Judging by several etymological discussions erupting around this site, people have vastly different ideas about what constitutes “native” Russian word.

For me, borrowing (whether it be recent (last three-four centuries) technological or scientific terminology or thousand-year old Greek influence via the Christianisation) is pretty clear. However, given the common origin of Indo-European languages, and ability to trace etymology of many European words to, say, Sanskrit, where do we draw a line between borrowing and natural evolution and transformation of language?

How does the science of linguistics define autochthonous vocabulary in general, and specifically relating to the Russian (Ruthenian, Slavic) languages.

Note: Please, avoid speculation and opinion. The question warrants serious research (sources, quotes). I would take opinion of a linguistic authority on controversial or disputed subject, but not personal opinions.

  • 1
    If you're asking about how linguistics defines a term, I think it makes the most sense to ask it on linguistics.SE. Jun 26, 2012 at 9:56
  • If you ask it on Linguistics SE, it'd be interesting to make it broader. In other words, asking the same question about languages in general and not just Russian. (But you can ask about Russian in particular too.)
    – Alenanno
    Jun 26, 2012 at 11:12
  • @Vitaly, I am not talking about defining a term, but defining what constitutes autochthonous vocabulary of the Russian language. My terminology might be suspect and for that, I apologise.
    – theUg
    Jun 26, 2012 at 15:56
  • @Alenanno, I did consider posting there, but, frankly, that site frightened me with all the high-brow debating that goes on in there. Did not feel like lumbering in there like some linguistic Neanderthal. I might ask general question there out of curiosity, but this here question is still valid as it relates, again, to Russian in particular, or Ruthenian or Slavic languages in slightly more general should there be more sources on that.
    – theUg
    Jun 26, 2012 at 16:00
  • @theUg You don't need to be a super expert to post there. Let me say this also in case you have future similar situations: If you're unsure of some terminology to adopt in your question there, just post in our Meta or chat, you'll receive help. It's ok to ask for advice before posting a question (actually I wish many did that).
    – Alenanno
    Jun 26, 2012 at 16:06

1 Answer 1


I would recommend a lecture by Zaliznyak: О профессиональной и любительской лингвистике. Hope it would be authoritative enough for you.

A citation:

Основной принцип изменений в языке был открыт лишь в XIX веке, и это самое великое достижение исторической лингвистики. Его значение для этой науки не меньшее, чем, скажем, значение открытия закона всемирного тяготения для физики.

Принцип состоит в том, что внешняя форма слов языка меняется не индивидуальным образом для каждого слова, а в силу процессов — так называемых фонетических изменений (иначе — фонетических переходов), охватывающих в данном языке в данную эпоху ВСЕ без исключения слова, где имеется определенная фонема (или сочетание фонем).

Это основополагающий принцип исторической лингвистики.


Другой источник кажущихся нарушений принципа всеобщности фонетического изменения — случаи заимствования некоторого слова из родственного языка или диалекта. Например, современное русское слово благо внешне нарушает определенное правило из истории русского языка, по которому должно было получиться не благо, а болого. Но дело здесь в том, что слово благо пришло в современный язык не из живого древнерусского языка (где действительно имелось слово болого — откуда, например, название города Бологое), а из церковнославянского (для которого фонетически закономерным было именно благо).

За рамками этих двух типовых ситуаций остается лишь совершенно незначительное число случаев видимого нарушения указанного принципа. Следует предполагать, что для них просто пока еще не выявлено то частное правило, в силу которого они возникли.

In a nutshell: every language evolves according to the very strict laws, as strict as laws of physics. If we see a word in the language which does not obey these laws, it means that either there is a law we don't know yet, or this word is a borrowing, possibly from a related language.

This also means that if we can trace the origin of a European word to Sanskrit, then it was borrowed from Sanskrit once, because Sanskrit is not a direct ancestor of any of the living European languages. It's just one of the branches of Proto-Indo-European language.

  • 1
    The excerpt above doesn't say the rules by which a language evolves are as strict as the laws of physics, but rather that those rules are as important/significant for linguistics as the importance in physics of the discovery of the law of universal gravitation.
    – KCd
    Jun 26, 2012 at 10:54
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    @KCd: further in the text behind the link: современная историческая лингвистика похожа на алгебру с ее строгими методами решения уравнений
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 26, 2012 at 11:07
  • So, in terms of branches, how do we define where and when those branches occur. In aforementioned tree Russian and Ruthenian languages come from Old East Slavic, but before that ancestry is given in white boxes (groups?): East < Slavic < Balto-Slavic < Indo-European. In all, your answer makes a point about how precise the science of linguistics is, and I buy it, but that does not answer a question where this precise science draws those lines.
    – theUg
    Jun 26, 2012 at 16:26
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    @theUg: there are certain laws which are only valid for certain branches (language families). Grimm's law is only valid for Germanic languages, so if we see a language which obeys Grimm's law we know it's Germanic. If we see a word in a Germanic language which does not obey this law, we know it's a post-Germanic borrowing.
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 26, 2012 at 16:35
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    Or, if you want East Slavic specifics, if you see a word in an East Slavic language which has been subject to liquid metathesis which had not resulted in pleophony (like the above forementioned благо) you know the word is Slavic but not East Slavic, and has been borrowed into an East Slavic language from another Slavic language.
    – Quassnoi
    Jun 26, 2012 at 16:40

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