ёж

That’s the Russian word for “hedgehog”.

(It helps to allow for the really neat Russian sentence «Где ёж?», “Where’s the hedgehog?”, comprised of five consecutive letters of the Russian alphabet in order.)

One thing that quite fascinates me about the fact that this means “hedgehog” is that I would expect a strong correlation between the shortness of a word and its frequency in text, or its importance in the language. For instance, in English, the short words are mostly those that find a wide span of usage: articles like “a” and “the”, prepositions like “in” and “to”, conjunctions like “or” and “as”, words that one expects to use often. This makes sense, as one would want to express frequently-used language tokens in a short amount of space, for efficiency of ink and of breath, as well as the desire to not feel like one is spending a lot of effort to express a simple idea.

And in Russian, “hedgehog” is just a two-letter, one-syllable word. This is particularly interesting because Russian is a language of a lot of surprisingly long words that one expects to be fairly commonplace. Here are some examples of words longer than «ёж»:

«здравствуйте» (‘hello’: twelve letters, three syllables)
«нуль» (‘zero’: four letters, one syllable)
«один» (‘one’: four letters, two syllables)
«четыре» (‘four’: six letters, three syllables)
«это» (‘this’: three letters, two syllables)
«человек» (‘person’: seven letters, three syllables)
«еда» (‘food’: three letters, two syllables)
«некоторый» (‘some’: nine letters, four syllables)
«использование» (‘use’ (noun): thirteen letters, six syllables)

and some animals one would expect to require reference much more frequently and be more central in society than “hedgehog”:

«собака» (‘dog’: six letters, three syllables)
«кошка» (‘cat’: five letters, two syllables, although there is a three-letter one-syllable word for just male cats)
«медведь» (‘bear’: seven letters, two syllables)

Clearly, the conclusion to make is that hedgehogs are secretly very central and important to Russian society.

I jest, of course. One can definitely expect to find unusual cases of a word for a meaning being surprisingly short or long as a result of the very open process of the evolution of a natural language, and this happens to be a particularly stark example for Russian (in English, ‘ox’ is a two-letter word for an animal, although one could argue that oxen are definitely more germane to human civilization than hedgehogs). There’s some pretty interesting backstory about how certain words got the way they are in Russian: the word for hello, «здравствуйте», comes from “wishing good health”, for example. Still, it certainly manages to quite pique my curiosity that “hedgehog” manages to earn a two-letter spelling in Russian, and I continue to find this a special case that stands out in Russian vocabulary.

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