by Don  

A student with four identical sisters asked how he could say 'quadruplets.' He had looked in a bunch of dictionaries and couldn't find the word anywhere. Let's dig into that a bit.

First off, Russian has a word близнецы (singular близнец) which can mean twins, triplets, quadruplets, or larger multiple births; thus you can say У нас родились близнецы and mean "We had twins" or "We had triplets" etc. A similar word is близняшки, which sometimes sounds better in examples with girl-children for reasons that would take to long to go into here. Examples:

У нас родились два сына-близнеца.We had twin sons.
У нас родились двое сыновей-близнецов.We had twin sons.
У нас родились дочки-близнецы.We had twin daughters
У нас родились дочки-близняшки.We had twin daughters
Мы с братом—близнецы.My brother and I are twins.
Вера—моя сестра-близнец.Vera is my twin sister.
У меня четыре сестры. Они близнецы.I have four sisters. They're quadruplets.

Since English doesn't have a commonly used word that covers twins and triplets and quads, when translating близнецы you will usually use "twins." Of course, you'll have to determine from context whether triplets or quadruplets or larger sets are in mind, but twins are much more common than the larger sets.

In Russian twins and triplets are often discussed with the words двойня and тройня, which are feminine singular words meaning a set of twins or triplets:

Суррогатная мать родила известному певцу Рики Мартину двойню.A surrogate mother gave birth to twins for the famous singer Ricky Martin.
У Анджелины Джоли родилась двойня.Angelina Jolie had twins.

From those words a clever student might predict words like четверня, пятерня, шестерня for quads, quints, and sextuplets, but there you run into a problem. The words двойня and тройня are part of the Russian literary language; that is, they are considered “real words” that you can write in essays or pronounce in official speeches or hear from an educated TV announcer. But the word четверня is not a part of the literary language. Oh, sure, if you say it, everyone will understand you, and some people won't think twice about it, but most will consider it conversational, and some people will consider it “not a real word.” And when you get to the other words, they have nothing to do with children. Пятерня means “hand (not including the arm)”, and шестерня is a team of six-horses hitched together.

In conversational Russian there are also the words двойняшка and тройняшка, which mean a member of a set of twins and triplets respectively. But again here, once you reach the “quadruplet” idea, people don't really say четверняшка very often, and you won't ever hear пятерняшка and шестерняшка, except maybe in a joking sense.

Note: if you'd like to read a Russian website with information on twins, go to bddb.narod.ru.

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