“We’re tormented with Americanisms,” the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, complained last week. “We need to liberate our language from foreign words.” He is drawing up a list of 100 words which he would like it to be illegal for broadcasters, writers and academics to use in public. Fines and unemployment could face anyone caught saying café, bar, restaurant, sale, mouton, performance or trader. Some of the words have come into use since the fall of the Soviet Union; others have been around for decades, if not centuries. “There are perfectly good Russian words you can use,” Zhirinovsky says. “Why say boutique when we have lavka?”….
The reality is that the Russian language is in no way threatened by loanwords from other languages; indeed, it is actually Russian that is threatening other languages, as the indigenous peoples of Siberia and elsewhere in Russia are increasingly shifting to Russian and abandoning their own (mostly) Altaic or Uralic languages. And even if those peoples are not shifting, they are still heavily borrowing words and sometimes syntax and idioms from Russian.
And a handful of loanwords does not threaten a language. Consider English. It has many layers of loanwords, in particular from French. Some of these date back to time contemporary with the Norman Conquest. And yet, English was in no way threatened by the French language and is in no way Romance in character. For example, it retains many typical features of Germanic languages, such as genitives using a sibilant suffix;* verb classes contrasting weak (dental suffix), strong (vowel change) and a few smaller classes;† (remnants of) a system of three genders, and so on. Now, the Russian loanwords are far fewer in number than English loanwords. Since loanwords did not substantially change or threaten the character of English, there is no way a smaller relative number could possibly threaten Russian.
And if Zhirinovsky is going to be consistent, he’d have to abandon all loanwords. There are a number of them from the Proto–Slavic period. Some of these have descendants in modern Russian and therefore fully qualify as loanwords. He cannot explain these away as being “old” as that is simply saying the desirability of a loanword depends on when it was borrowed, which is absurd and incoherent. Indeed, as I mentioned before, his own language’s endonym (and name for itself) are themselves loanwords. (Specifically, and skipping over the specifics, it ultimately comes from a Norse word meaning “the men who row”, which was something like *rods–). This must be why Zhirinovsky wants to change the name of his country, because it’s one of those “tormenting loanwords”. Right?
Hence, I conclude that the Russian language is not under threat from loanwords, that those who complain about them are incoherent, and that any consistent attempt to exorcise loan words from the Russian language would require excessive changes that would be taken to a ridiculous extreme. Indeed, banning certain loanwords is about as necessary as declaring onion domes the official architecture of that country.
* The ‘s is not actually a suffix, but its etymology is as a genitive suffix. Cognate forms appear in many other Germanic languages.