Russian Language Blog

Basic Russian: “What Is It?” Posted by 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!

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Dab Jenkins:

    I hated languages at school but ended up as a professional linguist in Russian. Now I love languages, particularly the precision of the Russian Language – how it sounds and the thrill of writing it longhand.

    • Maria:

      @Dab Jenkins Dab, thank you for your comment. You never know what language you’ll end up using and loving later in life. Oh yeah, Russian cursive is alive and well.

  2. S.Vetrivel:

    I was in russia (Magadan and then in Sakhalin Island) but got little time so I neverlearnet Russian but I know to some extent to read and understand a little. I like this language indeed. I am in India at Tamil Nadu coimbatore and your website gives me good chance to learn back Russian language. Great Thanks to the site.

    • Maria:

      @S.Vetrivel Hi, thank you for your comment. I’m sure it’s encouraging for other readers who are trying to learn Russian. People should not be so scared of a different alphabet. Come back soon!

  3. Carlos R. Barron:

    In your Russian example ,try to put a phonetic way of saying the Russian letters,if a person does not how to read Cyrillic alphabet, it is almost impossible to pronounce for an American.
    So pleasa dde a phonetic equivalent in English, one could memorize the meaning like “What is this) the equivalent pronunciation will help.

    Other wise you are not teaching well’
    You do that in German do it with Russian whicn is harder, I also va word of the day in German,

    • Maria:

      @Carlos R. Barron Hi Carlos, thank you for your comment. I have added approximate pronunciations in Latin letters, but they are approximations. I would ask a Russian to read the phrases or insert them into Google Translate and use their speaker icon to have the program voice it out.
      There are also some survival phrases available on the Transparent Language site.
      Good luck in your endeavors with Russian!

  4. Mike:

    забавный и полезный сайт:

    You can enter a word and hear its pronunciation by various speakers. If a word (e.g. что) appears in phrases, you will get of list of the phrases and their pronunciations. The map at bottom of screen shows each speaker’s location.

    Because Wikipedia (both Russian and English versions) failed to give the stress marks for the surname of a person in the news (Ви’ктор Зо’лотов), I tried and got its pronunciation.