Categories: "Particles"


June 15th, 2011 — posted by Don

The word же is an emphatic particle, by which we mean it puts emphasis on the preceding word. My first-year college Russian instructor first suggested translating it into English with the phrase ‘in the world.’ I still like that approach after question words:

Кто это? Who is this?
Who is that?
Кто же это? Who in the world is this?
Who in the world is that?
Что это? What is this?
А что же это? And what in the world is this?
Где мои ключи? Where are my keys?
Где же мои ключи? Where in the world are my keys?
Куда ты идёшь? Where are you going?
Куда же ты идёшь? Where in the world are you going?

Же has many other uses and translations as well. It's especially worth taking the time to contemplate how it's used in translating the English phrase ‘the same’ in this blog entry.

Куда же ты идёшь?
Куда-куда, на кудыкину гору.

Where the heck are you going?
I'll never tell.

Ли (часть третья)

January 4th, 2011 — posted by Don

Previously we discussed the particle ли in its function of making yes-no questions. It has another function as the equivalent of the English word ‘whether.’ In English ‘whether’ always occurs as the first word in its subordinate clause; ли must always be the second item in its clause:

Я не знаю, должен ли я купить новый мобильник. I don't know whether I should buy a new cell phone.

If the subordinate clause contains words like должен, надо or нужно, they usually come before ли. The next most likely word to come before ли is a conjugated verb:

Она спросила, хочу ли я чая. She asked whether I wanted tea.
Она хочет знать, говорит ли Борис по-английски. She wants to know whether Boris speaks English.

Any other word/phrase can occur before ли if it bears the focus of the question:

Мой брат спросил, мама ли купила продукты. My brother asked whether it was mother who had bought the groceries or dad.
Профессор спросил, в Париже ли находится музей «Museo del Prado». The professor asked whether it was in Paris that the “Museo del Prado” could be found.

Clever students will have noticed that this use of ли is a part of what we call “indirect speech.” Indirect speech in Russian and English behave somewhat differently. In English, when changing from direct speech to indirect speech, the tense of the subordinate clause undergoes fairly complex changes. For instance, considering the following sentences.

Zhanna asked John, “Do you want some tea?”
Zhanna is asking John, “Do you want some tea?”
Zhanna will ask John, “Do you want some tea?”

Note the tense of the verbs in the subordinate clause in the corresponding indirect speech sentences:

Zhanna asked John whether he wanted some tea.
Zhanna is asking John whether he wants some tea.
Zhanna will ask John whether he wants some tea.”

This change is called “sequence of tenses” by linguists. Russian does not have a sequence of tenses rule like that. Whatever the tense of a verb is in the original direct speech is the same tense that occurs in the indirect speech. In other words, in direct speech we will have:

Жанна спросила Ивана, хочет ли он чая.
Жанна спрашивает Ивана, хочет ли он чая.
Жанна спросит Ивана, хочет ли он чая.

Rule of thumb: when switching from direct speech to indirect speech in Russian, keep the tense of the original verb.

Ли (часть вторая)

December 30th, 2010 — posted by Don

Previously we discussed the particle ли, which turns a statement into a question, and we noted that ли must occur as the second item in the sentence. All our example sentences had a single word before ли. It turns out that certain phrases, that is, groups of more than one word, can be the first item before ли. First of all, prepositional phrases can come before ли:

В Африке ли живут кенгуру? Is it in Africa that kangaroos live?
До войны ли вы жили в Париже? Was it before the war that you lived in Paris?

The negative particle не is also a clitic, that is, it is pronounced as part of the word that follows it; unlike ли, it is a proclitic, that is, it is pronounced as part of the word before which it appears. When it combines with a prepositional phrase or other word, the whole unit can occur before ли:

Не в Москве ли родился Путин? Wasn't Putin born in Moscow?
— Не Пушкин ли написал «Гамлета»?
— Да что ты, «Гамлета» написал Шекспир.
“Wasn't it Pushkin who wrote Hamlet?”
“Oh, come on, Hamlet was written by Shakespeare.”

This is very common with certain politness phrases:

Не хотите ли вы чая? Would you like some tea?

And you can even add a бы to the sentences to make them even more polite:

Не хотели ли бы вы чая? Would you happen to care for some tea?
Не смогли ли бы вы помочь мне? Could you be so kind as to help me?

Notice the word order here: не comes before the verb. Ли comes immediately after the verb. Бы comes immediately after ли. The subject pronoun comes immediately after бы. No other word order works in these contexts.

Ли (часть первая)

December 28th, 2010 — posted by Don

A reader recently asked me to address the word ли. That's an excellent topic for a beginning Russian blog, but before we talk about ли, we should get a little background information. When Russians ask yes-no questions, they usually use the same words as an ordinary statement, but they change the intonation. For instance, a statement “Boris speaks English” comes out like this, where the blue line indicates the approximate intonation pattern:

That pattern is known as “intonation construction 1” in Russian pegadogical circles. To turn that into the question “Does Boris speak English?”, we rephrase it using “intonation construction 3”:

It's a pain in the rear to design special graphics to outline every sentence in which you wish to indicate intonation, so we often use a rather more compact way of indicating intonation with numbers. The syllable on which the most drastic shift of tone takes places is called the “intonation center.” Once you have indicated where the intonation center is, everything else about the tone pattern is predictable, so we simply indicate the intonation center by writing the number above the vowel where that dramatic shift happens. For instance, the statement “Boris speaks English” is represented like this:

Борис говорит по-английски.

The question “Does Boris speak English?” is represented like this:

Борис говорит по-английски?

Theoretically you can put intonation construction three on any part of the sentence that bears the logical focus of the question. If the question is general, then you usually end up putting the intonation on the verb, thus

Мама хочет пойти домой?

means “Does Mom want to go home?”, whereas

Мама хочет пойти домой?

means something like “Mom wants to go home?”, i.e., the focus is on whether she wants to go home as opposed to some other place. Contrast that with

Мама хочет пойти домой?

which means something like “Is it Mom who wants to go home?”, i.e. the focus is on whether it is Mom who wants to go home, as opposed to Grandma or someone else.

Bearing that in mind, there is another way of asking yes-no questions in Russian, and that is by using ли, which is a postclitic particle. By particle we mean a word that never changes its endings. By clitic we mean that it is pronounced as part of a word that it is next to. By post- we mean that it is pronounced as part of the word it appears after. As a postclitic it will never be the first item in a sentence; it must be the second item. Thus if we want to rephrase “Does Boris speak English?” using ли, it would come out like this:

Говорит ли Борис по-английски?

The three other questions we looked at above would be rephrased like this:

Хочет ли мама пойти домой?

Домой ли мама хочет пойти?

Мама ли хочет пойти домой?

Yes-no questions without ли are perfectly normal in spoken Russian. When you add ли, it raises the stylistic level a bit, making it more formal or more polite.

In all our examples here, there is only one word before ли. It's possible to have more than one word in front of it, and in fact in some contexts it's very common. We'll discuss those in the next article on ли.

Note: some of the examples in this blog entry may seem a bit stilted. It's actually rather difficult to come up with long yes-no questions that comfortably illustrate the different possible focus points of intonation or ли without sounding stilted. The important point to remember here is that theoretically ли can place its focus on any phrase that immediately proceeds it. Despite their awkwardness, all theses sentences are perfectly grammatical Russian, and it would be possible for a Russian to say them given a suitable context preceding them.

Да, нет (часть первая)

May 18th, 2010 — posted by Don

The standard Russian word for yes is да and for no — нет. For the most part they work pretty much like we would expect:

— Ты хочешь чаю?
— Да, пожалуйста.
“Do you want some tea?”
“Yes, please.”
— Ты хочешь пойти в кино?
— Нет, спасибо.
“Do you want to go to the movies?”
“No, thanks.”

Russian sometimes doesn't work quite the way we would expect, though, when answering a question that has не in it. Remember that не is often including in Russian questions to make the question softer, more polite. But if the question is in the negative in Russian, there must be a negative somewhere in the answer as well. Let's say you are in Russia waiting outside the subway station for a woman named Tanya. You've never met Tanya; your friends have arranged the meeting, and you have only a general description of her. You spot someone who sort of matches the description, so you walk up to her and say:

— Извините, вы не Таня?
— Нет, я не Таня.
“Excuse me, you aren't Tanya by any chance, are you?”
“No, I'm not Tanya.”

In such a case, when the woman says нет, she is negating the idea of being Tanya. That interchange makes perfect sense to the American ear. Now consider this version:

— Извините, вы не Таня?
— Да, я не Таня.
“Excuse me, you aren't Tanya by any chance, are you?”
“No, I'm not Tanya.”

In this case when the woman answers да, she is confirming your spoken negative supposition that she is not Tanya. Notice that despite the да in the original, it sounds better to have no in the English translation. (An English speaker would never say “Yes, I'm not Tanya” in this context.)

If the woman turns to be Tanya, then the question can be answered like this:

— Извините, вы не Таня?
— Нет, я Таня.
“Excuse me, you aren't Tanya by any chance, are you?”
“Yes, I'm Tanya.”

In this case Tanya is denying your stated assumption that she is not Tanya, so she answers нет and then corrects you. Notice once again that word for word translation “No, I am Tanya” simply doesn't work in English.

Let's see a few more examples and note their translations carefully. Let's say you need to ask a Russian whether she speaks English. It may turn out like these examples:

— Вы не говорите по-английски?
— Нет, не говорю.
“Do you happen to speak English?”
“No, I don't.”
— Вы не говорите по-англисйки?
— Да, не говорю.
“Do you happen to speak English?”
“No, I don't.”
— Вы не говорите по-англисйки?
— Нет, говорю.
“Do you happen to speak English?”
“Yes, I do.”

Notice this carefully: although very often да and нет correspond to English yes and no, sometimes the grammar of responding to a question requires a negative in Russian where it makes no sense in English. A professional translation in such a context requires replacing нет with yes in English. People with limited language experience might think “That's a bad translation or a dishonest translation because it says the opposite of what the words actually say.” They would be mistaken. Sometimes what appears to be an opposite translation is in fact the best translation, as long as it communicates the original intent and informational content of the source sentence.