Three False Assumpions About Loanwords in Russian

hi-tech gadgets
Image by Marco Bonomo

We know that languages borrow words for new technology or occupations. We know that a lot of these words come from English. It is easy to assume, then, that all cutting-edge technology must have originated in the English-speaking world and was exported everywhere else, along with its nomenclature.

While it is partly true in the case of Russian, which has borrowed multiple words to describe new devices, workflows, and professions that flourished in Russia in the 90s, there are important exceptions to the general trend.

1. Modern Technology must Be Described in Loanwords

I noticed a curious thing in my interactions with Russian-speaking immigrants in Israel and the US — they would often use loanwords from English to describe technology everyone in Russia would use a native word for. For example, they would say си-ти” (si-ti) for a CT scan — a medical procedure widely known and available in Russia under the name of КТ or компьютерная томография (kompyuternaya tomografiya). Similarly, elderly immigrants would say “месседж” messedz when asking a called to leave a voice mail message (the conventional Russian word is “сообщение” soobscheniye).

This likely happened because these people left the USSR before the spread of the technologies they described, like answering machines or CT scans. Therefore, they never learned the Russian words for these things and have to resort to the words they have heard — English ones. The takeaway here is to check whether there is an established native term before you settle for the borrowing.

2. All Loanwords Come From English

tablet
Image by Marc Chouinard

Another example I’ve run into is expatriate Russians saying “таблетка” (tabletka) for “tablet.” While this is the appropriate equivalent for the medicine you take, the touchscreen device is normally called by the French word “планшет” (planshet). This word used to refer to a board for mounting maps and, later, a graphics tablet. When tablet computers appeared on the market, Russian just expanded the definition of that word rather than borrow a new one.

3. Every Loanword Has A Native Equivalent

What I wrote so far seems to suggest there is always a native word for any new gadget — you just need to look hard enough. However, many loanword have long been accepted as the only official names for certain devices, such as принтер (printer) or сканер (scanner). These words are used in official documents such as GOST certificates, needed to sell the device in Russia.

Moreover, some recent borrowings have taken on a specific narrower meaning that is not inherent in the native word. One example is менеджер (menedzher), roughly equivalent to the English “manager” but mostly reserved for management roles in new types of companies, introduced in the last 20 years. You could argue that the Russian word управляющий (upravlyayushiy) describes the same occupation. However, that word evokes Chekhov’s plays and a male housekeeper left to look after an estate while the owners are abroad.

As with anything else in language, careful research is needed to make sure you are neither happily accepting any trendy borrowings nor ignoring long-standing, standard ones in your authoring or translation.

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