English Nautical Loanwords in Russian.

The mail brought me an unexpected pleasure today: a copy of Sarah Whittall’s A Study of English Nautical Loanwords in the Russian Language of the Eighteenth Century. Dry, you say? Nonsense — ships are wet! But seriously, folks, this is the kind of impressively detailed investigation I love. The presumption is that Russian nautical words are of Dutch origin, and this is overwhelmingly the case, but that makes it all the more interesting to see the alternative terms that once existed. And Whittall is a very careful scholar who is not afraid to take others who show less care to task, as you can see from the excerpts below. From the introduction:

Van der Meulen’s work is a comprehensive study of the Dutch element in the Russian nautical terminology, but its value is somewhat reduced by its author’s bias. He appears to take the line that Russian shipbuilding and nautical words were adopted entirely from Dutch, and, therefore, that any Russian word which bears a similarity to a Dutch term must have been borrowed from Dutch. […] Vasmer gives a very limited number of English eighteenth century nautical loanwords, and has relied a great deal on Smirnov’s work for these. This latter study, it must be said, is not always entirely reliable: his derivation of ган рум from gang room (repeated by Aristova) is incorrect, for example […] Aristova’s book deserves a few remarks, both because it contains a fair number of nautical loanwords, and because it is the first attempt at a comprehensive treatment of English loanwords in Russian […] Aristova has done for English loanwords what van der Meulen did for Dutch nautical borrowings. In other words, she attributes to English each and every Russian word which is phonetically similar (and some which are dissimilar), in very many cases without considering the possibility of Dutch, German or other origin. […]

The purpose of this study is to give as complete a survey as possible of Russian eighteenth century nautical and shipbuilding terms which were borrowed either directly or indirectly from English. I have been as inclusive as possible, recording not only those words which became permanently fixed in the Russian vocabulary, but also those which became obsolete, and those which were never more than foreign words or occasional borrowings. Some words were obviously not borrowed directly from English ( e.g. лоцман), but are included nonetheless because English was their ultimate source. Other words are of doubtful origin, but are included because English origin is possible. […] No attempt has been made to define the Russian words, since in the case of obsolete words it is not usually possible to be absolutely sure of their meaning, whilst surviving words may have changed their meanings.

There is a useful section on the historical background (“British aid was of great importance to the Russian navy in the eighteenth century, particularly during the last ten years of Peter’s reign, the period of neglect which followed his death, and the era of Catherine the Great”), and then comes the main part of the book, the Vocabulary. I’ll quote the first few entries to give you an idea of how comprehensive and detailed it is (I’ve replaced her underlining with bold or italics as seemed useful):

айрон пал
ПБП 1, 233: айрон пал (1697-8)
From Eng, iron pawl, a small piece of iron fastened to the deck to stop the capstan recoiling. In modern English it is known simply as a pawl.

The word пал alone is possibly from German or Dutch (see p.70 below), but the combination with айрон clearly indicates an English borrowing, presumably from a dialectal form as metathesis of [rən] to [ərn] (whence Mod. Eng. [ən]) had not yet taken place in some dialects of English (and indeed has not occurred at all in others, chiefly in the north).

This term is given in a list of English nautical terms and must be treated as a foreign word, never having gained currency in Russian.

Шишков 1795: Ало! – Holloa!
Ало кричать – To hail a ship.
Ян. 1803: Ало. Речение морское, употребляемое на корабле и значит слушай!

From Eng. hallo, halloa or Du. hallo, a sailors’ shout to attract attention. The English word was not used as a greeting until the nineteenth century. Both Ocherki and the Academy dictionary derive this word from English, Ocherki dating it from 1788.

Rozen (p. 89) gives this as a Petrine borrowing from English which was replaced by ахтерштевень, of Dutch origin. Röding, however, gives the English equivalent of Du. agtersteven as stern post, and Шишков 1795 has старнпост as an equivalent оf ахтерштевень. There does not appear to be any record of the forms *afterstem or *afterstern having existed in English. The latter part of the compound is possibly a colloquial contracted form from Ger. Hintersteven or Du. agtersteven, but the f in the first half of афторштен would seem to suggest English influence. This form was certainly never in common use.

Whittall finishes with a section of “linguistic conclusions,” which are as informative and sensible as the rest of the book (“In general it may be said that during the eighteenth century the terminology for the ship’s rigging was borrowed almost entirely from Dutch, whereas the nomenclature of the ship’s hull is mainly of English origin”). This is a real treasure trove — thanks, Nick!


  1. It’s basically all of them, IIRC? There’s some Dutch. But then a lot of the English was from the Dutch.

  2. What is all of what?

  3. Most nautical words in Russian seem to be loans from Dutch, or re-loans from Dutch though English. I thought that obvious?

    EDIT: I’m sorry, I did not read your whole post. I thought that was widely known, but the author you quote has indeed investigated deeply. I am impressed.

  4. I’ve never seen “iron” rendered as “айерн” in Russian, it’s always “айрон”, presumably because of spelling.

  5. the author you quote has indeed investigated deeply. I am impressed.

    I mean, she looked through the seventeen volumes of Материалы для истории русского флота (SPb 1865-1904) and the ten volumes of Записки Гидрографическаго Департамента Морскаго Министерства (SPb 1842-1852) without finding a single English loanword. That’s right up there with Vera Dunham’s wading through “mountains of elephant shit” (i.e., sotsrealizm) to write In Stalin’s Time (LH post) for dogged devotion to scholarship.

  6. Or Robert Caro, having taken to heart his mentor Alan Hathway’s adage to “turn every goddamned page”, being told that the Johnson Memorial Library contained 32 million pages of documents. He’s probably still turning some of them.

  7. Was there any regionalism in Russian nautical terminology? Would a Black Sea seaman use the same terms as a Baltic one, even under the same central Imperial command?

  8. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone reference Vera Dunham except for here or Charlie’s blog.

  9. Y: there was. Three-ways. Far-east (Baltic nobility – far the more elitists, and they were not the ones in the Baltic — they were the ones in the far-East), Baltic and Black.

  10. If not gang room, then what?

  11. She says “gun room.”

  12. this is the kind of impressively detailed investigation I love

    Me too. And all about nautical terms! Almost worth me learning Russian …

    Where do Russian seaman lean wrt ‘Larboard’ vs ‘Port’ side of the ship — both of which seem to be chiefly British? vs

    The Old English term for it [the left side] was bæcbord, literally “back board” (see starboard), a term which remains in the other Germanic tongues.

  13. The most enduring English borrowing in the Russian armed forces is the standard acknowledgement of commanding officer’s command: Yest’

    Yest’ literally means “there is”, so it does not make any sense in Russian, but people got used to it after three centuries.

    It comes from English “Yes, sir”.

  14. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Well, a gun room is a thing, even if it has no guns in it, so that seems plausible – I haven’t heard of a gang room (on a ship, anyway. Maybe the Secret Seven.)

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    The t’ at the end of Yes is puzzling to me. Could military est’ be a clipped form of (eto) i est’ (that’s it)?

  16. Wow! It is exciting indeed. It is somethign I wanted to do myself (but certainly would be too lazy to do that – and I am not curious enough to do that much job anyway) and I am extremely glad that she has done that already.

    I think I am not ready to pay 60$ for the book and delivery (mostly for ideological/emotional reasons, not even greed) but I understand you feelings.

    I mentioned абгалдырь once: presumably “upholder” (unless some other source is possible).

  17. I think I am not ready to pay 60$ for the book and delivery (mostly for ideological/emotional reasons, not even greed) but I understand you feelings.

    Oh, I wouldn’t have paid anywhere near that myself — it was a gift from a friend who’d gotten it for himself, spent some time with it, and decided I’d enjoy it a lot more than he would.

  18. It is just in my to do list:
    compiling a personal list of English nautical loans and finding out ways to tell them from Low German and Dutch. When I was a student I bought such books massively. Each costed a bottle of beer, but I was a student and “beer” was expensive for me and my freinds. I do not know if 60$ is more or less than 1$ back then:) Waiting till it arrive is a more serious problem, in material bookstores books tease you…
    The “emotional” issues have to do with book prices in third world countries (and communication with students from there).

  19. I seem to run across “фарватер” rather frequently when I translate. Apparently also from the Dutch. https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A4%D0%B0%D1%80%D0%B2%D0%B0%D1%82%D0%B5%D1%80

  20. For non-Russophones who may be puzzled by the more-frequent-than-expected occurrence of a word for ‘fairway (of a navigable body of water),’ it happens to occur in an idiom meaning ‘to follow someone’s lead, to side with someone’:

    В Кремле уверяют, что отношения войдут в нормальное русло сразу же после того, как Европа прекратит идти в фарватере американской политики.
    The Kremlin provides assurances that relations will return to normal as soon as Europe stops following the path of U.S. policy.

    Большинство проблем если и решаются, то через конфликт, и эта схема является модельной для остальных городов, так или иначе следующих в фарватере столицы.
    Most problems are solved, if at all, through conflict, and this scheme is a model for other cities that one way or another follow in the wake of the capital.

    По приезде в Петроград он попытался добиться от Керенского «циммервальдской» линии, но потерпел неудачу и в Исполкоме следовал в фарватере Церетели.
    On his arrival in Petrograd, he tried to get a “Zimmerwald” line out of Kerensky, but failed, and at the Executive Committee he followed Tsereteli’s lead.

    Another interesting point about фарватер is that it’s pronounced [fɐrˈvatɛr] (as if spelled фарватэр), with the lack of palatalization frequent in loans from Germanic languages.

  21. Either the word is (or was) more common or as unanalyzable word it is semantically different (feels differently, feels as a “peculiar thing” and as a “Germanic professional nautic term” and does not fall apart in fair and way). I knew the word well – and being a child bookworm I still mostly knew it with reference to real-life фарватер’s (there were books where it occured too but not in translated science fiction:)). Also in 80s there was a TV mini-series (WWII, about a secret soviet submarine base) “Secret farvater“. I guess “secret fairway” is a less likely name for an English TV-show.

    So it easily lended itself to metaphors like these. They (some of them) even use it incorrectly: not as “[safe] predefined path” but in the sense of кильватер:(

  22. German sumbarine (and the base), sorry.

  23. Modern Hebrew yesh, of impeccable old credentials, is the uninflected existence “verb”, similar to Russian есть. It can be used alone, to indicate that something is available: yesh lekhem? ‘Is there bread?’ (i.e., Do we have it? Do you have it?) yesh. ‘Have.’

    It is also used in excitement, for example by sports enthusiasts when something good happens to their side. I am entirely unsure whether that usage is purely Hebrew, or whether it’s influenced by English “Yes!”, or by a Russian usage, unknown to me, of есть.

  24. farvater
    German Fahrwasser has the same metaphorical use, so maybe Russian got that use from German.

  25. Sounds likely.

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