A is for… loanwords!

Feb 15, 2011 by

While researching the phonological and morphological properties of Turkic loanwords in Russian, I ran into an interesting factoid that I’d like to share.

As it turns out, words that begin with a in Russian are almost all loanwords. For example, abazhur ‘lamp-shade’ is from French, almaz ‘rough diamond’ is from Turkic and the word astra (type of flower) was borrowed from German but ultimately derives from the Greek word meaning ‘star’. The few native Russian words starting with a include grammatical words such as the conjunction a ‘and, but’ and exclamations like ax ‘oh!’ and aj ‘ouch!’; there are also some verbs that are formed from these exclamations like axat’ ‘to say oh!’.

The same is true of such popular Russian (given) names as Alexander, Aleksey, Andrei, Anton, Anatoliy, Arkadiy — they are all loanwords too.

And while we are on the subject of loanword clues, another such clue in Russian is the letter and sound f: again, with the rare exceptions of exclamations and onomatopoeic words, words with f in Russian are loanwords. Examples include kafe, grafika, forma, fil’m and sofa — you can guess what they mean.

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  • Janne

    Interesting. How about your own name? Where is it borrowed from?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Good thinking, Janne! Yes, my (given) name is a loanword in Russian. It's not a very common name in Russia, even though there is a short novel by Ivan Turgenev of that name ("Asya"). There are different theories as to where my name comes from. The most likely scenario that it was an abbreviation of Hannah a few generations back (I was named after my greatgrandmother Asya). But the name Asya is very common in a number of Middle Eastern languages (Turkish, etc.). The prettiest etymology of my name that I know of is that it derives from an Aramaic word meaning "healing".

  • Dave

    What a fascinating tidbit. This drove me to my Russian-English dictionary where there were indeed page after page of words whose meanings were mostly perfectly plain, not something that I can say of most randomly chosen pages from the dictionary. One word I knew but not because it's cognate with any other language is avoc'. Any idea where this one comes from?

  • Asya Pereltsvaig

    Thank you for your comment, Dave. I am not sure about the etymology of avos' (but it did give rise to a really cute word, avos'ka — are you familiar with it?)

  • avalaz

    And patalized L: most loanwords containing L before a consonant, has it patalized