Page last updated at 07:13 GMT, Tuesday, 22 May 2007 08:13 UK

Moscow Diary: English Newspeak

Many borrowings from English have entered the Russian language, especially since the fall of communism, but not all Russians are comfortable with them, the BBC's James Rodgers reports. His diary is published fortnightly.


How much Russian can you understand? It might be more than you think.

Moscow brokers
Moscow brokers: Business Russian is full of English words
A conversation at a cafe in the Russian capital these days could easily include the words "manager", "training" and "outsourcing", to name just three. The chat could take place over a "business lunch".

If you couldn't afford your share of the bill, you might look like a "loser". It might be time to go to the bank for an "overdraft".

The Russian government has declared 2007 the year of the Russian language. That may be so - but the language as it's spoken today isn't 100 per cent, well, Russian.

Michele Berdy is a translator who's worked here since the 1970s. She has a weekly column in The Moscow Times - the capital's main English-language newspaper. It gives tips to expats hoping to brush up their vocabulary, and charts the way the language is evolving.

"It's changed fairly dramatically," she told me, "mostly because of the influence of English".

It's changed dramatically because Russia has changed dramatically. In communist times, you didn't need a word for "marketing" or "PR" because there wasn't really any. Now it's everywhere. So are the English words.

Last year, Ms Berdy wrote about a linguistic experiment from the 1920s. Researchers went to a village in northern Russia and asked people the meaning of the new words which had entered the language in the years after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

The villagers suggested that a communist was someone who didn't believe in God.

Socialism was "life the new way - dunno, something like the law?"

A "decree" was dismissively defined as "the government writing papers".

I decided to repeat the experiment. I went to Sergiev Posad, a town about two hours' drive north of Moscow. You couldn't really imagine a more timeless picture of Russia. Sergiev Posad is one of the centres of the Russian Orthodox Church. Its monastery attracts pilgrims and tourists from across Russia and beyond.

There are blue and gold onion domes rising above whitewashed walls. Then there's a restaurant called "American Pie".


The trouble with some of the new words is that they're not even really English terms. We can guess what an "image-maker" might do, but we might call them a "spin-doctor" or "PR person".

Sergiev Posad
Sergiev Posad is the Russian Orthodox heartland
In Russia today, every would-be mover and shaker needs one, but do ordinary people actually know what it means?

For my experiment, I tried out "image-maker"; "teenager"; and "overdraft" - all words you see and hear regularly in modern Moscow.

Most people did seem to know what an "image-maker" was. One man said it meant "stylist" in Russian - clearly a concept which has come from outside the country.

"Teenager" was easy, too. Most people I asked replied that it meant "adolescent". Lyudmila stopped for a moment on her way into the monastery. She had a different view. "Teenager? I understand the word. It's probably got something to do with an office," she said, fairly confidently.

To be fair to Lyudmila, I suspect she got confused with "manager". Russia's post-Soviet youth may be getting used to lives their parents never led, but offices probably don't figure in the dreams of many of them.

There was a worrying message for the future of Russia's booming economy.

Only one person of the dozen or so I spoke to knew what an "overdraft" was.

A lot of Russians apparently remain happily isolated from one of the worst evils of capitalism.

What does this all mean? Is it proof that the West won the Cold War? Is it just easier to borrow words for alien concepts from other languages?

Maybe it's a decision for managers to make over a lengthy business lunch.


"Moscow 2010: no one can work, nowhere to study, nothing to breathe," was the recent front-page story in Izvestiya.

Moscow has become a victim of the country's massive economic growth. People are flocking to the city from all over the world's largest country and beyond.

Now the city authorities are worried about how they're going to cope. They've already had a public information campaign asking people to save electricity.

The challenges they face are common to many contemporary capitals.

Izvestiya says the city's choice is either to "follow the course of civilised European capitals" or far eastern cities, which it compares to "human anthills".

Russia has always tried to combine the best of east and west. Will the Moscow of the future be a civilised anthill?

Your comments:

The composition of Great Russian language had always been a subject for debates among educated portion of population, ever since Pushkin. Russian language is not as systematic as English, or any other European languages, it is a still changing and flexible system.
Olga, New York, NY

On a trip to Russia a few years back, I was surprised to hear a number of distinctly French everyday words (such as "etaazh" for the building floor/level and "magazin" for shop). On reflection, I shouldn't have been surprised given that speaking French was de rigueur among 19th century continental elites. Maybe Russians were upset about it years ago; but I think they got over it.
Kaushik, New York, US

There are also many Dutch words absorbed in Russian, dating from the time of Czar Peter the Great, who studied Dutch ship building and sea faring practices intensively, and introduced a number of them in Russia.
Bill, Bristol

It's very easy to paint people who don't like the invasion of English as parochial, backward-looking bumpkins, as if it's only natural that they should start using English. To get an idea of what it feels like, we Brits should always think of those irritating American words adopted by teenagers (it's nearly always the young). My favourite hate objects are 'pants' for trousers, business people talking about 'growing' profits, companies etc. (they are not crops!) and, oh yes, ending sentences with rising intonation as if everything were a question.
Andrew, York, England

I enjoyed reading your article. President Putin worries that the Russian language is in danger. I can see that he has some things to worry about and then again he doesn't. It all depends upon area. Image-maker makes more sense than Spin Doctor or PR person. But what Russian needs to know what an overdraft is? I don't and I'm Russian. There's probably a Russian equivalent. Russia has only just begun to enjoy the blessings of democracy, but the language will stay intact if enough make sure that it does.

An article that reflects more bias and narrow views of Russia and other non-western countries. What about the French words in English Business? The use of Raison D'etre to emphasise the reason of existence of the strategic aim of an organisation, or perhaps Laissez faire to reflect a lenient management style, and this can extend to many other words. The fact is that civilisations evolve over the years sharing their experiences and knowledge with each other.
Jamil, Jordan

I teach English to Russians. Many Russians already have a basic grounding in English from their schools and/or colleges/universities. But the acceptance and use of the English language as the universally used language by practically all countries globally has caused Russians to flock to these schools to upgrade their linguistic skills to improve their job prospects. My students are aged from 20 to 61 years old. Russian businesses are requiring more employees with English language skill sets.
Bruce Grant, expat in Russia


James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow

MAY - OCT 2008

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008




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