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Russian Loanwords in Finnish: How the Centuries of Neighborhood Are Reflected in Language

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Helsinki chapter.

Istun ikkunan lähellä ja syön maukasta piirakkaa lusikalla ja juon kiisseliä kolpakosta… A quite weird phrase to start the article with, isn’t it? The sentence is not actually that random as it seems: all the nouns in it were borrowed from Russian language at different points of the history. Eastern-Slavic and Baltic-Finnish people have been living next to each other for thousands of years. It is reflected in their culture, and of course, languages. To the 100th year anniversary to Russian and Finnish neighborhood on the national level, Her Campus discovered what Russian loanwords persist in literature and everyday speech of Finns today.

Russian loanwords from long ago

Russians-Finnish contact started approximately in the 8th century A.D, when Old East Slavic language was spoken on the Russian side. Since then, some words related to religion and everyday life were borrowed. However, some of them slightly changed meaning on their way to Finnish language. Here are some words from the earliest period of Russian-Finnish contact:

akkuna, ikkuna – окно (okno) = window

lusikka – ложка (lozhka) = spoon

piirakka – пирог (pirog) = pie

raamattu (bible) – грамота (gramota) = literacy/written document (in Old East Slavic)

raja – край (kraj) = border. In Russian (and sometimes in Finnish) it means “edge”

risti – крест (krest) = cross

saappaat – сапог (sapog) = high boots

tappara –  топор (topor) = axe

tavara – товар (tovar) = commodity

vapaa – свободный (svobodnyj) = free

varpunen – воробей (vorobej) = sparrow

During the process of borrowing, words also adapt to the sound system of the recipient language, which is why they sound different from the source words.

Since the times when Finland became a part of Sweden, Swedish language influenced Finnish for more than half a millennium. What is reflected in modern Finnish- nowadays most of the borrowed lexis in the language is from Swedish.

The time of Russian Empire and Kalevala’s contribution

 In 1809 Finland became part of the Russian Empire as a Grand Duchy of Finland, and language contact, after a long break, continued. The time of Finnish language revival started, and Russian government supported the national spirit of Finns, because the tsar aimed to weaken Finnish traditional ties with Sweden. Such activists as Carl Axel Gottlund were unsatisfied with the fact that standard Finnish was oriented to western dialects, and wanted eastern dialects, such as Savonian, to become the standard Finnish. However, it was Elias Lönnrot, the author of Finland’s national epic Kalevala, who contributed to the involvement of eastern Finnish dialects to standard language. Eastern dialects, that participated in the process of language enrichment, brought along with them Russian loanwords. Here is one example we can find in Kalevala:

Sisar nuoren Joukahaisen itse itkullen apeutui.

Itki päivän, itki toisen poikkipuolin portahalla;

itki suuresta surusta, apeasta miel’alasta.

Hard to recognize even for a Russian reader, but “apea” comes from Russian word “обида” (obida), that means “offence”.

Of course, it was not only Kalevala that brought new Russian loanwords during the 19th century. For more than 100 years other words, related to army, trade and everyday life of a city came to the Finnish from Russian. Have you ever thought that the following words are not native Finnish but are borrowed from Russian?

kanava – канава (kanava) = ditch (“channel” in Finnish)

kasarmi – казарма (kazarma) = barracks for soldiers

kasku – сказка (skazka) = anecdote. In Russian, it means “fairy-tale”

kiisseli – кисель (kisel’) = berry starch drink

kolpakko – колпак (kolpak). In Finnish, it means a (beer) cup, but in Russian “kolpak” is a conic hat

leima – клеймо  (klejmo)  = stamp

majakka – маяк (majak) = lighthouse

nuutua – нуда (nuda) In Finnish it got meaning “to wither”, but in one of Russian dialects it means “boredom”, also “coercion”

putka – будка (budka). Slang word that in Finnish means a room for arrestees (a drunk tank), but in Russian a small building for protection from bad weather

rosolli – рассол (rassol). In Finnish it means a beetroot-based salad, but in Russian pickle-juice

rukkaset – рукавицы “rukavitsy” = gloves

siisti – чистый (chistij) = clean

simpukka – жемчуг (zhemchug) Comes from Russian word with the meaning “pearl”, but in Finnish it means “seashell”

sopuli – соболь (sobol’) = lemming, but in Russian it means “sable”

tarina – старина (starina) In Finnish it means “story”, in Russian “folk tale”

tolkku – толк (tolk) = sence

tori – торг (torg). Comes from Russian “trading”, in Finnish it means “market square”

värttinä – веретено (vereteno) = spindle

veräjä – верея (vereja). In Finnish it means a wicket gate in a fence, in Russian a column where the wicket gate is attached

viesti – вести (vesti) = “a message” in Finnish, but “news” in Russian

Independent country, independent language

Of course, this list does not cover all of the borrowings from Russian. There are many more slang words, old-fashioned words that only old people might know. Also, there is a bunch of Russian borrowed words that are still preserved in eastern dialects, but not in standard Finnish.

Not all the loanwords represented in the article were originally Russian: lexis is such a “nomadic” substance of a language that sometimes the way of borrowing travels through different mediating languages. Thus, all the words we discussed were borrowed from Russian even though their originating language might have been different.

Despite the fact that the influence of Swedish and Russian cultures was strong, when Finland celebrates its 100th anniversary of independence, in modern Finnish language there is about 82% of borrowed native lexis, which is a quite decent rate for a young country that was waiting for independence for such a long time.


Pictures by Pixabay

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