by Don  

When you learn a foreign language, one of the things that causes problems are false cognates, which are words that sound similar but can have quite different meanings. The classic example for Spanish students is ‘embarazada’ which sounds like the English word ‘embarrassed’ but actually means ‘pregnant.’ If an American woman tries to say that she is embarrassed using ‘embarazada,’ the reaction of her cohorts will teach her her error promptly. She won't make that mistake a second time.

It's a little trickier when the meanings of the false cognates are much closer in the two languages. In that case there is much more likely to be continuing confusion and cross-cultural mis­com­munication, and that miscommunication can be both on the dictionary-meaning level and on the emotional level. A case in point are the words туалет and toilet. In American English toilet means the actual device one sits upon, and in Russian туалет means the room in which the toilet (but usually not the bathtub) is located. Since the Russian word is so similar to the English word, American students of Russian only have to hear it once to remember it forever, and they promptly start producing sentences like:

Я хочу пойти в туалет. I want to go to the toilet.

In terms of grammatical communication it is a perfectly adequate sentence, but the student hasn't said quite what he thinks he has said, and there is a very good chance he has just committed a cultural faux pas. The sentence is a little too direct for polite company, and simply saying you want to go to the toilet summons up unpleasant images of... well, you get the idea. In American English we avoid those images because the word “bathroom” focuses on the ‘bath’ idea; that is, there is a subtle association with cleanliness, not urination or defecation. So to avoid being quite so direct, the Russians have several ways of euphemistically expressing the idea. The one I use most is «помыть руки», which word-for-word means “to wash the hands”:

Можно, я помою руки? or
Можно помыть руки?
May I use your restroom?

If you say it that way, there will be a bit of ambiguity to the Russian, who won't necessarily be sure if you need the toilet or the sink, but since in a Russian apartment the room with the toilet is usually right next to the room with the bathtub and sink, they will lead you right to where you need to go for either purpose. Of course, if you are not directly discussing bodily functions, it's perfectly fine to use the word туалет:

— Где в этом здании находятся туалеты?
— На втором, четвёртром и шестом этажах.
“Where are the bathrooms in this building?”
“On the second, fourth and sixth floors.”
— Ваня, почему ты опять курил в туалете?
— Потому что на кухне было много народу, некуда было сесть.
“Ivan, why were you smoking in the bathroom again?”
“Because there were a lot of people in the kitchen, and there was nowhere to sit.”
Люба вошла в туалет и заметила, что не было туалетной бумаги. Lyubov walked into the bathroom and noticed that there was no toilet paper.
Рядом с туалетом находится ванная. Next to the bathroom there is a room with a bathtub.

The social contexts that affect the direct use of the word туалет are complex. My friend Tanya assures me that if she is at a restaurant with a mixed group of men and women, she never uses the word туалет. Instead she would just stand up, say «Я сейчас приду» “I’ll be right back,” and then leave. But if she is with just her female friends at the restaurant, she might well say «Я пойду в туалет» “I'm going to the bathroom,” and since she is with her friends she might add to one of them «Ты хочешь со мной?» “Do you want to come with me?” Similarly a Russian man in mixed company will use euphemistic phrases like the ones mentioned before or «Я отойду на минутку» “I'll step away for a moment.” (But unlike Russian women, a Russian man won't ask a buddy to go to the bathroom with him.)


Comment from: Francoise Cohen [Visitor]  

- “Powder room” at home
- “ladies room” ” Men’s room” in public facilities

08/08/15 @ 13:15
Comment from: Olga [Visitor]

The word туалет has two meanings: 1. a restroom (bathroom, lavatory) 2. clothes, attire, outfit - mostly ladies’ 3. A piece of chamber (bedroom) furniture, as a chest of drawers or bureau, with a mirror

1. Наряд, одежда. преимущ. женская. Роскошный туалет. Модные туалеты. Сестрица ранее обдумала свой туалет. [ слово из сочинений Салтыкова ( [ Салтыков-Щедрин ] а) ] - [ Салтыков-Щедрин ] .
. . . 2. только [ единственное число ] Приведение в порядок своего внешнего вида, надевание одежды. - Туалет свой совершаете? Дело! Дело! Тргнв. Заниматься туалетом.
. . . 3. Столик с зеркалом или с зеркалами, за к-рым одеваются, причесываются и [ тысяча ] п. Зеркало на туалете. Сидеть перед туалетом.

Also, don’t you think that there are different words for different “туалетов” (which can be only of any interest for Russian interpreters or translators only). A public туалет in a restaurant or in a public office would be a “restroom,” a private туалет in your house or in your friends’ house would be a “bathroom,” and a туалет on the train or on the plane would be a “lavatory.”

Don responds: In my dialect of American English a bathroom in a private home can be called both “the restroom” and “the bathroom.” It can also be called “the lavatory,” although it isn’t so common. All three can be used of a room that does not have a bathtub or shower. In real estate descriptions of homes a restroom without a shower or bath is often called “a half-bath.” In England I believe “bathroom” only applies to a room with a bathtub. (Hm. I wonder if a room with a shower can be called “a bathroom” in England?) My sister and her family live in Canada, and they always call their restroom “the washroom.” A neighbor of ours in Arizona called her bathroom “the washroom” as well, which sounded very odd to me. I believe she was from Indiana. Doubtless that’s what they called it there in her childhood. Her mid-west accent made the word come out “warshroom,” which sounded fairly amusing to me.

01/22/11 @ 09:15
Comment from: Shady_arc [Visitor]

Люба вошла в туалет и заметила, что не было туалетной бумаги. –> This is correct. Yet, in Russian there is no consequence of tenses, so it would be perfectly normal to go with “….заметила, что там нет туалетной бумаги".

As the main clause is in the past, it is assumed that the subordinate clause describes past as well, just like in Japanese, where subordinate clauses may not have a “tense” of their own at all (non-sentence-final verbs are mostly in the form that lack such characteristic as “tense"; or in their “usual, casual speech” form, which is considered present/future tense only when used at the end of the sentence) .

10/12/10 @ 01:44

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