Turkic words in Russian

Feb 14, 2011 by

Staying on the subject of Turkic languages, let’s consider what impact these languages had on the Russian language. Some time ago we’ve considered the influence of Finnic languages on Russian, which, as I pointed out in that earlier posting, is subtle, elusive and mostly grammatical. The Turkic influence on Russian is exactly the opposite: it is extensive, obvious and mostly lexical. Also, the influence of Finnic and Turkic languages penetrated the Russian language from different directions, as it were: Finnic traits crept into Russian via northern Russian dialects (marked green on the map below) and Turkic languages had a more direct impact on southern Russian dialects (marked orange on the map below).

1. The nature of linguistic influence vs. the nature of human contact. Turkic and Finnic influence on the Russian language can used to illustrate the principle that the nature of linguistic influence correlates with the nature of human contact. In the north, Russians were the invaders/settlers. As shown by genetic studies such as Malyarchuk et al. (2005), it was mostly Russian men who settled in former Finnic-speaking territories, often intermarrying with Finnic women. Further south, where Russians came into contact with Turkic-speaking peoples, the situation was the opposite: Turkic-speaking men moved into Russian-speaking territory, taking Slavic-speaking wives (note that I am using “marrying” and “taking a wife” here as euphemisms for all sorts of what geneticists nicely refer to as “paternity events” — we don’t know to what extent they were marriages “between two consenting adults”).

The substrate language — in this case, Finnic languages — had mostly grammatical impact on Russian, whereas the languages of invaders — in this case, Turkic languages — had mostly lexical influence. The same pattern is observable in the British Isles: Celtic substrate languages has mostly grammatical influence and the influence of the Normans is largely (although not only) lexical.

2. How to identify loanwords? The first step in identifying potential loanwords in Russian would be to compare various Russian words with their counterparts in other Slavic languages. There are numerous cognates between Russian and, say, West Slavic languages like Polish and Czech: compare, for example, the Russian medved’ ‘bear’ with the Polish niedżwiedż and the Czech medvĕd or the Russian pčela ‘bee’ with the Polish pszczoła and the Czech včela. On the other hand, words like the Russian izjum ‘raisin’ and saraj ‘shed’ are not cognate to their Polish and Czech counterparts (Polish rozinka and Czech hrozinka and Polish and Czech stodola, respectively). These Russian words that stand out among their Slavic counterparts are good candidates for loanwords.

The next step is to look for cognates in Turkic languages: for example, the Russian slang word bashka ‘head’ is an obvious cognate to the Uzbek bosh, Kyrghyz bash and Turkmen baş, all likewise meaning ‘head’.

Luckily, a characteristic property of Turkic languages — vowel harmony — makes it easier to recognize Turkic loanwords in Russian (recall from an earlier posting that Finno-Ugric languages too typically have vowel harmony). Vowel harmony is a phenomenon whereby vowels assimilate to each other across intervening consonants so vowels within a word end up being alike. Thus, although it is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, but many Russian words that have the same vowel throughout the word are Turkic borrowings: such are words bashmak ‘shoe’, almaz ‘diamond’, baklazhan ‘eggplant’, sunduk ‘box, chest’ and chugun ‘cast iron’. Another give-away for Turkic loanwords in Russian are the suffixes (often no longer perceived as such) -cha and -lyk, as in the Russian Turkic-loanwords alycha ‘kind of plum’ and sarancha ‘locust’, balyk ‘salted and dried sturgeon or salmon’ and jarlyk ‘label’ (note that the latter has recently been all but replaced by an English-loanword lejbla).

3. Why loanwords? Loanwords come into the target language for a variety of reasons. In the case of Turkic loanwords in Russian, many of them go back to the time of the Golden Horde that for obvious reason brought in many words that have to do with state and financial matters: for instance, kazak ‘kazak’, karaul ‘guard’, kazna ‘treasury’ and den’ga ‘money’. Other Turkic loanwords in Russian are labels for things and concepts that were borrowed from Turkic-speaking peoples as well: kirpich ‘brick’, arbuz ‘watermelon’, bashmak ‘shoe’, etc.

But many other Turkic loanwords coexist with indigenous Slavic words and express various nuances of meaning and usage. For example, Russian has a Slavic-derived word kon’ ‘horse’ that is cognate to the Polish koń and Czech kůň. Yet, there is another word for ‘horse’ in Russian — loshad’ — which came from Turkic languages (apparently, this borrowing predates the Golden Horde period). The two ‘horse’-words, kon’ and loshad’, do not mean exactly the same thing and cannot be used interchangeably. The former word, which is grammatically masculine, is used to refer to a male horse only, whereas the latter is a default, gender-less word for ‘horse’ (although it is grammatically feminine). In many expressions, loshad’ is the idiomatic choice and kon’ cannot be substituted: hence, rabochaja loshad’ is ‘work horse’ and a unit of power is loshadinnaja sila ‘horse power’. Still, the command ‘To horse!’ is Po konjam! (the word kon’ here is in the dative plural form) and not *Po loshadjam!. ‘Horse meat’ in Russian is konina and not loshadina and ‘horsefish’ is morskoj konek (literally, ‘small sea horse’) and not morskaja loshadka.

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