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The word for a Russian is Русский. The word for the Russian language is по-русский or русский язык (i.e. they are the same). So you could say я Русский. However the word for an Englishman is Англичанин and the word for English is по-английский (i.e. they are not the same). So you can't say я Английский. Similarly the words for an Italian and for the Italian language (итальянец, итальянский) are not the same.

Why is this?

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    The words "по-русский" and "по-английский" simply don't exist in Russian. This whole stuff is usually explained in the first lessons of Russian textbooks.
    – Yellow Sky
    Mar 3 '18 at 16:26
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    "По-русски" (not "по-русский") means "in Russian".
    – artptr
    Mar 3 '18 at 17:52
  • Please also mind the rules of capitalization. For both language names and nationalities in general, the lower case is used. Country names are always capitalized. For example, Германия, немецкий, немец; Россия, русский (the nationality), русский (the language). Another thing of note is that the adj. русский is not formed from Россия but from Русь, and the inhabitant of the latter had a now-archaic word for them, русин. The adjective from Россия is also used, but nor substantively (российский гражданин) nor to name the language (no российский язык please!).
    – user7419
    Mar 8 '18 at 0:40
  • The word "по-русски" is not another name for the Russian language. It is an adverb which means "in the Russian manner". It can be applied to behaviors other than speech.
    – David42
    Mar 8 '18 at 17:09
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Yes, in Russian, the name of the nationality is usually different from the name of the language. That's because nationalities are nouns, English often has the same difference: nationality is Pole, but the language is Polish, Spaniard and Spanish, Swede and Swedish.

The languages are usually named with adjectives, but that's simply because the word "language" is omitted: [the] English [language] ~ английский [язык].

So, "I'm a Pole" is "Я поляк" (nouns in both languages), and "I study [the] Polish [language]" is correspondingly "Я изучаю польский [язык]" (adjectives in both languages).
Note: the only exception is "Russian" (русский), since the nationality is expressed by a substantivized adjective which is identical with the adjective naming the language: "Я русский" vs. "Я изучаю русский [язык]."

The по- words are a bit different. They are adverbs and are used mostly after verbs dealing with speech, such as to speak, to talk, to think, to write, to read (говорить, разговаривать, думать, писать, читать). After such verbs, the по- adverbs can be substituted with a prepositional noun phrase на + language name in the prepositional case:

Я говорю по-русски. / Я говорю на русском [языке].

Я не умею читать по-китайски. / Я не умею читать на китайском [языке].

But when there are no those speech verbs, ot the verb is "to" be, only the на forms are possible:

Эта книга на французском.

Here is a list of some countries with their nationalities and languages. And remember, since nationalities in Russian are nouns and designate people, they all have the other form for females, and also plural forms:

Country: Nationality (male) - Language - In ... language

Россия: русский - русский [язык] - по-русски / на русском
Англия: англичанин - английский [язык] - по-английски / на английском [языке]
Украина: украинец - украинский [язык] - по-украински / на украинском [языке]
Италия: итальянец - итальянский [язык] - по-итальянски / на итальянском [языке]
Франция: француз - французский [язык] - по-французски / на французском [языке]
Польша: поляк - польский [язык] - по-польски / на польском [языке]

P.S. In Russian, the names of the nationalities and languages are capitalized only if they are the first word in a sentence.

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In English, I would say "I'm English" where "English" is an adjective presumably meaning "I'm (an) English (man)". I would never say "I'm an English man" in full. Similarly in French je suis francais. From your explanation it appears you can use this construction in Russian for a Russian but not for any other nationality. Have I understood?

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  • Indeed, "русский" is the only nationality that is expressed as an adjective in Russian language. The only other related adjective is "нерусский".
    – Vitaly
    Mar 5 '18 at 19:13
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Why is this?

At the risk of having to stand corrected I daresay that is the remnant of an archaic tendency to single oneself and one's tribe out in the multitude of other tribes inhabiting the land. This phenomenon reminds me of a old film about Native Americans where they called themselves Human Beings as opposed to the colonists whom they called White Men. Thus, Russian defines its speakers as posessing a certain (ethnic, tribal) quality whilst all the non-speakers are defined as being members of particular (ethnic, tribal) groups.

The Russian word национальность itself (widely perceived as a translation of e.g. English word nationality - which is wrong) primarily means ethnic origin, whilst in English, French and presumably many other languages it means a mere belonging to a language and a state.

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  • I agree that there is a clear distinction between state and language. I think, through Russian eyes, a native speaker of Russian is a Russian.
    – Bob Daley
    Mar 9 '18 at 16:21
  • Wasn't the old word for a foreigner немец (subsequently meaning a German) because he was dumb (немой) i.e. couldn't speak Russian.
    – Bob Daley
    Mar 9 '18 at 16:29
  • @Bob Daley, yes, precisely so.
    – Avi Gordon
    Mar 10 '18 at 19:42

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