Most of our posts are meant for people who already know or are learning some Russian, however little. Still, there are people out there who are interested in the language and the many cultures using it, but have not ventured past the first few phrases yet. For this reason, I will not be the Cyrillic script in this post (have you checked out our alphabet courses yet?).
Some of the questions below have been covered in other posts on this blog, and we are now bringing them together on one page. Even beginner students of Russian will likely find this information basic, but hopefully it will answer some of the questions by those interested in the language but not yet learning it.
Why do some Russian words have KH in place of a K?
Why is there an “h” after the “k” in Khrushchev? What’s the difference between the last names Volkhonsky and Volkonsky?
The reason lies in transliteration — writing Russian words with Latin characters. Russian is usually written with Cyrillic letters. There no one to one correspondence between the two writing systems — instead, there are several transliteration tables. The Russian letter “х” — a breathier version of “ha” — is sometimes transliterated as “kh” into Russian. It’s not just another way of spelling the “k” sound — in fact, the Russian pronunciation of Khrushchev is closer to Hroo-SHOF .
Why do Russian last names end in -sky and why is it sometimes spelled -ski?
This is a common ending of a male last name (more on that below). In Russian, it has 4 letters: ский. The first two letters form a common suffix “sk.” The third letter is the equivalent of “i.” The fourth letter is the equivalent of the “y” sound in the English word “yes.” So, to transliterate Russian last names accurately, you would really need to spell then with -skiy, e.g. Rimskiy-Korsakov. However, conventionally, these names have often been written with just a single vowel at the end, i.e., Rimsky-Korsakov.
Why do men and women in the same family have different last names?
Russian surnames are essentially adjectives describing the appearance, occupation, origin, or other group membership of a person. They often take the form of a possessive adjective — Ivanov (Ivan’s). Since adjectives normally agree with the noun they modify in Russian, a woman’s last name will be in the “feminine” form. For example, a woman’s last name would be Petrova, Nogina, or Belskaya. The corresponding surname for a man would be Petrov, Nogin, or Belsky.
I’ve always said “Na zdorovye” for “Cheers,” but now my Russian friend tells me it’s incorrect.
I’m not sure where this myth originated — perhaps in Anglophone films. Na zdrowie is the Polish for “cheers,” for sure. Russian toasts are more of a dedication and need to be custom-said every time. The Russian phrase “na zdorovye” is an answer to “Thank you” (so, the equivalent of “You’re welcome”) or giving permission to do something (“Go ahead”).
Are there any other aspects of Russian our Russian-curious readers have been wondering about? I and our veteran readers will try to cover them for you.