Russian Language Blog

Indo-European Roots of Russian Posted by on Apr 28, 2016 in History, language


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Learners of the more popular Germanic languages — English and German — and the more popular Romance language — French, Spanish, and Italian — may be tempted to think of all Indo-European languages in terms of these high-visibility languages. I’ve once heard someone say “Russian is so different from Indo-European languages.” Some languages of Western Europe may be related to each other more closely and have more shared features thanks to closer ties; however, Russian is, in fact, also an Indo-European language.

Russian belongs to the East Slavic language group, which is part of the Indo-European language family. Granted, it “split off” from the rest of the languages in the group a long time ago, but some core vocabulary illustrates their connection. Note that the English equivalent may not be a cognate of the Russian word.


The most obvious group of cognates with other Indo-European languages describes family relations. Some examples are:

  • мать (mother; you will remember that in oblique cases, мать becomes ма́тери, etc., which is much more similar to its cognates)
  • брат (brother)
  • дочь (daughter, oblique cases — до́чери, etc.)
  • жена́ (wife)
  • сестра́ (sister)
  • сын (son)

To give one example, in terms of etymology, the cognates of жена́ in other Indo-European languages appear in Armenian, Celtic, Germanic (“queen,” anyone?), Greek, and Indic languages.


Several things around the house also have Indo-European names, which have cognates in other languages.

  • у́гол (corner, angle)
  • дым (smoke)
  • ого́нь (fire)
  • дом (house)

The Hindi आग ‎(āg, fire) is a cognate of the Russian ого́нь.

Common Verbs

The next group is made of verbs denoting common actions and states.

  • веле́ть (to bid/order)
  • верте́ть (to spin)
  • ви́деть (to see)
  • дать (to give)
  • есть (to eat)
  • жить (to live)

An example of a cognate of верте́ть in another language is the German werden (to become).


Unsurprisingly, a lot of Russian numbers are also of Indo-European origin. One notable exception is со́рок (forty), which comes from an old measure used in hunting.

  • два (two)
  • три (three)
  • де́сять (ten)

The Greek δύο (two) is one of the cognates in this group.


glass of water

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Names of basic food items are also thought to come from the old Proto-Indo-European language.

  • вода́ (water)
  • мя́со (meat)
  • соль (salt)

The Spanish onda (wave) is one of the cognates of вода. Fun fact, whisky is another cognate.

Nature and Outdoors

Another group of words refers to plants, animals, and landscape features. Some examples are:

  • волк (wolf)
  • берёза (birch)
  • гусь (goose)
  • кот (cat)
  • бе́рег (coast)
  • гора́ (mountain)
  • мо́ре (sea)
  • луна́ (moon)

A cognate of луна in an Indo-European language outside of Europe is the Persian روشن (rowšan, light).

At this point, many of the cognates are hard to identify, so having this information may not be helpful in learning Russian. However, if you look at a Latin verb conjugation table and compare it to Russian, you will see that your knowledge of other Indo-European languages may, in fact, aid your Russian learning.

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Vaidya:

    “The Hindi आग ‎(āg, fire) is a cognate of the Russian ого́нь.” In Sanskrit, which is the mother of Hindi, fire is actually अग्नि (agni).

    • Maria:

      @Vaidya Vaidya, thank you for your comment! Yes, I saw that during my research and thought that was very similar to Russian.

  2. Диля Валенте:

    Another verb to illustrate Indo-European roots of the Russian language is to be/быть (German)

    • Maria:

      @Диля Валенте Диля, great point. Russian has lost a lot of its conjugation of the copula быть (to be), but if you look at the old forms, they are very much like those in other IE languages.

  3. Диля Валенте:

    Editing my previous message: German SEIN

  4. David Roberts:

    Superb post Maria!

    I’ve read that Lithuanian and Latvian are is often considered to be the closest European language to proto-indoeuropean, and since these are closest tot he slavonic group (together they are the Balto-Slavonic group) we could say that he west European languages are all derivatives of “photo-russian”!

    I’ve aways found it interesting to spot connections between words in different languages, and I like to think that it helps me learn vocabulary. Some of the easy to apply “rules” for finding relationships, based on how sounds can mutate as populations become separated are:

    g and k can change into each other, as can d and t; b v p f and m can all intermutate; l and r can intermutate (bearing in mind that they are indistinguishable to many SE Asian ears); l and w can intermutate (think of polish ł) and from w we can get to v and then to b, b, f and m; f and h can intermutate (a lot of spanish words beginning with h – although not pronounced – have cognates beginning with f in other romance languages); and from h we can get to g and k. Vowels can come and go and mutate more or less randomly

    I’ve noticed that a lot of the Russian words in -енок denoting young animals are often related to west european roots more obviously than the words for the parent animal. For example щенок and chien (french), cane (italian), canis (latin) and теленок (spanish toro).

    One of my favourites is Муравей – fourmi (french) hormiga (Spanish)

    Ciao (also used in Latvian but spelled differently), David

    • Maria:

      @David Roberts David, thank you. It does help to discover these connections, not to mention how fascinating they can be.
      I find that a lot of Russian words for animals have been “replaced” by words of Turkic origin, e.g. “собака” vs “пёс” or “лошадь” vs “конь.” This creates an interesting asymmetry, where speakers of Russian could resort to their familiarity with archaic/lesser-used Russian words to recognize the cognates in other languages, but speakers of those IE languages cannot do the same for Russian words of Turkic origin.

  5. Colin:

    Really interesting article, Maria.

    To add to Vaidya’s comment, the g and n also appear in the English words ignite and igneous, which are obvious cognates deriving from the Latin ignis for fire. It’s quite unfortunate that India chose the word अग्नि (agni) to name their intercontinental ballistic missile in 1991, appropriate though it may be.

    In some parts of Scotland the number two is pronounced twa, which would be instantly recognised by a Russian speaker. Some dialects also say “married on” as opposed to “married to” in standard English. This corresponds exactly to женат на, although that might be a coincidence.

    I remember a Russian teacher telling us once that the mn in умный is related to the mn in mental, deriving from mens, mentis in Latin.

    Fascinating stuff!

  6. David Roberts:

    быть is rather fascinating. The old 3rd person plural суть gives rise via to the present participle to a longer verb существовать which means almost the same as быть.