MED Magazine - Issue 21 - July 2004

Borrowings and false friends between Russian and English
by Diane Nicholls

Contact between Russian and other languages

The Russian language, like most others, has never existed entirely in isolation, and it is a great relief to learners of Russian to discover, once they have learnt to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet, a large number of words that are familiar from their own language — Russian pecTopaH, for example, transliterates into restoran, and it is only a small leap of faith for English or French learners of Russian, for example, from there to the reassuringly familiar restaurant.

Until the late fifteenth century, the main linguistic influences on Russian had been the Scandinavian, Greek, Polish and Latin languages. Then, Russia started to look to Western Europe for diplomatic and cultural ties. Ivan IV (1533-1584) established close ties with Venice and imported merchants from Germany, England and Scotland. Peter the Great (1682-1725) continued to court relations with experts in architecture, shipbuilding, and military engineering from Germany, Holland, England and France, bringing many to live in Russia and serve in his court. These experts brought with them their own languages, from which new words were adopted into Russian — armada, akustika (acoustics), admiral. Catherine the Great (1762-1796) favoured the French, and so French became the language of the court and the educated classes, with French vocabulary in the areas of fashion, etiquette, and philosophy, among others, entering the Russian language at a remarkable rate — sigareta, beret, kolledzh (college), realizm, radikalizm.

In the early twentieth century, the vocabulary of revolution was imported from French and German and entered the everyday language of ordinary Russians; words like marksizm (Marxism), revolutsiya (revolution), demonstratsiya (demonstration), natsionalizm (nationalism) and other words from Latin and Greek which had entered the languages of Western Europe previously.

English words in Russian

After the Russian revolution in 1917, English became the most common source of borrowings into Russian. Throughout the twentieth century, the borrowing trend continued with new words borrowed into Russian whenever there was a need to fill a gap in the lexicon. Thus, Russian adopted metro from French at the time of the building of the Moscow underground in the early 1930s. Borrowings from English in this period included dzhaz (jazz), pulover, biznes, regbi (rugby), to name just a few.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 brought a new and more powerful flood of English words into the Russian language, this time primarily from American English and most notably in the areas of computing, trade and business. Now it is not unusual to hear words like biznes-vuman (businesswoman), menadzher (manager), nou-khou (know-how), lep-top (laptop), gamburger (hamburger — there is no 'h' sound in Russian, so the soft 'g' is used to approximate it), and softver (software). Of course, the adoption of an English word was not always absolutely necessary but rather followed the dictates of fashion or expediency my Russian-English dictionary, published in 1984 (OUP, 1984), says that the Russian word for 'software' is programmnoye obespecheniye, but it hardly seems surprising that this is rarely, if ever, used these days, being abandoned in favour of the more simple softver.

Control over borrowing

As has happened in many other countries around the globe, concern has been growing in Russia to prevent borrowings from taking over from perfectly good home-grown words. In February 2003, the Russian parliament passed a law forbidding the use of foreign words where suitable Russian ones already exist. Clearly, nobody is suggesting finding Russian words for borrowings like futbol (football), that have been around since the early twentieth century, but it is easy to understand the impulse to stem the tide of new words flooding into Russian today. But a look at the history of language contact between Russia and the countries of Western Europe shows that borrowing is not a new phenomenon, but has occurred in significant spurts throughout the centuries, and that there is every reason to be optimistic that Russian will remain the beautiful, vibrant, evolving language it has always been.

Russian words in English

English, of course, is not without words borrowed from Russian. Russian has given us culturally-specific words such as vodka, cosmonaut, sputnik, borscht, balalaika, soviet, tsar. It also, more surprisingly, gave us bistro, from the Russian word for 'fast'.

False friends between Russian and English

The English learner of Russian may be daunted by the new alphabet, but has on their side a lot of similar words that exist in the two languages: TeeoH (telefon) means 'telephone'; TaKc (taksi) means 'taxi'; cecTpa (sestra) means 'sister', and since both Russian and English took a large number of their technical words from Greek,
cec (dispepsiya), eopa (geografiya), acTpoHoM (astronomiya) all mean exactly what one might expect. But the English learner of Russian and the Russian learner of English must still exercise the same caution as any learner of a foreign language, as dangers may be lurking anywhere. o (bog) means, not 'bog', but God.

The following list of false friends between Russian and English is populated by words which were 'borrowed' into Russian from other European languages, but which, unlike softver and the other borrowings discussed above, can lure the learner into some uncomfortable traps.

Russian word English false friend recommended translation
aHHa angina tonsillitis
apK fabric factory
cTy stool chair
eHaH genial brilliant, great, of genius
CMOKH smoking dinner jacket
OKa3 occasion opportunity
KoHKypc concourse competition
HepBo3H nervous irritable, nervy
pe3epBaTB preservative contraceptive
HoBecT novelist short-story writer
e chef leader, chef, or boss
yHaTK lunatic sleep-walker
cMaTH sympathetic likeable, nice, attractive
KCTpaBaaHTH extravagent eccentric, bizarre, preposterous
KCepT3 expertise expert opinion or examination
BeHTyaH eventual possible
aKTyaH actual topical
Maa3H magazine shop
MHa3 gymnasium grammar school
KaHeT cabinet (cupboard) study, office, consulting room

The problem with many of these words is that Russian borrowed them from the same source as English borrowed them from, but Russian kept closer to the original meaning. Thus, chef was borrowed from French into English with the more specific meaning of 'chief cook', while it was borrowed into Russian as e (chef) with the meaning of 'leader', 'chief', or 'boss', which was, and still is, the original meaning in French. Thus, chef is a false friend between both English and French and English and Russian, but a 'true friend' between French and Russian. The same is true of apK (fabrik), which means 'factory', as it does in the original French. BeHTyaH (eventual), meaning 'possible', and aKTyaH (actual), meaning 'topical', will be familiar to anyone who has studied Czech, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Danish and many other European languages. These two slippery customers were discussed in detail in the article on Language Interference in the 7th issue of MED Magazine (May 2003).

Sometimes, a word entered both English and Russian from a third language with the same meaning intact, but thereafter developed a different meaning in one or both, and so, what looks like a reassuringly familiar word becomes a potential source of confusion or embarrassment. This is what happened to the first word in the list above. The English word angina originally came from Greek agkhon, meaning 'strangling'. This was assimilated into Latin angere, from which we also got anger and anguish. In mid-16th century English angina referred to a medical condition involving suffocating pain, in particular quinsy, a severe throat swelling, usually occurring as a complication of tonsillitis. This meaning is now very rare in English. In the mid-18th century, angina began to be used in English as a shortening for angina pectoris, severe chest pain caused by inadequate blood supply to the heart. This is what it refers to today. Russian, however, has retained the original, 16th-century, meaning of angina quinsy, or severe tonsillitis. This false friend landed one English journalist in a tight spot in 1996, just before the Russian presidential elections. On being told that Boris Yeltsin was unavailable because he was suffering from aHHa (angina), the unfortunate journalist reported that the presidential candidate had a heart condition, when all he had (at that time) was tonsillitis.

Words can be very slippery customers. All the more so when they start to travel around the globe, mixing in with native words and evolving, as they will, and always have. Cognates words which have come from the same source, however long ago are perhaps the most slippery of them all. But at least they keep us on our toes.

Further reading

Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Ed. P. Procter (CUP, 1995)
John Ayto, Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins (Bloomsbury, 1990)
For a list of words borrowed by English from many different languages, see:
For a list of false cognates discussed by Steve Shabad at the 42nd annual conference of the American Translators' Association, 2001, see:
For a fascinating in-depth history of Russian language contacts, by Eva Lopatkin Easton, see:

Next in the series

In the next issue we'll take a look at borrowings and false friends between Polish and English.

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