Ли (часть первая)

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.


Comment from: Yegor [Visitor]

Мне кажется, в повседневной речи союз «ли» чаще встречается в предложениях с косвенным вопросом:

Я спросил [её], не требуется ли ей помощь.
I asked her if she needed help.

Хорошим вариантом в таких случаях также будет «whether»:

Он поинтересовался, сможет ли туда попасть.
He interested whether he could get there.

Don responds: Да, точно. Уже написаны три статьи о «ли». В третьей будет обсуждаться косвенная речь.

12/28/10 @ 03:15
Comment from: Andrey [Visitor]

Well I should say that ли not only raises the stylistic level a bit, it _makes_ you sound formal. So it’s almost never used in everyday speech. Unless maybe you are starting with some kind of a complex sentence and don’t know how to finish it without using that word :) But in formal speech or in written language it looks absolutely normal.

12/28/10 @ 00:53

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