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10 interesting facts about the Russian language

'Russian flag' photo (c) 2005, Jennifer Boyer - license: my previous post I promised to follow with the  interesting info about some other languages. So here are 10 facts about the Russian language which might be of interest to those who are studying it. If you would like to have this list in Russian, please contact me and I will send it to you by email. So, what do I find interesting about my native language?

1. Russian has about 500,000 words, but only 2,000-2,500 of them are used frequently. 100 most frequently used words make 20% of all written and oral speech. A high school graduate's vocabulary usually has 1,500 to 4,000 words. Those who have graduated from a higher educational institution normally have a richer vocabulary consisting of approximately 8,000 words.
2. It's compulsory for all astronauts in the international space station to learn Russian, so we can call it an international language of space :)

3. The word "неделя" which now means "a week" actually stems from the phrase "to do nothing" and used to mean "a day of rest".
4. The only adjective in Russian with one syllable is "злой" (="angry").
5. In Russian, the terms "индеец" (native American) and "индиец" (a person who lives in India) are different words, whereas in most Western European languages they are homonyms.
6. There is an old rule according to which native Russian words can't start with the letter "a". Almost all words that start with this letter are borrowed from other languages, with the following exceptions: "азбука" (alphabet), "аз" (old way of saying "I") and "авось" (maybe, perhaps).
7. Similar to the words starting with "a", words starting with "f" are also borrowed. When Pushkin wrote his poem "Сказка о царе Салтане" (The Tale of Tsar Saltan) he took great pride in the fact that there was only one word there starting with "f" and that word was "флот" (fleet).
8. The words "зАмок" (castle) and "замОк" (lock) are homonyms in the Russian language, and this is not by chance. These words came to the Russian language from German through Polish and Czech. In German both "castle" and "lock" are translated as "Schloß". The words became homonyms because a castle is a so-called geographical lock as it "locks" the enemy and doesn't let the troops go further into the country.
9. I think this fact would be especially interesting for translators. In 1969, a novel "La Disparition" was written by Georges Perec. One of the peculiarities about this novel is that it doesn't have the letter "e" which is the most frequent letter in French. The same principle was used to translate the book into English, German and Italian. There was no "e" in those translations. As for the Russian version, the novel was translated in 2005 by Valeriy Kislov and it doesn't have the letter "o" as this is the most frequent letter in Russian.
10. There are 10 one-letter words in Russian: а, б, в, ж, и, к, о, с, у, я. There's the same number of words in our language that consist of one sound, and the list of those words is almost the same: а, б, в, ж, и, к, о, с, у, ль.


  1. Neat stuff. I read that ведьма comes from the old Slavic word meaning "know". I think that I have an idea of where that might come from. You see, it's now known that many of the women executed for witchcraft were actually midwives. Midwives of course knew how to make herbs that cured the pains of childbirth, and the people running Europe believed that the pains of childbirth were women's punishment for Eve's biting the apple. Therefore, the word might imply that "witches" know something that the rest of us don't. Is that a correct assumption?

  2. Hi! Thanks for an interesting comment! I don't know about midwives, but the word ведьма really stems from an obsolete word ведать which means знать. You can read more in Wikipedia:

  3. One of my wonderful colleagues corrected fact No. 8 and I thought I really need to share it with you so you have the right info. So, here it is:
    "ЗамОк and зАмок are not homonyms. They are homographs (written in the same way), but not homophones (they are pronounced differently, as they are accented on different syllables; therefore the same letters for their vocals are pronounced in their "strong" sound form in one word and in their "weak" form in another one, correspondingly). In the Russian tradition homonyms are "разные по значению, но одинаковые по звучанию и написанию единицы языка" ("units of language sharing the same spelling pronunciation"). ЗамОк and зАмок are heteronyms".
    Galina, thank you for the correction once again!

  4. I would not entirely agree with number 6. What about агнец, азарт, аукать? Those are Russian words! But it is indeed an interesting remark - most words starting with "a" are indeed borrowed.

  5. Hi! Thanks for your comment! I got so interested in the info that I decided to make a little investigation. Here's what I found out.
    1) Агец is a borrowed word from Церковнославянский язык (Old Church Slavonic). According to Wikipedia "Ни одна из форм церковнославянского языка не тождественна с древнерусским языком (сведения о котором чрезвычайно отрывочны ввиду малочисленности письменных памятников), хотя на Руси использовались оба и, естественно, они не могли не влиять друг на друга. Церковнославянский язык восходит к южноболгарскому (солунскому) славянскому диалекту, родному для создателей письменного старославянского языка Кирилла и Мефодия, хотя за время своего бытования он подвергся грамматическим и фонетическим упрощениям (в частности, исчезли носовые и редуцированные гласные) и сближению с живыми языками стран, в которых он бытует. You can see more here:
    2) Азарт stems from french "hazard".
    3) Not sure about "аукать" though. To me it seems perfectly Russian, although it's a sound imitating word and we might meet something similar in other languages, who knows?

  6. Just thought it would be interesting to try to find more native Russian words that start with "A".

  7. Interesting...I've been speaking Russian for almost 30 years, and didn't know about that rule with "A"!

    As for ведать/ведма - this is a really old Indo-European root. It is the same word as the "Vedas" in Sanskrit - the sacred texts of wisdom/knowledge.

  8. Russian is the best language to learn.


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