Clues to communicating in Russia
How do you start to wrap your tongue and mind around a language as challenging as Russian? It’s not as hard as you might think with these tips to help you enjoy your tour of Russia…
For starters, you need to know some important things about language. Some essential rules. For example, if you put the stress on the first vowel in the word Uha it will mean ‘ear’ and if on the last vowel, it will mean ‘fish soup’. So let me share with you some of the very important Russian words and phrases and along the way you will discover some interesting facts about their etymology and relationship with English.
Russian vodka is world famous. Stolichnaya or “Stoli” as foreigners call it – which is the adjective for “Capital”. But the full name is from the word Stol – table. The dining table and enjoying a meal with alcohol plays a great role in Russian life. In old times ‘table’ had an almost sacral meaning. It symbolised the god’s heaven, god’s field. It was very improper to sit on a table or to put your legs on it.
The Russian language has a lot of words formed from Stol (table), which is always associated with grand things. Stoliza means capital of the country, Prestol is throne and Zastol’e is the word for feast. But you will never hear a local call this brand of vodka “Stoli” – so my advice is stick to Stolichnaya.
Another word that I hear from my travellers is “Babushka doll”. They often put the emphasis in the first word on the second vowel, on the ‘u’, but this is incorrect. In the word babushka, when your stress is on the first vowel it means ‘grandmother’ or just ‘old lady’ and is formed from the vulgar word baba, for women. The correct name for the famous Russian wooden doll, that consists of many dolls nesting within each other, is Matryoshka, with the stress on ‘yo’. This word is derived from the old traditional Russian name Matryona.
One sure way that foreigners stand out is when they use Na zdorovje for ‘cheers’. We almost never use this phrase in this meaning. When you finish your meal you can say Spasibo (thank you) for those who cooked the food and they will answer “na zdorovje”, which means ‘for your health’ – they hope the food will be good for your health.
We actually don’t have equivalent for English ‘cheers’. When we drink we usually say several words like ‘for you’, ‘for us’, ‘for the meeting’, ‘for your new car’ etc. Or if we are too lazy to do it we just say “Budem” – something like ‘let us be’. So, this is probably the best equivalent for ‘cheers’ and if you want to go local – use it.
The phrase Bud’ zdarov is very useful. It literally means ‘be healthy’ and you can use it in three different meanings. First, it can be a kind of ‘cheers’. Second, for ‘bless you’ when somebody sneezes. Thirdly, you can use it in the meaning of ‘good bye’ and it will be very local.
In Russian language there are tricky words that we write with one letter and say with other. Typical is “молоко” (moloko, ‘milk’). You might recognise this as the name of the well-known UK music group, but the one who popularised the word was originally Antony Burgess. The main hero of his book, Clockwork Orange, liked to drink moloko. Burgess spent time in informal Moscow underground society and brought back to England some words and phrases.
If you pronounce all the ‘o’ in this word, it means that you are from a provincial small town, or you are old, or both. If you say ‘a’ instead of ‘o’ it means you are an undisciplined teenager, or just person with the big lack of education. So, it’s best to stay in the middle.
Most of the people who come to Russia like “Ж”, which they call the spider letter. We say it “zh” and use for example as the first letter in the word Zhenshina (woman). So, it is important to remember that if you see the spider letter outside a toilet – it is for woman. And men, you don’t need to remember the male sign – it’s simple – just go to the entrance opposite to women!
Russian letters can be tricky, because lots of them are written the same as English but have completely different pronunciation. The letter that is depicted as ‘P’ sounds ‘R’, ‘C’ is pronounced ‘S’ and ‘H’ sounds like ‘N’. Usually visitors just arrived in Russia see many signs with the word РЕСТОРАН. If you say the letters of this word out loud, according to the pronunciation rules that I’ve listed here, I bet you’ll work out what type of establishment it is
Plus to add to the confusion, some Russian letters we even don’t say. We have soft sign ‘Ь’ which makes the letter before it softer. For example foreigners like funny Chut’ – chut’ (a little bit) with the soft sign after ‘t’, which is hard to pronounce. We also have hard sign ‘Ъ’ that is even harder to explain than to use.
And we have Russian umlaut Ё that sounds like ‘your’. It is a symbol that is written over vowels in German and some other languages to indicate the way in which they should be pronounced. Modern Russian language disregard it and write ‘E’ instead of ‘Ё’, which is understandable in terms of time economy but makes nostalgic people protest and fight for the protection of there favourite letter. The letter is still very useful. For example together with the spider letter it makes word “Ёж” (hedgehog).
And at the end of the vocabulary is ‘Я’, which is a letter and at the same time the word ‘I’. When children start nagging “I want this thing”, “I don’t want that”, Russian mothers always remind them that “I” is the last letter in the vocabulary. It means that kids have to be modest.
Etymology of the words is an interesting way to help you remember the words:
The famous Russian Samovar is formed from the words Sam (self) and Varit’ (to boil). Hence the huge tea pot for boiling water can be translated as a ‘Self boiler’.
Russian Zar’ (tsar) is originally from roman ‘Caesar’.
Uliza (street) is formed from two words; U (near) and Lizo (face). So, a street is something that is near your face, something that you see nearby. You don’t see the back yards, you see facades that form the street. Hence the word.
Besedka (summerhouse; pavilion) is from the Russian beseda (conversation). It is a good cozy place that helps you to start the talk.
Zapovednik (national reserve) is from the word zapoved’ (commandment). It is a saved, protected place, as if it is a commandment to reserve it for future generations.
Spasibo (thank you) literally means ‘God save us’. It is from the words Spasi (save) and Bog (God).
Chelovek (human being) is from the words Chelo (brow) and Vek (century). So, human being is the creature with the distinguished brow that lives more than a century.
I think you will be not surprised if I tell you that Russian Vodka is from the word Voda (water). People joke that Russians like to drink so much that vodka for them is like water, an essential drink for every day.
Russian currency Rubl’ is from the verb Rubit’ (to cut). In old time trades cut the pieces of iron in the small parts. One cutting part became the measurement in trading.
Rano (early) is a throw back to Egyptian times. There are several versions, but the main is that it is formed from the words ‘Ra’ (Egyptian god of sun) and ‘No’ (no). So, it is the time when the sun is not present in the sky, i.e. it is early.
Old French style café bistro is derived from the Russian Biystro, which means ‘quickly’. When the Russian army came to Paris and celebrated their victory over Napoleon in the war of 1812, impatient officers and soldiers shouted to the café waiters “Biystro, biystro!” Thus bistro became a common noun for the fast service café.
When travellers come to the so called ‘Red Square’ they usually find it very beautiful. I’ll explain why I have written “so called”. Some people think that the square is named red because of the communists. Some think that it is because of the red colour of the Kremlin walls. But the square existed long before the communists came to power in 1917. And the Kremlin has not had red walls for very long. Initially and traditionally it was white and Moscow even had been called “white rocks city”.
In the old Russian language the word ‘red’ also means ‘beautiful’. People like the colour red and as a result called beautiful things Krasniy. In traditional Russian epos and in fairy tales you will find a lot of phrases like Krasniy molodez (red guy) or Krasnaya devitca (red girl), and Krasa (beauty). In Russian village house there was always Krasniy ugol (red corner) where people put there icons to pray.
Now you understand why ‘Red square’ is an incorrect translation of the local name, Krásnaya Plóshchaď. The name of the square means ‘beautiful’ and this is how it should be translated into English.
Another interesting thing is the original usage of the words ‘skinny’ and ‘fat’. Traditionally in Russian language the word khudoy (skinny) means ‘bad’. You can find in old books the phrase khudoy chelovek, meaning ‘bad man’. The same with dobryy (good). In old Russia it meant ‘fat’.
Nowadays the old meanings are seldom used, but it is important to know that. Particularly if you are going to read Russians books or speak with elderly people. Otherwise you can be very confused. But don’t worry: even locals who are young don’t know this. Today we use khudoy only for ‘skinny’ and dobryy for ‘good’.
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* Matryoshka doll photo by Vivien Leung – Intrepid Photography Competition