Russian Language Blog

«Ненастоящие друзья» [False friends]: part I Posted by on Aug 5, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners, when in Russia

If you think the Russian name of Moscow’s famous Red Square is «Красный сквер», then you may have fallen victim to what is known as ‘faux amis’ – false friends.

I know I have been a victim of faux amis many, many times both while learning Russian as well as English. For several years while living in Russia I made a terrible habit of using the Russian word «фрустрация» as if it meant exactly the same as the English word frustration‘ (actually I think I used it with the connotation that it has in my native Swedish). From time to time I would exclaim things like «я такая фрустрированная!» thinking I was saying ‘I’m so frustrated!’, but actually not saying anything at all. Why not? Because in Russian there is no adjective made from the noun «фрустрация». This word is not at all used in the same way in Russian – not to mention not as often – as in English. Or I would shout «у меня такая фрустрация!» [‘I have such frustration!’], thinking this would make Russians better comprehend my current state of mind. They didn’t. Usually I was frustrated with my Russian boyfriend, and incidentally he was the one Russian who would never get what I meant when I used the word «фрустрация» – this could have been one of the main reasons as to why our relationship didn’t last «больше 2 (двух) лет» [more than 2 years]. The Russian nouns I should’ve used instead to express this particular emotion are «разочарование» [disappointment; frustration; disillusionment; disenchantment; disillusion] or «расстройство» [disorder; upset; frustration; disturbance; disruption].

Plenty of Russian words are of foreign origin and sometimes they make you think of an English word – and it is natural to want to use that word in the same sense. What you should know, however, is that sometimes they in fact have quite a different meaning from the English one. A famous example – at least among those of us who have read a lot of Russian 19th century classic works «в подлиннике» [in the original] – is the verb «конфузиться». Of course this Russian verb makes you think of the English ‘to confuse’; only that it has the «ся» at the end of it – short for «себя» – and could perhaps thus mean something like ‘to get confused’. Plenty of characters in great works of Russian fiction often «конфузятся», but that doesn’t mean that they have a tendency to get confused on a regular basis. This particular verb in its Russian ‘version’ has little to do with confusion. What it actually translates into most of the time is ‘to be embarrassed’. When you want to express confusion in Russian language, the verb you’re looking for is «путаться» (that’s the imperfect). Russians mostly usually use this verb in the perfect aspect: «запутаться». So when you’re confused in Russia – and in Russian for that matter – what you do is you put this verb both in past tense and as well as in perfect aspect and say ‘I’m confused’ like this: «я запутался» [lit. I got confused] if you’re a man, «я запуталась» if you’re a woman and «мы запутались» if you’re more than one person.

The question of «ненастоящие друзья» [that’s what I’ve chosen to call ‘false friends’ in Russian, even though it can also translate into ‘not real/true friends’. This is because «настоящие друзья» means ‘true friends’, it has nothing to do with what this linguistic phenomenon is actually called in Russian language – just so you know I’m making up this term all on my own] is a rather big subject with plenty of words that often get confused or misused by non-native speakers like you and me. These words of course differ a lot depending on your native language, and I’m sure that you probably have plenty of examples from your own life of learning from mistakes made. That’s why I have decided to divide this post into two parts. Today we’ll deal with some adjectives that are tricky and demand some time of practicing before getting them right – as well as into the right context. Let’s have a look at a few examples:

When saying that something is ‘accurate’ you think you should use «аккуратный» [punctual, neat, tidy, conscientious]; but the word you’re really looking for is either «точный» [precise] or «меткий» [of shooting]. It is a compliment in Russian to say «она аккуратный человек» because it usually means ‘she’s a punctual person’; not that she’s particularly precise.

It took me several years of talking, reading and listening before I understood that the English word ‘actual’ does not mean the same as the Russian «актуальный» [topical, pressing]. That’s why I am full of understanding for native speakers of English who thinks that saying «это актуальная проблема» means ‘it is a real problem’ when actually they’re saying ‘it is a pressing problem’. The Russian adjectives that you would want to make use of instead are «действительный» [real], «настоящий» [genuine] or «существующий» [existing].

In the same way you might find yourself saying «корректный» in a sentence like «это корректно» when what you should say is «это правильно» – because the last example is the one that really means ‘that’s correct’ in Russian.

In the 19th century the adjective «фамильярный» did have the same meaning as the English ‘familiar’. In present day Russian «фамильярный» is not something that you’d like to be or even come across as when you meet new people, for the meaning of it is rather negative: unceremonious. You would not want people associating you with the verb «фамильярничать» [impfv. to be overly familiar (with); take liberties (with)] in such a sometimes very formal society as the Russian. In Russia, you have to be very polite with new people: use «Вы» and try not to jump too easily to «ты». There are three main adjectives in Russian that have the meaning of ‘familiar’: «знакомый» [familiar (this adjective is also used as a noun and then translates into ‘acquaintance’)] «известный» [known; famous; well-known; prominent] and «привычный» [habitual; familiar; customary; accustomed; regular].

Another good example is how «симпатичный» can be misused because you think it means the same as the English ‘sympathetic’. The sentence «он всегда такой симпатичный» doesn’t mean ‘he’s always so sympathetic’ (in the sense that he always shows sympathy) but ‘he’s always so cute’. The two Russian adjectives mostly used to express this particular trait in a person is «сочувствующий» [sympathizer; compassionate; friendly; commiserative] and «отзывчивый» [responsive; understanding; outgoing; softhearted; kind-hearted].

What other Russian adjectives have you misused because they turned out to be «ненастоящие друзья» [false friends]? In the part II of this post I’m going to discuss nouns – and that’s an even larger topic than what we’ve covered today, so be sure to be prepared!

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  1. Stas:

    “Лучше поздно, чем никогда,” сказал еврей, кладя голову на рельсы, и глядя вслед уходящему поезду. Despite the fact that this post is about 9 month old I will let myself to comment on it.

    I would say that the first meaning of the work аккуратный is tidy, neat. Therefore, the compliment “Она очень аккуратный человек” would mean “She is very tidy person.”

    Punctual in Russian is пунктуальный. And here is a good saying with the word punctuality: “Пунктуальность – это вежливость королей.” А я ещё иногда от себя добавляю после некой паузы, “И королев…”