Anglicisms in Modern Russian

February 27th, 2012 - Alex Jude

Languages are in a constant process of evolution and our vocabulary is like a lexical fashion show in which words compete for popularity. New words appear every day, often enriching and adding colour to our languages. However, the global influence of English may be having a negative impact on modern Russian as people replace perfectly adequate pre-existing Russian words with “cooler”, more attractive English alternatives.

In linguistics, there are two main standpoints when it comes to language change: evolution and degradation. Evolution supporters see any change in language as a natural progression which cannot be stopped; language is the only true democracy, we all vote whenever we speak or write and for better or worse cause the language to change. Those who favour the degradation argument are usually purists who see language change as language destruction, simplification, the victory of public ignorance, etc.

I’d say that both views are correct to a degree. I believe that languages evolve over time and that they have a natural tendency towards simplification. People control language and not institutions so, in this sense, languages are fully-functioning democracies, in which each of us votes and the majority dictates which words are added to the dictionary each year and become the accepted norm. However, I think there is a case for promoting the use of adequate native expressions over unnecessary foreign borrowings where the two words are (close) synonyms. This last point is crucial when it comes to modern Russian.

Borrowing from English into Russian is not a new phenomenon by any means and has been happening for centuries. However, what we are seeing now in modern Russian is the language being flooded with anglicisms via the mass media, internet and marketing industry. In English, if you want a restaurant menu to sound upmarket then you add some French words and double the prices. In Russia, you remove some usual Russian words and add English ones in transliteration. Today, going for бизнес-ланч (business lunch) is infinitely more appealing than going for обед (lunch). You may be eating the same meal but the two have very different associations (and quite possibly price tags!).

As a native speaker of English, these transliterations in Russian sound like familiar but strangely pronounced English expressions from home. Sometimes Russians will compliment me on my impressive vocabulary when I’m speaking Russian but in reality I’m just using English words with a Russian accent!

One day an English colleague of mine from university was teaching a business English class on the topic of “outsourcing” and couldn’t work out why some members of the class kept giggling. Then someone told him that the word “аутсорсинг” (outsourcing) sounds like “отсос” (blowjob) + “-ing”.

When I lived in Saint-Petersburg I went into MacDonald’s on Nevskiy with an English friend. We looked up at the illuminated menu board to discover everything was written in Russian transliteration from the English: Биг Мак, Филе-о-фиш, МакЧикен. For some reason, my friend got it into his head that the Russian word for chicken was in fact “чикен” – as written on the MacDonald’s “blackboard”! He later told me about the confusion this caused at the market when he went shopping:

- Дайте мне чикен, Пожалуйста!
- Чего?!
- Чикен. Я хочу чикен! Вот этот чикен там дайте.
- Нет, эта курица.
- Я не хочу курицу. Я хочу чикен!

The moral of this story is that MacDonald’s is a shitty teacher of Russian!

While the example above may be funny and even a little stupid, the issue of what classifies as standard Russian is a problem faced by all those learning it as a second language. When my dad visited me here, he could just about understand the Cyrillic alphabet on signs because he studied Ancient Greek at university but he couldn’t work out why any self-respecting travel agency would want to call itself “Vest Travel” (Вест Тревел)! Perhaps wearing vests was an obligatory part of their holidaymaker dress code (or should I say “дресс код”!).

In the language of modern Russian advertising English is king – it’s all about “имидж” (image)! The term “евро стандарт” has become a cliché in the Russian marketing business but it’s strange that in Europe we have no idea what “Euro standard” means. It’s an invented term to make goods in Russia trustworthy – if it’s good enough for them in Europe then it’s good enough for us!

I’d say that some of the most ridiculous borrowings have entered Russian via advertising and PR. I’m not a fan of terms like “прайс-лист” (price list), “апгрейд” (upgrade) or “контент” (content) when there are adequate native Russian alternatives like “список цен”, “обновление” (update) and “содержимое”. There are many cases where normal Russian words are being displaced by borrowings from English – this may be a passing trend but some native lexis may be in danger of being lost.

Russian is even catching the West up in terms of politically correct language with expressions like “офис менеджер” (office manager) replacing “секретарша” (secretary) or the insulting "секретутка" (a play on words from "secretary" and "prostitute"). However, when I suggested introducing the term “Афро-Русский” (Afro-Russian) to some of my students, they were quite perplexed and said: “No, they are just Nigroes but in Russia”! So, I suppose Russia still has a long way to go before it becomes as PC-obsessed as those in the West.

Russian slang is a rich hunting ground if you’re looking for recent borrowings from English and the younger generation or “тинейджеры” (teenagers) are just a cooler version of “подростки” (adolescents).

Here are several anglicisms in modern Russian slang:

Смокать (smoke), дринкнуть (drink), эпик фейл (epic fail), респект (respect), чатить (chat), не айс (not ice – from old TV ad), шутер (shoot’em’up), крут-able (cool + able)

I must admit to using some language mixing of this kind myself – my favourite home-grown expressions being “nice вообще!” and “не good”.

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      Comments on site (7 comments)
  • Submitted by Scott on Mon, 02/27/2012 - 17:00

    Excellent article, as usual!

    I wanted to comment with my particular take, as my point of view is still that of a person who is learning the Russian language. I've only studied Russian for just over a year, have been able to "read" (which just means to struggle through elementary passages with a dictionary) and have just lately been able to "speak", (which, in this sense, just means to use broken Russian.)

    However, I do have to admit that I've been surprised on more than one occasion to see words in Russian (or so I thought), and then after sounding it out and reading it, realized that it was just an English word. I thought, "Is that really the Russian word?" I don't particularly understand it. I can understand that a level of internationalism is creeping into Russia due to horrible influences such as Hollywood and political motives, but I honestly see no point to "бизнес ланч". To me, it sounds like something a little child would say out of goofiness. I never say it, and I use the Russian word "обед".

    The only way I feel about it is this: that Anglo-Culture simply does not mix well with the Russian point of view, or culture. This is evident with your McDonald's example. There is simply no way to translate the McDonald's menu to Russian in such a way that would keep the McDonald image, so the only alternative is to anglicize the Russian, which introduces new stupid words to the Russian language that will further confuse new learners, such as myself. (As per the example you gave.)

    Also, anglicizing into Russian can cause just as much confusion to Russian people who know absolutely no English. It's true that the Latin alphabet is a more familiar sight to a Russian person than Cyrillic would be to an English speaker, but go ahead and transliterate some Russian words using the Latin alphabet and see how far that takes you.

    I'm all for a language evolving, because, yes, the simplicity of language will always be here, but there are always a higher layer of people that keep complexity relevant, because language is a direct reflection of the culture that uses it. The Russian language is a complicated, difficult and expressive language that compliments the Russian soul, person and culture perfectly... with Russian slang being a whole other animal altogether!

  • Submitted by свирепый Бамбр on Wed, 05/16/2012 - 21:41

    "Content" is not "содержание", but "содержимое". "Содержание" is "table of contents".

    Can I also contribute to your slang list? This one is from IT world: "курИть", originally meaning "to smoke", now means "искАть, запрАшивать" ("to query"). Also, there are such borrowings as "лагАть" (to lag), "дебАгить" (to debug), "сабмИтить" (to submit the code to source control system), "чекИнить" (to check in), "логИниться" (to log in) and many others ))

    Another new-fashion thing is "ЛОЛ", transliterated LOL :)

    I guess the "Lurkmore.ru" would be an interesting source of Russian internet slang for you.

  • Submitted by Alex Jude on Wed, 05/16/2012 - 23:05

    Cheers for the correction. Yep, I work with a lot of IT people and Russian jargon in this sphere is particularly rich in borrowings from English, probably because IT-shiki have a lot of contact with English - clients, software, games, sites, porno...)))

  • Submitted by Dmitry Zembatov on Sun, 10/28/2012 - 00:32

    Отличная статья!
    Я загадаю Вам загадку.
    Попробуйте понять, что значит такое гибридное слово, как "анмазабл".

  • Submitted by Alex Jude on Mon, 10/29/2012 - 18:30
  • Submitted by Dmitriy Row on Sat, 11/03/2012 - 23:01

    Спасибо. Очень интересно. Русский язык очень охотно прирастает чужим словами. Например, у Пушкина:
    "Но панталоны, фрак, жилет,
    Всех этих слов на русском нет;
    А вижу я, винюсь пред вами,
    Что уж и так мой бедный слог
    Пестреть гораздо б меньше мог
    Иноплеменными словами... "

    Например, французский язык также обогатил наш русский язык ругательствами "шваль", "шаромыжник", "шантрапа". Никто не узнает в слове "шантрапа" (пустой, никчемный, ненадежный человек; проходимец) искаженное от ·французского "chantera pas" - не будет петь - употреблялось при отборе детей в помещичий хор. Или французское "сher ami" в слове "шаромыжник" (тот, кто любит поживиться на чужой счёт; ловкач, жулик).

  • Submitted by Anthony Cerbic on Mon, 05/27/2013 - 02:12

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