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I've heard that Russian has no native words beginning with the letter A. The claim is that the words appearing under A in dictionaries were all imported at some stage or another. Browsing through the dictionary does reveal that the words under A either have openly western origins (авто-, анти-, анархия, акварель, алебастр...) or they represent objects of asian or oriental descent (notably fruits like абрикос, ананас, арбуз, арахис...). It's also evident that these are all objects or concepts, i.e. nouns. There are next to no verbs or adjectives beginning with A except those derived from these foreign nouns.

The few apparently Russian words on A are archaic, rare and sometimes of obscure etymology (аз - the old name of the letter A itself, авось, абы).

What's the explanation for this?

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    Most of the time it's hard to answer "why" questions in linguistics. – default locale Jun 15 '12 at 13:14
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    @defaultlocale Yes, it may be hard to get to the root of things, but historical linguistics exists for a good reason. Processes are easily identifiable. So often you can't say why, but you can say how it happened. – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 15 '12 at 15:43
  • Hmm I expected something to do with sound change, which would be something linguistics could possibly say yes or no about... – hippietrail Jun 16 '12 at 11:51
  • @hippietrail You were right, see my answer below and the link from it. – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 16 '12 at 11:53
  • how about аист? – Trident D'Gao Jul 15 '12 at 18:57
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ОК, so I found this discussion that seems to answer this.

Apparently as Old Russian transformed into Modern Russian, it underwent a bunch of phonetic processes. One of those was that all words beginning with А got prefixed with a "й" sound, and e.g. Old Russian агода became the modern ягода (berry). The same apparently happened with some other Slavic languages (don't know whether to the same extent), but with different "prosthetic" consonants, e.g. in Slovak it was a "v", so they got "vajce" instead of the Russian "яйцо" (egg).

They go some more into phonetics there, in case someone is interested.

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    I believe the term for this process is iotation. – hippietrail Jun 16 '12 at 11:55
  • You're right. The entire explanation is actually right there :) – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 16 '12 at 17:28
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To answer the original question, this is what I've found here:

In old Slavonic language, the sound А was very hard and, in oral speech, it was usually softened to Я. As an example, the word агнец (church Slavonic) was converted to ягнёнок (old Russian).

This sounds plausible to me, however I sent this question to gramota.ru. If they answer, will post the answer here.

  • 7
    it's better to invite folks from грамота.ру to participate here than being a benevolent proxy ))) – shabunc Oct 31 '12 at 16:12
  • Did you by any chance receive a response? – Philip Seyfi Dec 29 '12 at 1:32
  • @PhilipSeyfi Unfortunately not. – texnic Jan 2 '13 at 14:35
4

The point is: where do we draw the line for a "native word"? Words that now might seem totally russian might have been borrowed 100, 500, 1000 years ago.

I've quickly checked the dictionary and for example, I found абитуриент (abituriènt) which means something like "candidate" as in "candidate to the admission exams" (if that makes sense in English). Even if I know a few languages, this one doesn't resemble any word that I could think of, so we could say it sounds native. But who knows? I mean, I could receive a comment from someone that knows a language I don't know and that will show the relation. I don't think it's that easy to say "this is my language's word" and "this is borrowed".

Borrowing is a continuous process. You're aware of the most recent borrowings like компьютер because you lived the period when it happened, but who knows how many words that you think to be Russian were borrowed some time ago. I don't have data right now, but this is something true for all languages (some more, some less).

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    Абитуриент stems from German Abitur---the final exam in gymnasium. One needs to pass it to get enrolled in university. – texnic Jun 15 '12 at 13:55
  • I expected this comment. :D That's exactly my point. – Alenanno Jun 15 '12 at 13:56
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    @texnic Be careful with the word gymnasium. People who are not aware of the German meaning will think of sports ;) And btw. the word "Abiturient" does also exist in German. – Em1 Jun 15 '12 at 14:13
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    @VitalyMijiritsky That's not exact. If you don't know the language or not well enough (in this case russian), you can realize if something is borrowed only using other languages that you know better. You're a native speaker, so it's obvious that you can see it doesn't sound like a native word. My point is, that even those you feel are native, might not be native at all. – Alenanno Jun 15 '12 at 15:03
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    @theUg You can down-vote, but it's not speculative. It's exactly how languages work, and that's exactly what a linguist would tell you (I studied Linguistics). – Alenanno Jun 26 '12 at 11:08
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There are not only those starting with а- but also those starting with э-. This is because the regular sound changes between Proto-Indo-European and modern Russian include the iotization of the first vowels a and e.

1

Languages evolved differently in different places. Taking Europe alone, the "northern" languages are more consonant based, and have fewer vowels, while it's the southern languages, notably along the Mediterranean, and Middle East, including Latin, Greek, and Arabic, that are comparatively generous in their use of vowels.

Compared to other parts of Europe, (most of) Russia was relatively remote from the Mediterranean, and even the Middle East (except for Southern Russia). Hence, the extensive use of vowels, especially words beginning with vowels, was introduced later, and to a lesser degree, to Russia than to even the Nordic countries or Germany.

As to "nativity," the operating canon is, "it's all relative." Are there many Russian words that are 2000 years old that begin with A or other vowels? Probably not. But the "density" of such words increases as their introduction to Russian gets closer to the present that is within the past 1,000 years, more within the past 500 years, and even more within the past 50-100 years.

1

Letters have almost no etymological significance. When talking about etymology, you should always look at the phonetic structure of a word. Most languages have existed and developed without any alphabets for centuries.

For a layman, saying that there are no native words starting with the letter A is by and large a correct and satisfactory answer.

But this answer is also misleading because the Russian alphabet itself is very misleading. It's definitely not a good answer for a linguist or etymologist.

A and Я are different letters but they are the exact same phoneme [a] so, in terms of etymology and phonetics, A and Я should generally be treated as the same letter.

And there are plenty of native Russian words that start with [a], a lot of them have a history as old as the Proto-Indo-European language (for example, яблоко, ягода etc.)

Iotation that was already mentioned in another answer, along with palatalization, has blurred the fact that а and я are actually the same phoneme.

Iotation is not phonemic in Russian. And all Russian words that started with a vowel had a tendency to be iotized. It was almost like a glottal stop that precedes vowels in German. The difference is there are no special letters for glottalized vowels in German (Apfel is still Apfel), but there are speciall letters for iotized vowels in Russian (so аблоко becomes яблоко).

The same is true for У and Ю, and Э and E etc.

  • How is it misleading? The question was about the letters, not about the sounds. – Vitaly Mijiritsky Aug 29 '13 at 12:54
  • @VitalyMijiritsky The question is about etymology. And in this case, the letters of the Russian alphabet are not very helpful in referring to etymology. So the question itself is not very correct from a strictly technical point. – stillenat Aug 29 '13 at 13:10
  • @VitalyMijiritsky I slightly updated my answer to make it clear when the answer can be 'yes' and when 'not really'. – stillenat Aug 29 '13 at 13:45
  • The question is actually not about etymology or phonetics. It's about the letter, not the phoneme. The explanation certainly can be based on etymology, phonetics or any other relevant field. Also, "saying that there are no native words starting with the letter A" is not an answer at all, that was the premise for the question itself :). – Vitaly Mijiritsky Aug 29 '13 at 16:42
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    @VitalyMijiritsky Of course, you know better what you asked about :) Yes, the question was 'why', and the answer is because the alphabet has two variations of the letter a. I just wanted to add a bit of detail on how Russian works "behind the scenes". If you like the other answers better, that's perfectly fine :) – stillenat Aug 29 '13 at 16:58
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Actually, there are some native Russian words beginning with А. Аист was mentioned above. I would add азбука (= alphabet) to the list. The word derives from аз & буки - the ancient names of the two first letters of Russian alphabet.

By the way, there are no native Russian words beginning with Ф :) Most are taken from Greek, some from German, etc.

Source: Russian is my native language.

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    Russian is native language of many of Russian SE users by the way ) "Аист" is not an old russian word actually - russian.stackexchange.com/questions/1742/…“аист”-stork And "aз" is actually a derivative from alpha. – shabunc Sep 7 '13 at 16:45
  • @shabunc "Аз" is not derived from alpha. The letter (initially, the letter of Glagolic script) was called "азъ" by Cyril/Konstantin and Mephodius because it was a meaningful word, namely the one that later derived into "язъ" and then "я". – Viridianus Nov 14 '16 at 1:51

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