Russian Language Blog

«Ненастоящие друзья» [False friends]: part II Posted by on Aug 18, 2010 in Culture, language, Russian for beginners, Russian life

Not everything in a foreign language is difficult. If you feel like calling the vehicle above «мотоцикл» [motorcycle] in Russian, then that’s okay and even correct. But that doesn’t mean you can go ahead and assume that a bicycle is «бицикл» in Russian because really the word for it is «велосипед» [bicycle].

Today’s post is meant to follow up «Ненастоящие друзья» [False friends]: part I, which was posted here on our blog on the 5th of August, but it really doesn’t matter if you’ve read that one or not – we’re simply glad to have your attention today! I think the most challenging thing about moving to a new country is getting used to «совершенно новая еда» [completely new food]. A few days ago «я приехала в город Беркли» [I arrived in the city of Berkeley] which for me is not only located in a completely new country – «США (Соединённые штаты Америки)» [USA (United States of America)] – but also in a place where the climate is nothing like any of the places where I’ve lived before: «штат Калифорния» [the state of California]. Probably everyone who has come to Russia for the very first time – to work, study or simply live for a little while – has felt the way I am feeling right now walking down aisle after aisle «с незнакомыми продуктами» [with unfamiliar groceries]: lost, confused and not sure what things taste like. «В России я знала, что вкусно» [in Russia I knew what was tasty], «в США, я даже не знаю вкуса большинства продуктов» [in USA I don’t even know the taste of the majority of groceries]! That is why I cannot stress enough the importance of getting the names of different food items right in any foreign language – but most of all in Russian for «Россия полна вкусной еды» [Russia is full of tasty food] that you don’t want to be missing out on. If you mix it up, then you might end up with something entirely different from what you thought or wanted. Sometimes food names are indeed «ненастоящие друзья» [false friends], for they will remind you of something else in another language but really that’s not at all what it means in Russian. For example, the seemingly harmless little word «кекс». It sounds an awful lot like ‘cake’ – or even ‘cakes’ – doesn’t it? That’s not what it means, though. If you go to a «пекарня» [bakery] or «кондитерская» [pastry shop; confectionary] and ask for «кекс» you’ll receive something resembling a fruitcake, more often than not square-shaped and kind of small. If you’re picking up desert for someone’s birthday, what you want to buy is actually a «торт» [cake].

The same situation could arise if you’re in need or simply want of biscuits «к чаю или кофе» [to go with (your) tea or coffee] – nobody likes «пить без закуски» [to drink without snacks] – and you ask for «бисквит» [sponge-cake] because that seems like a likely Russian name for it. What you should ask for is actually «печенье», if you want sweet biscuits or «сухарь» [m. rusk], if you want not-so-sweet biscuits.

Don’t always expect Russians to be the best experts at their own language. Even a native speaker can sometimes be tricked by a faux ami’. For example, when I began teaching «шведский язык» [Swedish language] «в Уральском государственном университете» [at Ural State University] some three years ago (I can’t believe it has been so long!) I was not given any fancy academic title. I was identified on official documents simply as «ассистент», something that more than once caused trouble with other staff at the university for they thought this meant the same as the English word ‘assistant’. They were always asking «для кого [for whom?] I was assistant and it wasn’t until «декан моего факультета» [the dean of my department] explained to them that «ассистент» in Russian is the academic position of junior teacher (in higher educational institution) that they accepted me not assisting anyone else but teaching all on my own. The most commonly used Russian word for ‘assistant’ is «помощник».

But it is fun to make mistakes! «И важно тоже» [And important, too]. Back when I was in school, some boring old «учительницы» [fem. school teachers] would often say things like: “Save time and learn from other people’s mistakes”, but who does that? Really? You’ll learn something twice – or even more! – as well from having done it ‘the hard way’, at least that’s «моё сугубо личное мнение» [my own highly personal opinion]. There are some mistakes you won’t make, though, once you’ve been to Russia: like you won’t think «магазин» means ‘magazine’ because that’s written on big signs in front of most grocery stores in Russia. It might be helpful, however, to know that the Russian word for ‘magazine’ is «журнал».

The same should probably also go for the noun «проспект» [broad street, avenue; outline; advertisements]. If you’ve been to Russia and got lost on countless «проспекты Ленина» [Lenin’s avenues], then you’re less likely to say that your business has «хорошие проспекты» when you mean ‘good prospects’. You’ll know the correct word to use in this context is «перспектива» [perspective; vista, view; prospect].

Here are a few more common ‘false friends’ between English and Russian languages:

You want to say ‘blank’ in English and so you say «бланк» [form; blank] with a thick Russian accent (think any Russian bad guy in a Bond movie). What you should have said – and skip faking the accent, please – is either «пропуск» [blank; gap] or «пробел» [blank space; blank].

Hospital in Russian isn’t «госпиталь» [mas. (military) hospital] – it is «больница» [hospital].

There’s quite a difference in length of time between saying ‘decade’ like «декада» [ten days, ten-day period] and actually calling it correctly a «десятилетие» [decade].

You think ‘receipt’ is «рецепт» [prescription] in Russian? No, that is something only a doctor can give you. Most sales people can, however, give you a «расписка» [(written) receipt] or «квитанция» [receipt; sales slip; claim check].

Are you good at translation? Then you should know by now that you’re not conducting «трансляция» [transmission; broadcast], but as a matter of fact «перевод» [translation] between your two favorite languages: «английский и русский языки» [English and Russian languages].

Have you been fooled by the Russian word for ‘minute’ «минута» – into thinking that anything can be turned into a Russian word if you place an «-а» on the end of it?I’m sorry to have to break the news that this doesn’t work on the word ‘fabric’ for «фабрика» means ‘factory’. Fabric in Russian is «ткань» (fem.).

If you want to make sure you don’t mix up those two words, you can always call a factory «завод» [factory] instead. And incidentally «завод» is one of my all-time favorite Russian nouns! There really aren’t any words like it in other languages… and it was the one word I practiced on for months when I learned how to pronounce the «з» [z] sound.

Have you ever confused any of the words above? Have you ever made a mistake with one or perhaps two of them? Or maybe you’d like to make a comment about confusing names for Russian food products?

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  1. Barry:

    preservatives & jam!

  2. Эин Иванов:

    The cycle is an Ural?

  3. Ken Bankston:

    Dear Josefina,

    Perhaps, while you are here in northern California, you would be interested in meeting some of your fans who live around here. I know of at least one other person living nearby who follows this blog. Drop me a note if you feel so inclined.

    Ken Bankston

  4. josefina:

    Эин: Да, да, да это мотоцикл “Урал”! Я так рада, что ты заметил это 🙂

    Ken: I would love to meet up with some of my “fans” here in northern California! That would be simply lovely. Are you perhaps one of them? And if so, what would you say is the best thing for a Russophile to do while in this area of the US?

  5. Roberta:

    Большое спасибо for confessing being intimidated by foreign (to you) supermarkets! When I went to Russia last summer, I didn’t eat for two days because I was so intimidated by the unfamiliar food and the unfamiliar shopping routines. Once I realized I just had to grab some stuff, find out whether I liked it, come back and try something else — and trust the cashiers to be patient while I figured out the currency — things went fine. And most of the cashiers were kind, though the first time I bought an apple and failed to print out the weight and price sticker myself, the cashier was clearly more miffed than amused.

  6. Stas:

    Hospital in Russian actually means госпиталь as well as больница… As in военно-полевой госпиталь (MASH; like the show by the same name)…

    Receipt in Russian is чек, which sounds exactly the same as cheque, as well as расписка и квитанция… And believe it or not, чек is both cheque and receipt… However, if you want to specify which is which you can say товарный чек if you mean receipt…

    The other meaning of завод is the winding something or somebody up…