Russian and Sanskrit similarities

Though these two languages are spoken in very different geographic regions with little contact, speakers of Russian and Sanskrit share a number of perplexing similarities in vocabulary and grammar.

The main source of these similarities comes from the shared history of these two languages; both Russian and Sanskrit are members of the Indo-European language family, a massive umbrella that covers all Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Romance, Indo-Iranian, and Hellenic language groups as well as countless extinct languages across Eurasia.

But just because two languages developed from the Proto-Indo-European language doesn’t mean they will share obvious similarities. With over six thousand years of development, it’s no wonder that etymologically identical words like English “Two Hundred” and Russian “Двести” (“Dvesti”) appear almost entirely unrelated at first glance.

But even though Russian and other Balto-Slavic languages are often considered to be European languages, they are actually much more closely related to the Indo-Iranian languages of Southeast Asia, including Sanskrit.

In fact, the most impactful linguistic divide between the Indo-European languages specifically groups the Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian Languages (known as the Satem languages [1]) as separate from all the rest (the Centum languages).

Though they share a deep historical bond, Russian and Sanskrit are still very different languages. But before we compare and contrast these two languages, let’s take a look at their history.

Origins of Russian and Sanskrit

The Origins of Sanskrit

Sanskrit is one of the earliest known Indo-European languages to be identified by scholars. The oldest form of the language, Vedic Sanskrit was brought to South Asia by waves of migrants traveling through modern-day Iran and Afghanistan into the Indian Subcontinent.

As the language encountered new landscapes, Sanskrit-speaking people borrowed words for newly encountered plants and animals from the cultures they encountered along the way.

In addition to vocabulary, Sanskrit also adopted phonology and syntax from the ancient Dravidian languages that dominated South Asia at the time. In fact, the iconic Sanskrit retroflex consonants were developed through interactions with Dravidian languages.

By the middle of the first millennium BCE, Vedic Sanskrit had developed into Classical Sanskrit, the language still used as a liturgical language in the Hindu religion.

During this time the linguist Dakṣiputra Pāṇini authored a complete morphological analysis of Sanskrit, which served to preserve the language even as its colloquial use died out. [2]

The Origins of Russian

The Russian language is a Slavic language that developed from the 11th-century interaction between Old East Slavic languages and Old Church Slavonic, a liturgical language developed in Bulgaria and brought to modern-day Russia by the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius.

By the 13th century, regional variations had become increasingly noticeable as Old East Slavic split into a number of distinct dialects. Many of these dialects died out, while others developed into the modern-day languages of Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Rusyn.

In 988, the Kievan Rus unified the region under a single political rule, which tied these dialects together into a close-knit sprachbund. Thanks to their tightly-knit history, these languages still share a high level of mutual intelligibility.

Over its history, the Russian language has borrowed heavily from Byzantine Greek, Germanic languages like Gothic and Old Norse, and the Turko-Mongolic languages.

As Russia declared itself a European power in 1721, it began borrowing heavily from French and English. In 1917, the Soviet Union began a program to reform and standardize the Russian language into its modern form.

What are the similarities between Russian and Sanskrit?

Millennia of cultural and geographic separation have allowed these two languages to diverge and interact with other completely different languages. Because of this, there are major differences in these two languages’ vocabulary and phonetics.

But despite drastically different histories, Russian and Sanskrit are both members of the Satem language group and thus share notable similarities in their core vocabulary.

In addition, Russian and Sanskrit share some degree of grammatical similarities. Let’s take a look at some specific similarities in the areas of grammar, vocabulary, and phonetics.

Russian and Sanskrit: Grammatical similarities

A major similarity between these two languages is their simple syntactic structure. Both Russian and Sanskrit have a strong tendency towards Subject-Object-Verb sentence structure.

However, due to each language’s declension system, the simple SOV sentence can be altered to change the emphasis of any given sentence.

Other similar grammatical features include grammatical gender and declension:

Russian and Sanskrit: vocabulary

Although Sanskrit and Russian have both borrowed a large amount of vocabulary from other languages, there is a great deal of core vocabulary that has remained remarkably unchanged over millennia of development.

Here are a few examples of recognizable Russian-Sanskrit cognate words:

English Sanskrit Russian
God भग (Bhag) Бог (Bog)
Sky नभस् (Nabhas) Небо (Nebo)
Door द्वार (Dvara) Дверь (Dver’)
House धाम (Dham) Дом (Dom)
Mother मातृ (Matr) Мать (Mat’)
Brother भ्राता (Bhrata) Брат (Brat)
To carry, to take भारती (Bharati) Береть (Beriot)
To burn, to shine घरति (Gharati) Горить (Gorit)

For more vocabulary words, refer to these lists of the thousand most common words in Russian and Sanskrit.

Russian and Sanskrit: Phonetics

Because Sanskrit is a dead language, it’s hard to pin down an accurate idea of how the language would have been pronounced by native speakers. That being said, scholars have identified a few similarities it would have shared with Russian phonetics:

Russian Alphabet vs. Sanskrit Alphabet

Though not immediately apparent, both the Cyrillic alphabet used in Russian and the Devanagari script used for writing Classical Sanskrit were derived from the same writing system: the Phonecian abjad, developed around 1050 BC. [3]

Sanskrit adopted many alphabets over its development, originally making use of the Brahmi script, a modified consonant-diacritic script. Over time it developed into the Nagari writing system, and finally Devanagari.

Cyrillic, on the other hand, came to Russia through the Greek alphabet. As Cyril and Methodius traveled from Byzantium into the Kievan Rus, they brought with them a modified version native Greek writing system to accommodate the sounds of Old Church Slavonic and, eventually, Russian.

Is Russian or Sanskrit easier to learn?

According to the Foreign Service Institute language rating, Russian is considered a category 3 language, meaning that it would take 44 weeks (or 1,100 hours) of study to learn [4]. While the FSI does not categorize dead languages, Sanskrit’s extant sister language, Hindi is also listed as a category 3 language.

Of course, the real difference between learning Russian and Sanskrit will come down to the fact that Russian is widely spoken and in-demand, whereas Sanskrit is a purely literary language.

If you choose to learn Russian you’ll have over 150 million native speakers to practice with and plenty of language learning resources to help you. Sanskrit will have less real-world applicability for the average learner, but for those who prefer reading and studying grammar to speaking a foreign language, Sanskrit certainly offers some incentives.

Are Russian and Sanskrit mutually intelligible?

Definitely not. Russian and Sanskrit have been developing in almost complete isolation from one another for millennia. However, they are historically related and their similarities are an interesting insight into the development of language.

Which language should you study?

When choosing between Russian or Sanskrit as your next language to learn, the difference will really come down to one big distinction: do you want to learn a living language or an ancient liturgical language?

If you hope to learn a new language to help you travel, meet new people, or watch foreign television, Russian is the right choice. However, if you are interested in the history of the Indian subcontinent or want to engage with Hindu religious texts, Sanskrit is a great option.

Both languages offer a good challenge for learners interested in new grammatical structures, and philologists will have an opportunity to admire the history of either Indo-European language by comparing their development with any Germanic or Latin languages they already know!

For more on Sanskrit, see this comparison of Sanskrit and Latin.

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