In English we have some little rhyming phrases that people occasionally throw in conversations for cutesy effect. For instance, when saying goodbye, you might hear:
“After while, crocodile.”
Russian is not bereft of its cutesy moments as well:
|Здорово, корова!||Hi, Cow!|
«Привет-буфет» is a relatively recent phrase. Older Russians may not know it. «Здорово, корова» has been around a long time.
Not too surprisingly, the Russian word for kilogram is килограмм. Note the double м. The genitive plural is килограммов, but after numbers you often find a zero-ending form. That is, you will encounter both пять килограммов and пять килограмм in the meaning of “five kilos.” The zero-ending form is more common among people who constantly deal with large weights. Once in a blue moon you will encounter a Russian who thinks that only the form in -ов is correct in that context. There is also an indeclinable short form кило. Thus these are all possible sentences:
|Дайте килограмм мяса.
Дайте кило мяса.
|Give me a kilo of meat.|
|Дайте два килограмма морковки.
Дайте два кило морковки.
|Give me two kilos of carrots.|
|Дайте пять килограммов картошки.
Дайте пять килограмм картошки.
Дайте пять кило картошки.
|Give me five kilos of potatoes.|
This brings to mind a classic joke: What weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold? An American experiences this joke in two phases.
Phase 1, grade school: Your buddy poses the question, and you look around yourself dumbfounded and answer “a pound of gold” because obviously everyone knows that gold is heavier than feathers. And then your buddy points out that he said “a pound” of each, so obviously they weigh the same, and you are a complete doofus for not understanding something that simple. You begin to re-evaluate your choice of buddies.
Phase 2, high school: In chemistry class you learn that feathers are weighed using Avoirdupois ounces, whereas gold is weighed in Troy ounces, so in fact a pound of gold weighs less than a pound of feathers (detailed explanation). You realize that not only were you wrong back in fourth grade, but you had it exactly backwards, and your buddy was also a doofus.
The Russians have a similar joke, but with a much clearer set of consequences:
|Два студента с военной кафедры решили подколоть прапора:||Two students from a military school decided to have some fun with the warrant officer.|
|- Товарищ прапорщик, а что тяжелее: килограмм ваты или килограмм железа?||“Comrade Warrant Officer, what's heavier, a kilo of cotton or a kilo of iron?”|
|- Килограмм железа!||“A kilo of iron!”|
|- А вот и неправильно, одинаково!||“Wrong, they're the same!”|
|- А я вот щас дам тебе по голове сначала килограммом ваты, а потом килограммом железа, а там посмотрим!||Here, I'll hit you in the head with a kilo of cotton and then with a kilo of iron, then we'll see [who is right]!|
See the difference between Russian and American culture? Americans get lost in the picky details, and the Russians go right for the most relevant result!
Note: вата is actually cotton wool or cotton wadding like the stuff you would use in dressing a wound. When you translate a joke, though, you want to express it in a short punchy way that gets a laugh from the target audience, so it's okay to take some liberties instead of going for a straight word-for-word translation.
The Russian word for coffee is кофе. It's an indeclinable noun, which means it never changes its ending for case or number. Despite the ending, it's a masculine noun, not a neuter one. In other words, one is supposed to say чёрный кофе, not чёрное кофе. There is a reason for that: the word used to be кофей, which is clearly masculine. In fact, if you read Crime and Punishment in Russian, you will still find it spelled that way.
You know how in English data is supposed to be plural, but everyone uses it as a singular form? That is, we are supposed to say “These data are interesting,” but in fact we usually say “This data is interesting”? The Russians are in a similar situation with the word кофе. Theoretically it's masculine, but it's incredibly common to hear it as a neuter. The error is so widespread that it has spawned a well-known joke:
|К буфетчице постоянно подходили покупатели, которые просили одно кофе.||At the snackbar customers would constantly ask the clerk for одно coffee.|
|Каждый раз она с досадой думала:||Each time she would get irritated and think:|
|«Что за безграмотность!||“What illiteracy!|
|Хоть бы раз в жизни услышать нормальное один кофе.»||Just once in my life I'd like to hear a proper один кофе.|
|Вдруг к ней обращается иностранец:||Suddenly a foreigner walks up to her and says:|
|«Мне, пожалуйста, один кофе…».||I'd like один coffee, please…”|
|Буфетчица с удивлённой радостью смотрит на него,||The clerk looks at him with surprise and joy,|
|и он добавляет: «…и один булочка.»||and then he adds “and один sweet roll.”|
The last line is funny because in that context a Russian will say одна булочка; thus the foreigner accidentally got the grammatically tricky point right, but then he slaughtered the Russian language by making a mistake that no native speaker, not even the least educated, would ever make.
This joke is retold all over Russia in a thousand variations where the customer changes: often he's a Georgian because the Georgian accent is well known and commonly mocked, sometimes a Russian, sometimes a foreigner, and the jokes are sometimes written with funky Russian spelling to portray his non-Russian accent.
Update 2009-09-02: As of yesterday a decree of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science went into effect that affirms several dictionaries as normative for Russian as the official language of the Russian government. Those dictionaries acknowledge that кофе can be treated as neuter, so in a sense it is now officially acceptable to say чёрное кофе. The dictionaries include:
- "Орфографический словарь русского языка" Б.Букчиной, И.Сазоновой и Л.Чельцовой
- "Грамматический словарь русского языка" под редакцией А.Зализняка
- "Словарь ударений русского языка" И.Резниченко
- "Большой фразеологический словарь русского языка" с комментарием В.Телия
The Russian word for a male virgin is девственник, and a female virgin is девственница. The provenance of the word is obvious — дева means maid or maiden, one who is presumably devoid of sexual experience.
True story: on my second trip to Russia I was having a conversation with Лидия, a homely Russian instructor with a poofy hairdo whose mannerisms were the most prudish you can imagine. During the conversation I couldn't remember the word for virgin, so in the most tactful way possible I asked «Как называется мужик, который никогда не имел интимных отношений?» “What do you call a guy who has never had intimate relations?” Without a moment's hesitation she looked me straight in the eyes, batted her lashes and replied «Импотент».
The words анекдот and шутка can both be translated into English as joke, but they don't mean the same thing. A joke that you say out loud that has a punchline is анекдот. When you replace the salt in the salt shaker with sugar, that's шутка.
Russians have a wealth of jokes, and one type of joke that used to be very common is "Armenian Radio" jokes. These jokes play off of old radio shows where listeners used to call in and ask questions, and then the experts on the radio would respond with sage advice. The joke usually begins with «Армянское радио спрашивают» “Armenian Radio was asked” or «Армянское радио сообщает» “Armenian radio reports”. Here's a classic example:
|Армянское радио спрашивают:||Armenian Radio was asked:|
|— Чем отличаются капитализм и социализм?||“What's the difference between capitalism and socialism?”|
|— При капитализме человек эксплуатирует человека, а при социализме — наоборот.||“Under capitalism man exploits man. Under socialism it's the other way around.”|