Basic Russian: “What Is It?” Posted by Maria on Mar 28, 2016 in Russian for beginners
This post is meant for beginner students of Russian. One of the first things we learn in a new language is asking what something is. However, there are many situations and reasons we ask “What is X?” and they require different phrases. Let’s look at the different scenarios where you may need to use variations of this phrase.
Identifying Unknown Objects
If you don’t know what something is, for instance, if you see a friend carry an unmarked box, you would use “Что это?” A variation of this question is “Что э́то тако́е?” (shto eto takoye) These questions ask to identify an object when you don’t know what it is or does.
Defining Specific Objects
If you hear the name of something but don’t know what it means or what it does, you can ask “Что тако́е…?” (shto takoye) For instance, if you heard the word “кунжу́т” (kunzhut, sesame) and weren’t sure what it refers to, you would say “Что такое кунжут?” (shto takoye kunzhut) Another way of asking this is “Что зна́чит кунжут?” (shto znachit kunzhut) This literally means “What does … mean?” and is used to ask for a definition.
Please note that you cannot say “
Что кунжут?” A formal and fairly rare way of asking this is “Что есть…?” (shto yest’) This sounds very elevated and would almost never be said in a conversation.
Asking for a Name of a Specific Object
If you do know what something is and how it works, but you don’t know what it’s called, you may use “Как называ́ется…?” (kak nazyvayetsa) This phrase can either be used with a description, for example “Как называется помеще́ние, где ждут по́езда?” (kak nazyvayetsa pamesheniye, gde zhdut poyezda, “What do you call the building where you wait for the train?”) or simply “Как это называется?”
For plural nouns in the first scenario, you would say “Как называ́ются…” (kak nazyvayutsa) For example, “Как называются высо́кие боти́нки?” (kak nazyvayutsa vysokiye batinki, “What are tall boots called?”)
Asking For The Russian Name
Sometimes you know the name in one language but not the other. A good phrase to know then is “Как по-ру́сски…?” (kak puh-ruskee) For example, maybe you need the equivalent of “scanner” in Russian. You can then say “Как по-русски (будет/называется) ‘scanner’?” The part in parentheses is optional.
Conversely, you can ask for a translation of a Russian phrase in a different language: “Как по-францу́зски (будет) ‘челове́к’?” (kak puh-frantsuskee cheluhvek, “What’s the French for ‘a person’?”)
Try practicing these questions about the objects around you — preferably with a Russian speaker!