influence of Russian on AE

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Tue Feb 8 22:24:29 UTC 2000

Discussion of possible influences of Russian on AE, thus far, has
considered lexical items -- and there aren't many that have made the
transfer.  I think that it's possible to define "dialect" on
phonological grounds even when there are not clear differences in
lexemes as such.

For example, Joan Houston Hall said:
> In the Indexes to volumes I,II, and III of DARE there are only 9 items
> under the heading "Russian" (meaning that the term "Russian" is used
> somewhere in the head section of the entry).  The headwords are babushka,
> banya, barabara, bidar, borsch, chy, kielbasa, moroshka, and nushnik.  That
> suggests that the influence of Russian on American (regional) English is
> rather limited.

I have some cavils with this list, but I can't think of many additions.

1) I think "borsch" is written more frequently as "borscht".  Russian
orthography uses a single graph to represent the terminal consonant
cluster in the Russian pronunciation of this word. Lacking a good IPA
equivalent, I'd translate that letter as "sh" plus "ch".
2) Isn't "kielbasa" a Polish word, not a Russian one?
3) I can think of one clear addition to this list. Since 1958 and the
Soviet space vehicle called "Sputnik", Russian "-nik" has made some
inroads in AE.  E.g., "beatnik".

Phonology, on the other hand, shows some clear indications of a
pan-Slavic, if not specifically Russian, influence in at least one
regional dialect.  I'm indebted to Harvey Sarles, of the University of
Minnesota, for his original observations of one sign of this influence:
the characteristic way of using the lips in pronouncing bilabials.

As Sarles used to put it, "there aren't that many people raised in
Pittsburgh who have any visible upper lip after the age of 40 or so."
Broadly and generally speaking, Slavic bilabials tend to be produced by
the movement of the lower lip, while the upper lip does not move.
Through exercise, habitual lifetime practice of this feature leads to
characteristic shaping of the facial musculature to give the appearance
Sarles calls "no upper lip". English speakers of Slavik background
sometimes show this at two generations remove from their Slavik-speaking
ancestors.  Many of them can go on speaking English with no noticeable
change despite immobilizing the upper lip with a finger or a pencil.

I have precisely that Russian/ Slavic mouth set for upper lip (non)-use
when speaking English.  I believe it's a feature learned as part of my
dialect of English; it doesn't carry over when I speak other dialects or
other languages.  (For example, I started to learn Spanish at the age of
twelve.  I speak it with a very active upper lip in bilabials and
lip-rounding on some vowels that is strongly marked compared to what I
do for similar vowels while speaking English.)
Some time ago, I pointed to another Russian-like feature of my idiolect
of English: preservation of both palatalized and non-palatalized stops
and continuants, in my allophonic range for /d/, /t/, and /n/, at
least.  I learned about that when I first started studying linguistics.
I read a description of "normal" English articulation that alleged that
/d/ and /t/ are produced by the tongue tip against the alveolar ridge. I
observed that my tongue tip frequently locks behind the lower incisors
for these phonemes, while the tongue blade approaches or touches the
alveolar ridge.

My family language background provides some of my evidence that this
kind of phonological feature can persist for at least a couple of
generations after habitual contact with the source language. All four of
my grandparents spoke Russian and Yiddish in childhood, and learned
English as young adults.  My parents spoke English as their primary
language, Yiddish when speaking to older generations, and no Russian at
all.  I only started to understand Yiddish when I
studied German in college.

I call this kind of micro-variation in articulation a clear dialect
marker. Question for members of the list: do you feel comfortable with
calling such a variation a "dialect", rather than an "accent" or
something else?  Why, or why not?

-- mike salovesh    <salovesh at>      PEACE !!!

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