EXPLAINED: The German words that come from Slavic languages

Antonia Harrison
Antonia Harrison - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: The German words that come from Slavic languages
A Leipzig main station sign. The name Leipzig is derived from the Slavic ‘Lipsk’. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Hendrik Schmidt

Any Slavic language-speaker will have noticed the huge number of German loan words, but there are hardly any slavic-origin words in German. But let's take a look at a few which have stuck in Germans’ everyday lexicon.


What's the influence of German language on Russian?

It’s hard to get two sentences in as a Russian speaker without slipping in a Germanic borrowing. The language is saturated with German terms, which range from ‘galstuk’ (cyrillic: галстук) from the German ‘Halstuch’ (scarf or tie) to ‘masshtab’ (масштаб) from ‘Maßstab’ (scale).

Meanwhile, the Russian ‘abver’ (абвер) comes from ‘Abwehr’ (defence) and even ‘gastarbajter’ (гастарбайтер) derives from the very specific German ‘Gastarbeiter’ (guest worker). These words often have slightly different meanings in Russian than in the original German. 

Many of these German words became embedded in Russian through the Volga Germans (Wolgadeutsche or Russlanddeutsche) that Catherine the Great brought into Russia during the 1700s, as well as through Westernisation. By contrast, there are so few Slavic borrowings in German in part because Slavic migrations tended to move south rather than west. Other Germanic languages such as Yiddish show far more of a Slavic influence than German does. 

Here are a few German words which have Slavic origins and which still feature in everyday German speech. 

READ ALSO: Borders to cucumbers: Five German words that come from Polish


die Datsche 

The term ‘Datsche’ is borrowed from the Russia ‘dacha’ (cyrillic: дача), which refers to a smaller seasonal home in the country where urban dwellers retreat, typically during the summer, to reconnect with nature and temporarily escape modernity. The Russian ‘dacha’ comes from the common verb ‘davat’’ (давать), which means ‘to give’, since dachas originated from the practice of Russian tsars throughout the 1600s of giving small plots of land in the country as gifts to loyal or favoured subjects. 

An allotment garden with 'Datschen' in the north-west of Leipzig. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jan Woitas

In the GDR, as in other countries of the Eastern Bloc, a large number of Datschen were built for inhabitants of the cramped Soviet-style living blocks in big cities to flee to on their free weekends. 

Usually located no more than one hour away from the Datsche-owner’s usual residence, Datschen were built on publicly owned land, including land formerly owned by refugees who had fled to West Germany, and most people had access to them. It is thought that there were around 3.4 million dachas in the GDR. 

die Grenze

It is thought that the word ‘Grenze’ is derived from the Old Polish ‘granica’, displacing the old German word ‘Mark’ (or, in Old High German, ‘marka’/’marcha’). 

Most Slavic languages retain some variation upon this word today: Russian and Bulgarian share ‘granitsa’ (cyrillic: граница), Czech uses ‘hranice’, Croatian, Polish and Bosnian have kept ‘granica’, and the Romance language Romanian borrowed ‘graniţă’ from its Slavic neighbours. 

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die Krawatte

The word’s similarity to the traditional ‘cravat’, a forerunner to the modern necktie, is easy to notice. However, fewer people know that this word originated in the 17th century, when a large number of Croatian cavalry came into contact with the French during the Thirty Years’ War whilst fighting on the side of the Catholic League. The French took a shine to the Croatian necktie, an item of their signature attire, and named it ‘cravate’ after the regiment, derived from the Croatian ‘hrvat’. It quickly came into fashion and spread across Western Europe. 

In Germany, the terms ‘Halstuch’ or ‘Halsbinde’ are now more frequently used to describe the traditional necktie, whilst the word ‘Krawatte’ refers more frequently to the modern, longer or business tie. 

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wearing a 'Krawatte' or tie recently. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

der Wodka

This one is hardly an unexpected borrowing: Germany is the second largest importer of Russian vodka in the world after the UK. 

In Russian, the word ‘vodka’ (cyrillic: водка) comes from the common Slavic ‘voda’ (вода), meaning water, with the diminutive ending ‘ka’ (literally ‘little water), whilst in Polish the term was used to refer to any clear distilled drink. From its humble origins as the drink of choice for rural farmers, vodka is now at the centre of a booming commercial industry in Germany: in 2020, the production value of vodka in Germany in 2020 was almost 90 million euros. 


Place Names

Many city names in eastern Germany have a Slavic origin, including Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. Additionally, hundreds of small villages in eastern Germany have notably Slavic names and traditions. It is thought that the name Berlin originates from the old Slavic word ‘berla’, which denotes a settlement surrounded by a wooden wall. 

Meanwhile, the name ‘Leipzig’ is derived from the Slavic ‘Lipsk’, meaning ‘settlement where the lime trees stand’, though more recently some young people have renamed the city ‘Hypezig’, referring to its rich creative scene and nightlife.


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