Q for the native speakers: friends who have studied Russian have told me that languages in Russian are never referred to with the adjective on its own (e.g. "English", "German"), but only as the phrase "the English language"; "the German language" (англиский язык, немецкий язык) etc.
Any comment on which is better to use, or are both accepted?
Both are accepted. Another way would be «английский язык», «японский язык», «французский язык» and so on, which is what you would see written on books and in a school's timetable, for example. However, in speech you can use язык or omit it as you please:
- Я изучаю японский (язык). = I study Japanese.
- Вы знаете английский (язык)? = Do you know(speak) English?
- Тут есть книги на немецком (языке). = There are books written in German here.
In English, though, "the English language", "the French language" are rather formal—and that's what your friends must have noticed. While in English you hardly ever use "the X language", in Russian it is preferred where you need more precise wording, but not overtly formal.
When you use a "way-of-action" adverb regarding languages, it is never supplemented by «язык» because, strictly speaking, it is not about the language:
- Он говорит по-немецки.
- Я говорю по-японски.
- Он немец, но сейчас говорит по-французски.
Germany has not been around for too long. The Germans, however, have been trading with Russia for centuries. The word «немец», originally meaning "foreigner, a person who does not speak clearly", narrowed down its meaning to only mean "a German".
It bears a clear resemblance to «немой» (mute, dumb, a person who does not speak), which was built upon the same root.
Интересно! I know there's a few words in English that ultimately derive from "those people talk funny." Barbarian came from Greek barbaros; "barbar" was an imitation of foreign babble, thus barbaros was a non-Greek, one who speaks unintelligibly. And gringo originally meant "foreigner, anyone who can't speak Spanish," (possibly from greigo, "Greek"; I've read stories that Greeks had notoriously awful accents when they tried to speak Spanish but I've never seen verification) Since English-speaking Americans moving west would encounter local Latino populations and not know Spanish , Americans became "gringos."
The word seems to be proto-slavic. In that old times Slavic tribes could communicate (better or worse) with each other because of the similarity of their languages. However in the west there were people who spoke differently. West Slavs couldn't understand them. If you look at the map of Europe, you will notice that Poland is bordered by Slavic states excluding Baltic Lithuania (in the past there were also the Old Prussians, but bear in mind Proto-Balto-Slavic language) and Germany (polish: Niemcy - literally "mute people", plural of "Niemiec", a word formed from "niemy" - mute).
Does Russian make a distinction between asking which of two vs asking if either of two?
That is, if someone asked me, "Do you know either German or English?" I could say "yes," but if someone asked me, "Which do you know, German or English?" I'd have to say "English."
Is Russian based on context, or does this formation go one of those particular ways?