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Why You Shouldn’t Rely On Other Slavic Languages to Understand Russian Posted by on Nov 10, 2014 in language

Russian is a Slavic language, so it shares some of its grammar and vocabulary with other languages from that family. Much as we like to rely on similarities among languages to expand our knowledge, I would like to warn you against using your knowledge of Russian to communicate with speakers of other Slavic languages — and vice versa!

I do not actually speak any other Slavic languages, so I will rely on other sources. Feel free to add/correct any examples.

Ukrainian

Ukrainian (украинский язык — mind the word stress) is an East Slavic language just like Russian, meaning its latest shared ancestor with Russian is relatively recent. As a result, there is a lot of shared vocabulary and grammar. However, many words have taken on completely different meanings, so you should not rely on the one to converse in the other.

Russian Ukrainian
другой – other другий – second
место – place місто – city
неделя – week неділя – Sunday
родина – homeland родина – family
час – hour час – time

(source)

Polish

Polish (польский язык) is a West Slavic language, so it is not as closely related to Russian as Ukrainian. A few German loan words came to Russian via Polish. For example, the word for a market, рынок, comes from the Polish rynek, which comes from the German Ring.

The two languages have diverged considerably from their shared roots. If you are an English speaker, you may also want to be mindful of Polish loan words in English — do not use them to decipher Russian words. For instance, if you want some pierogi in Russia, you should ask for пельмени for the meat kind or вареники for the cheese/vegetable/fruit kind. Asking for пирог will get you a piece of pie.

Russian Polish
милость – mercy miłość – love
наглый- fresh, disrespectful nagły – sudden
пироги – pies pierogi – dumplings
урод – freak, ugly person uroda – beauty
вонь – stench woń – smell, aroma

(source)

Bulgarian

Bulgarian (болгарский язык) is a South Slavic language. It is relatively accessible for speakers of Russian as it uses the same Cyrillic alphabet. However, this seeming similarity may trick you.

Russian Bulgarian
гора – mountain гора – forest
направо – to the right направо – straight ahead
дыня – melon диня – watermelon
ягода – berry ягода – strawberry
майка – tank top, cami майка – mother

(Source)

Czech

Czech is another West Slavic language, and some of the words mean the opposite of their Russian cognates!

Russian Czech
град, город – city hrad – castle
овощи – vegetables ovoce – fruit
позор – shame pozor – attention
хитрый – cunning chytrý – intelligent
злодей – villain zloděj – thief

(Source)

Have you had any confusing experiences with Slavic languages? Do you know any other Slavic languages?

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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.


Comments:

  1. Sheena:

    That’s a good one! I’m from Slovenia (by the way, the sign on the photo is in Croatian or Serbian), and when my Russian friends came to visit me, they came laughing from the train and just couldn’t understand, why they should be ashamed (pozor signs were all over the train, ofcourse). Another funny situation was, when there were elections in Slovenia. One of the political parties chose their slogan to be: “s ponosom za Slovenijo” (for Slovenia with pride). And all Russians, living in Slovenia, were walking past their posters laughing… Понос in Russian, of course means diarrhea, but in Slovenian – pride. Other homonyms/heteronyms in Russian/Slovenian that I can think of now, are:

    фамилия (last name) – familija (colloquial) – family
    орать (to scream) – orati – to plow
    врач (doctor) – vrač – mage
    шкаф (cabinet) – škaf – bucket
    ножницы (scissors) – nožnica – vagina
    And many, many more…

    Большой привет from Slovenia!

    • Maria:

      @Sheena Hi Sheena,

      Thank you for your contribution. Serbian should definitely get highlighted more often as it is often overshadowed by the “behemoths” such as Russian or Polish. It’s fascinating to see how cognates came from a shared origin but each took on a different aspect of that original meaning. Like the -zor- root in pozor; it refers to vision, but from there it can take on completely different shades of meaning. Regarding orati, that root is around in Russian in rarer contexts such as beat the swords into plowshares (перековать мечи на орала). Орать is, of course, related to the Latin orare (pray).

  2. Erik M.:

    When I read the Polish play Wesele (The Wedding, 1901) by Wyspiański, I was completely confused by the “chochoł” at the end. I think it was a sort of animated haystack in the play (the character has its own Polish Wikipedia entry), but I could only think of хохол, used in Russian as a derogatory term for Ukrainians (or for the Cossack topknot).

    • Maria:

      @Erik M. Erik, that’s quite an unexpected meaning, but I suppose the hair style does look like a haystack if you have a vivid imagination.

    • Angelos:

      @Erik M. I suppose it is the Russian word meaning ‘to scream’ that is cognate with Latin ‘orare’=’to pray’. The Slovenian and biblical Russian word for ploughing is surely cognate with Latin ‘arare’ and Greek αρόω, of the same meaning.

  3. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    Very interesting today. Thank you!

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Thank you, Moonyeen. No language is an island, so to speak. Some are related and all are interconnected, and I like reminding myself and other Russian learners/speakers of that.

  4. David Roberts:

    Fascinating! Many years ago (1940s) a British author called Bodmer wrote a book “The Loom of Language” – aimed at the general public in the hope they would be inspired to learn. He compared the various germanic languages, and the various latin-derived languages, covering how they have evolved, and argued that it was a good idea to learn all the germanics at the same time, and all the latins at the same time. As for slavonics, he said – if you want to learn a slavonic language, you need to be born and raised in a slav country, otherwise forget it! He has a point, for Anglophones the slavonics are definitely harder, but well worth the effort in my opinion! What I think Bodmer was forgetting was that you don’t have to reach perfection to be able to do things, whether reading, making conversation etc, with what you’ve learned.

  5. Ken:

    I wasn’t aware that неділя meant “Sunday” in Ukrainian, however I had heard that неделя at one time had that meaning in Russian, hence the word понедельник for Monday, “next to Sunday”.

    • Maria:

      @Ken Ken, that’s what I learned, too. The old word for week is седьмица (from семь).

  6. Sarah:

    Is it weird that this is one of the things I like about Slavic languages???!? 😉

    miłość is one of my favourite Slavic words <3

    • Maria:

      @Sarah Sarah, what’s that? The fact they’re all fairly different from each other? I like that diversity, too, and wish “lesser known” Slavic languages got more coverage.

  7. Kathryn:

    A comment on неделя and the Sunday/week meaning variations.

    Apparently it comes from the old east Slavic word “недѣлꙗ” which meant Sunday. The was basically a combination of не + делая, meaning “no working.”

    I love breaking down words like this 🙂 Also – воскресенье came into use as Sundays are holy and the word comes from the Russian word for resurrection. Cool stuff!

    • Maria:

      @Kathryn Kathryn, thank you for the comment. A week used to be called седьмица, which makes sense given the seven (семь) days. The old word for Sunday (неделя) also explain the name for Monday (понедельник) — “after Sunday.”

  8. Kamila:

    It’s actually “rynek” in Polish, not “rynok”. Anyhow, my favourite false friend in Russian is “запомнить” (remember) – “zapomnieć” in Polish means exactly the opposite, ie. to forget 😉

    • Maria:

      @Kamila Kamila, thank you for the correction — the link from the very source I cited uses this spelling, too. Right, it’s funny how in Russian запамятовать is to forget (sounds closer to the Polish meaning), while запомнить is to remember.

  9. Vasyl Babiy:

    As a native Ukrainian speaker, I agree that the so-called “similarities” between Russian and, for example, Ukrainian often times lead to false interpretation of lexicon. For example, the Russian word “лихой” (daring, bold, brave) has a positive connotation in the expression “лихой молодец” (brave fellow). However, a similar Ukrainian cognate “лихий” means bad, mean,etc. Beware!

  10. lantonov:

    Nice findings. I have similar tricky words between Bulgarian and Serbian:

    Bulgarian Serbian

    храст=bush, shrub храст=oak
    шума=leaves шума=wood (forest) so
    храстова шума=bush leaves храстова шума=oak wood
    снага=body снага=force
    на поле = on the field наполе=out
    други = other други=second
    корист = self-interest корист=benefit, use (to the society)
    користен=self-seeking користан=useful
    роба = dressing gown роба = commodity
    струя = jet, spurt струя = electric current
    застава=border post застава = flag
    завод=industrial plant завод = institute
    киша=sleet киша = rain

    For Russian and Bulgarian also the famous
    живот (ru) = stomach, belly живот (bg) = life