May 01, 2018

The Gentle Art of Borrowing

The Gentle Art of Borrowing
Victor Bogorad

Whenever students of Russian feel overwhelmed and discouraged — which is, let’s face it, any time you use a verb or have to put a number into the instrumental case — it’s useful to remember what makes learning Russian easier than some other languages.

For one, modern Russian evolved from (largely) one language, which means that there are roots that get modified by prefixes and suffixes to form a plethora of related words. So, once you know that the root пах has to do with smell, you can figure out that па́хнуть means to smell, за́пах is a noun for a smell and паху́чий is the adjective. This is much easier than English, where a variety of source languages gives you the sentence: A fragrant scent smells good.

But, on the other hand, over the millennia Russian has borrowed big batches of foreign words. Today, the main source of borrowed words is English, but in past centuries Russians dipped into European languages, particularly Dutch, French, and German. So if you know French, when your neighbor histrionically swoons over the soupy, filthy, spring mess in the yard with “Како́й кошма́р!,” you know it’s cauchemar (a nightmare). And when that neighbor wants to make someone pay for the mess and shouts about большо́й штраф, if you know a bit of German, you understand that she wants the lazy janitors to pay a big fine — Strafe — for their neglect.

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