreign life.

Tsar and babushka

Once, US President Barack Obama was giving a speech to Congress. He coined the phrase "Sputnik moment" criticizing the American backlog on the Mir International Space Station. Coming from him, it meant to "enable the competitive ability" - to find internal reserves and outperform the Russian part of the Mir station. The phrase was taken up by the people, and the Americans began to use it with the meaning to "work to outperform the competitor”.

This is how the sputnik of the 1960s and 1970s echoed in the 21st century. In the Soviet era, the growing influence of the Russian language in the world was supported by the power of Soviet science, in particular the Soviet successes in the Space Race. Several Russian words became international after a series of launches of the Soviet space program - lunokhod, sputnik, Soyuz, mir, and Vostok. Although there had been similar words in English, e.g. mir - world, the Russian words entered English as transliteration - transfer of the letters of one alphabet with similar-sounding letters of the other. However, sputnik did not become a designation for artificial satellites in English in general, but it serves as a term for foreign satellites. This is how the phrase "Sputnik moment” came about.

Tsar Obama art collage. Photo credit: Brett Tatman /

The same "gentleman’s" competition exists when it comes to the use of the Russian word tsar. In modern English, the tsar is the unofficial title of the person in charge of some important area of work, something like an advisor. The US White House has its own tsar. Former President Obama did not like this word: the Americans used to call the most powerful USSR atomic bomb the Tsar bomba. Unpleasant school memories forced Obama to remove the tsar from the list of official White House positions. Trump restored it.

Babushka. Photo credit:

Nevertheless, foreign languages, including English, do have Russian words that were easily adapted and are used with pleasure. According to the Cambridge International Dictionary, there are three the most popular Russian words. The top one is babushka followed by the lesser-known Kalashnikoff (less often - Kalashnikov) and Cheburashka.

But babushka (with stress on the second syllable), of course, is beyond the competition. As the English dictionaries explain, the phenomenon of babushka surprises not so much with age, but rather with the fact that an older woman undertakes to raise her grandchildren, which is uncommon for Europe. The second meaning of babushka is the way of wearing a kerchief when it is tied with a knot under the chin. Japanese babusika is also associated with the kerchief. But for the Greeks, Australians, and Spaniards, baboushka is matryoshka, another Russian word borrowed by foreign languages. But matryoshka is more often matroesjka (Dutch), matriochka (French, also poupée russe), matrjoska (Hungarian), and so on. By the way, the Finnish name of this toy is maatusk, which resembles matushka (mother, politely or gently in Russian).

This is how the Russian language once again enters foreign languages through everyday life and culture, just as it did centuries ago.

(To be continued)

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