Some Observations on Morphophonological Adaptation of English-derived Loanwords in Russian Slang

Jun 22, 2015 by

As discussed in an earlier post, loanwords (i.e. words borrowed from another language) often bear their foreign origins on their sleeve, so to speak. However, it is not true that loanwords always retain their pristine phonological shape and meaning. For example, the word sputnik has changed both its pronunciation and its meaning on the way from Russian into English: its first vowel has changed from a high rounded to a mid unrounded one and its meaning narrowed to denote not any person or thing that accompanies another on a trip, but a specific type of man-made object that co-travels with the Earth. Moreover, loanwords can be “dressed up” in target-language morphology, adding plural, feminine, past tense and other markers from their “new” language, sometimes in addition to the retained morphemes for the same function from the source language. In this post, I examine some loanwords from English in Russian, illustrating the various adaptations that these words underwent. Many of my examples come from Russian youth slang, as listed here; other examples are collected from recent mystery novels (particularly, those of Darya Dontsova).

The first type of adaptation is, of course, phonological: when some sounds of the source language are missing in the target language, such sounds in loanwords are typically changed to their closest target language analogs. For example, the retroflex r-sound of English is replaced in Russian loanwords by the native trill-r (e.g. in trenink ‘training’ and profajler ‘(forensic) profiler’). Note also that many of the English vowels, absent in Russian, need to be replaced: for example, the diphthong in trenink ‘training’ turns into a monophthong, the mid vowel in mani ‘money’ is replaced by a low one, while in biznesmen ‘businessman’ the high front lax vowel is replaced by a tense one and the low front vowel turns into a mid front one. Moreover, “naturalized” loanwords are subject to Russian phonological rules such as vowel reduction in unstressed syllables (e.g. kanekšen ‘connection’) and word-final consonant devoicing (e.g. in pasvort ‘password’, xostink ‘hosting’, and trenink ‘training’). Note also that in line with Russian-internal rules, doubled/geminated/long consonants are reduced to single/short ones, as in pasvort ‘password’ and kanekšen ‘connection’.

As pointed out above, “naturalized” loanwords are subject to target-language derivational and inflectional morphology. Examples of such loanwords “dressed up” in Russian morphology include words that appear with Russian feminine suffix -a can be added to English-derived stems to preserve its source-language feminine gender, as in girl-a ‘girl’ (alternative pronunciation: gerl-a), or to avoid a syllabic [l], which Russian does not have, as in lejbl-a ‘label’. An older example of the same process is the French-derived loanword lamp-a ‘lamp’, which was assigned to the feminine gender by analogy with its source-language gender assignment. It is also interesting to note that, as is the case with many slang words, girla/gerla was common in the 1970s but has since virtually disappeared, replaced in 2000s by čiksa, from chicks.

Similarly, Russian plural suffix -i/-y can be added to borrowed stems: votč-i ‘watches’, šuz-y ‘shoes’, pipl‑y ‘people’, baks-y ‘bucks, dollars’, keks-y ‘muffins’. Note that in some of these words the stem to which the Russian plural suffix is added contains the English plural morpheme, as is the case with šuz-y ‘shoes’, baks-y ‘bucks, dollars’, and keks-y ‘muffins’ (from ‘cakes’), as well as in čiksa ‘girl, girlfriend’, where the source-language plural is retained inside the target-language feminine morphology. Note that not only the default morphemes but even rarer, more idiosyncratic morphemes can also be added to borrowed stems: for example, in -a in truzer-a ‘trousers’, parent-a ‘parents’ is a rarer plural (rather than feminine) morpheme (compare Russian doctor-a ‘doctors’, povar-a ‘cooks’).

Derivational morphemes can also be added to borrowed stems. A great example of such derivation-from-loanwords are words with one of several diminutive morphemes such as fajf-ok ‘five-ruble note’ (from five) with the diminutive -ok as in volos-ok ‘little hair’; bejdž-yk ‘badge’ (note the vowel change!) with the diminutive -yk as in nož-yk ‘little knife’. (Note that in the case of fajf-ok ‘five-ruble note’, the devoicing of root-final consonant suggests that the root has first been “nativized” as such and the addition of the diminutive is a later development.) Another example of a diminutive added to a borrowed stem is man-jušk-i (cf. As-juška, a diminutive from my first name). Also notable is the assignment of mani and manjuški ‘money’ to the plural mass noun category, with the word-final [i] interpreted as the plural morpheme (see above). A similar development is observed with respect to makaron-y ‘pasta, macaroni’ (from Italian) and suš-i ‘sushi’ (from Japanese), whose word-final [i] (or [y] in Russian adaptation) marked them as plural but whose semantics required them to be mass nouns. Curiously, smuzi ‘smoothie’ (note consonant adaptation!) is masculine singular (though some speakers treat it as a plural form, as does the author of the Wikipedia article). This is an exception to the general rule that assigns animate non-declinable (typically borrowed) nouns to masculine gender, but inanimate ones to the neuter. Yet, smuzi ‘smoothie’ appears to fall into the exceptional pattern whereby non-declinable words for drinks are masculine: viski ‘whisky’, kakao ‘cacao’, kofe ‘coffee’. Some speakers treat the last two words as neuter though: prescriptive grammars tend to castigate such usage, but it makes sense in terms of a broader generalization that non-declinable inanimate nouns are neuter.

xajratnikAn example of a nominal derivation morpheme added to a borrowed stem that caught my attention is xajratnik ‘hair band’ (see image on the left). The root xajer—an adaptation based on spelling pronunciation of the English hair—is found in isolation, for example in popilit’ xajer ‘to cut someone’s hair’ (for example, as would be done to slang-speaking, long-haired hippies arrested by polis ‘police’, as the hippies would call it, the “grown-up Russian” word being militsija). The word xajratnik ‘hair band’ contains a rare morpheme ‑atnik (or -at + -nik), probably by analogy with vatnik ‘quilted wadded jacket’ (for images, see here).

While nouns are by far the most commonly borrowed part-of-speech, verbs can be created based on borrowed stems as well. To do so, a so-called “thematic vowel” is added, followed by normal verbal morphology for mood, tense, etc. (in the following examples, by the infinitive -t’): ask-a-t’ ‘to ask for money from passers-by on the street’ (from ask), drinč-i-t’ ‘drink’ (as in drinčit’ do krejzy ‘drink oneself into a mad/crazy state’). It is not entirely clear to me which thematic vowel, -i- or -a- is chosen when, and to some extent the choice seems to be variable across speakers; thus, one finds both daunloadit’ and daunloadat’ ‘download’, sejfit’ and sejfat’ ‘safe’, slajsit’ and slajsat’ ‘slice’, although the form with the -i- appears to be more common in all these cases (though not *askit’). Among other “loan-verbs” are affordat’ ‘afford’, juzat’ ‘use’, klajmat’ ‘claim’, and čardžit’ ‘charge’—though they are more common in the speech of Russian immigrants than speakers in Russia. Some “loan-verbs” acquire the Russian “reflexive” (or more generally detransitivizing) morpheme –sja, as in applaj-i-t’-sja ‘apply’, šop-i-t’-sja ‘go shopping’, and muv-a-t’-sja ‘to move to a different home’. Such “loan-verbs” enter into aspectual alternations, as in affordat’ ‘afford’ (imperfective) vs. affordit’ ‘afford’ (perfective). The verbs that denote one-time, brief actions appear with the semelfactive suffix -nu, as in daunload-nu-t’ ‘to download once’ and slajs-nu-t’ ‘to slice once’, as well as skip-nu-t’ ‘to skip, leave, run away’ from the Russian youth slang of the 1970s.

As with nominal morphemes, verbal morphemes, particularly the thematic vowels, are subject to the “normal” morphophonological rules of the target language: for example, in drinčit’ ‘drink’ the addition of the thematic vowel -i- triggers First Slavic Palatalization, turning [k] into [č].

All in all, trials and tribulations of loanwords are an understudied area of Russian linguistics—but they offer a fertile ground for examining the idiosyncrasies of various morphemes and the inner workings of morphophonological processes in the language.





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  • John Cowan

    Geminated consonants are not in fact reduced when going from English to Russian, because neither language has actual geminated consonants, only doubled ones at morpheme boundaries, and then not in all cases.

    • Good point, John, thanks for the correction. Indeed, these are not the best examples to illustrate this principle, but I think it’s still true of loanword adaption in general. I guess, in the case of “password”, I was thinking of “s” is long because it appears in both syllables (“ambisyllabic” is the term, no?). I am pretty sure that doubled consonants at morpheme boundary in English words get reduced to single ones in Russian (one could argue that it’s because there’s no perception of morpheme boundary there in Russian, it’s all one morpheme, as proper morphological segmentation is often lost in borrowing). I can’t think of a good example right now, but if one comes to mind, I’ll add it later.

      I think there may be a more general principle here that the moraic structure is not preserved: consonants are shortened and diphthongs are reduced to monophthongs…