Russian Language Blog

Same-Same but Different I: Homonyms Posted by on Aug 26, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners, when in Russia

Not always can I in my gigantic, personal library with photographs from Russia find something that illustrates «точка в точку» [perfectly] the topic of the post. Then I do like this: pick a random pic and hope somehow it fits! This is «закат в городе Таре в Сибири осенью 2005 (две тысячи пятого) года» [a sunset in the town of Tara in Siberia in the fall of 2005]. The word «закат» [sunset; end] isn’t exactly a homonym – our topic for the day – but rather a word that can also be used figuratively: to mean ‘end’. Like in the expression «на закате дней» [in the twilight of one’s life].

What do you say about trying to rid ourselves of some the «неясности русского языка» [pl. ambiguities of Russian language]? Russian language has «много неясностей» [a lot pl. gen. of vagueness (lack of clarity, unclear points)] – and this is indeed the reason as to why I’ve been able to blog about if for «почти три года уже» [almost three years already]! The focus of today’s post – and in at least two others to come in a near and almost immediate future – is words that can be confused with each other. «Слова» [pl. words] that seem to be «одинаковые» [the same] but really are «разные» [different].  In linguistic terms most of these words are defined as «омонимы» [homonyms], «омофоны» [homophones], or «омографы» [homographs]. Today’s post will be all about «омонимы» [homonyms], but posts covering both of the other two groups will be forth-coming here on the blog soon. Fear not, dear reader, for there is only a matter of time until you will have reached «ясность» [fem. clarity] – at least in this regard.

«Омоним» [homonym] comes from Greek and translates into English as ‘having the same name’. Two words are considered homonyms if they are spelled the same and pronounced the same but mean different things. Let’s take the word «брак», for example. In Russian there is the «брак» that means ‘matrimony’, but also the «брак» which means ‘defective goods, rejects’. These two words are not easily confused with each other – especially if seen or heard in context – but have given the foundation for a very popular joke among Russians:

«Что-то хорошее не называют браком» which can mean both

“They don’t call something good defective” and “They don’t call something good a marriage”.

But in Russian it is the ambiguity of the homonyms that makes it funny! I don’t know why I’ve heard this phrase from so many married people in Russia – have you heard it before?

Why do we have homonyms? Why does Russian language have homonyms? Well, homonyms can come to exist in languages in several ways. First of all, they are a result of phonological change: a word might come to coincide in sound and form with another word of different origin. This is the case with the pair «лук» [onion/bow (for shooting)]. Sometimes identical forms may arise as a result of the processes of word-formation, like adding distinct suffixes to a root. This was what went down in the word «ударник» [firing pin/drummer/shock worker/pace-setting worker]. It very often occurs that an already existing word receives quite a new connotation – the word «свет», which used to mean only ‘light’ but came to mean also ‘world’, and then even turned into ‘society’, is only one example. Most of the words that I have collected for you in today’s post are FULL homonyms, meaning they have identical pronunciation and paradigms, like «ключ» [1. key; 2. wrench; 3. spring] in its different meanings. Some of them, however, are PARTIAL homonyms, meaning they do not share all the forms which they both possess. An example of a partial homonym is the word «мир» which does not have plural forms in its sense of ‘peace’

This post began with a photo «из Тары в Омской области» [from Tara in Omsk Oblast’ (Region)] and let’s finish with another one. I don’t think it needs a caption; it is fairly self-explanatory…

One interesting couple of homonyms – and funny, in a sort of silly way – is the imperfect verb «гнать» which can mean «гнать» in ‘to chase, drive, pursue’ and «гнать» ‘to distil’. Knowing this you can state the obvious:

«Он гнал самогон» [He distilled moonshine (lit. he distilled vodka at home/distilled home-made liquor)].

Or play with it like this:

«Он гнал самогон – кто-то его украл!» [He chased his moonshine – someone had stolen it!].

Another example is using the adjective «лёгкий» of which there also are two: «лёгкий» as in ‘light’ and «лёгкий» as in ‘easy’. If you notice something called «лёгкий йогурт» in a Russian grocery store don’t assume this is ‘easy yogurt’ – as apposed to the more common ‘difficult yogurt’ (okay, so that was irony) – but rather make the assumption that it is ‘light yogurt’. If somebody mentions a female as being «девушка лёгкого поведения» do not try and do a direct translation of this expression, for it does not mean ‘a girl of light manners’ – it means ‘prostitute’, thus using the other connotation of the adjective «лёгкий» – easy.

There are plenty of homonyms – and I’m sure you all know the difference between «язык» [tongue] and «язык» [language] already? If you see the word «язык» on the menu at a Russian restaurant, you should be aware that they’re NOT serving some kind of ‘language’ – but tongue!

Here is a list of some of the more common homonyms in Russian language – feel free to add more to it in the comments! After some of the words I have placed phrases that use these homonyms in such a way that it might cause confusion for a non-native speaker – though all of them are common, almost standard phrases in Russian. The correct understanding is given in English translation with letters in red.

«время» [time];

«время» [tense (grammatical term)]:

«Время глагола» [The time of the verb/The verb tense].

«голос» [voice];

«голос» [vote].

«долг» [duty];

«долг» [debt]:

«Чувство долга» [The feeling of debt/The feeling of duty].

«жертва» [victim];

«жертва» [sacrifice]:

«Приносить жертву» [Bring a victim/Bring a sacrifice].

«небо» [sky];

«небо» [heaven].

«опыт» [experience];

«опыт» [experiment]:

«пол» [floor];

«пол» [sex]:

And this one is all about intonation – is it a question «Какой пол?» [What sex/gender (is it)?], or is it an excited appraisal using at least one exclamation mark: «Какой пол!» [What a floor!].

«роман» [novel];

«роман» [romance]:

«совет» [advice];

«совет» [council]:

«трава» [grass];

«трава» [herb]:

«Курить траву» [Smoke herb/Smoke grass/Smoke weed].

«тяжёлый» [heavy];

«тяжёлый» [difficult].

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  1. Dmitriy:

    I am afraid you are mistaken regarding the usage of “гнать”. When used in the sense of “chase” it is used in the reflexive form with preposition “за”, e.g. “гнаться за ним”. If you use it without preposition and in non-reflexive form, it means “to drive very fast” and can only be used with vehicles, e.g. “гнать машину”. So you can’t use it in the sentence “гнать самогон” and mean “chase”. On the other hand, it works in the perfective form, “догнать что-либо” means to “catch up to something”. So you can make a joke like “Я гнал самогон и догнал” which would mean “I distilled moonshine and caught up to it”, but “гнал” is not ambiguous here.

    And by the way, “приносить жертву” means to perform the sacrifice, not just bring it.

  2. josefina:

    Ah Dmitriy! Спасибо for the correction, even though I sort of already knew all of what you are saying (in the back of my mind where memories of every lesson of Russian for foreign students that I attended while studying in Omsk but cannot always recall when needed) – I just thought it would be funny. Sometimes bad grammar can be funny. Sometimes it simply makes no sense. I think my sentence above could – at least I would hope so – be a mix of both?

  3. Minority:

    About “гнать”. It’s not only like that.
    гнать may mean:
    1. drive fast
    2. turn out: Он гнал ее взашей. for example
    3. urge
    4. to tell lie or fable: that’s slang: “I shaked hand to Kennedy today” – “Да ты гонишь! [You’re lying]”

  4. KPNC:

    For a native french speaker like me those homonyms do not feel awkward at all.

    Amazingly, in most of those examples the french translation of the english would be a single word that has both meaning – an “homonyme”.

    Sky/heaven : ciel
    Time/tense : temps
    Experience/experiment : expérience
    Advice/council : conseil

    Although the french words does not look like the russian ones, I don’t think this is a mere coincidence.

  5. phoboid:

    To me as a native German speaker, this list is very funny, because most of Russian homonyms are also homonyms in German! Himmel = sky/heavev, Opfer = victim/sacrifice, Zeit = time/tense, Stimme = voice/vote, leicht = light/easy, schwer = heavy/difficult, Rat = council/advice. To me it seems this can’t be a coincidence, but must be some remnant of the languages’ common past. English seems to be sort of an exception, maybe because it borrowed so many words from French?

  6. Moonyeen:

    The recent guest blog about use of cases in the counting system was fabulous! Always interesting and I’ve always wondered about that. The same for this blog. I am wondering if some words which now have the same spelling were actually different before the reforms of 1918. For example, I think that мир (world-peace) had two spellings: мир – мiр, but I forget which is which. The i is still retained in some other slavic languages. Would any of the words listed have originally been spelled with old letters? Also, don’t forget: есть. Thanks for another great blog!

  7. Ryan:

    I think it’s really important to play up the fact that these aren’t necessarily homonyms so much as extended senses of words where English has two words. One can do “light” work very easily, and democracies give every eligible voter a “voice” in the political system. A human sacrifice should be criminal in any civilized society, and so the unfortunate soul is properly called the victim of a crime. A council counsels (they’re homonyms for me), and whether one says they smoke grass, herb, or weed, they’ll be perfectly understood (at least on the west coast of the US).

    You might see if Vasmer has anything to say about the etymologies of пол the floor and пол the gender. Given that floor has the stressed -у in the prepositional they probably come from different roots.

  8. David Roberts:

    Re. present day homonyms with diferent spellings pre-1918, here’s something I found in
    Wikepedia a few months ago. I hope the Cyrillic in this comment is readable.

    Calls for the elimination of yat (ѣ) from the Russian spelling began with Trediakovsky in the eighteenth century. A proposal for spelling reform from the Russian Academy of Science in 1911 included, among other matters, the systematic elimination of the yat, but was declined at the highest level, and the letter remained for the time being the nightmare of Russian schoolchildren, who had to memorize very long nonsense verses made up of words with ѣ:
    Бѣдный блѣдный бѣлый бѣсъ The poor pale white devil
    Убѣжалъ съ обѣдомъ въ лѣсъ Ran off with lunch into the forest
    … … …

    It can be argued as well that the morphological-compositional nature of Russian spelling was somewhat damaged, since a number of inflections and common words had previously been distinguished by е / ѣ (For example: ѣсть / есть “to eat” / “(there) is”;
    лѣчу / лечу “I heal” / “I fly”;
    синѣе / си́нее “bluer” / “blue” (n.); вѣ́дѣніе /веде́ние “knowledge” / “leadership”).

  9. Colin:

    Both the blog and the comments are becoming even more interesting and useful as time goes on, which I didn’t think was possible:-) Thanks again, Josefina. BTW, I admire your ability to admit to having made a mistake – you will make a great teacher!

  10. josefina:

    Colin, спасибо большое! I must admit that I also enjoy the comments more and more and think that David Roberts would also make a great teacher of Russian 🙂 and as of yet he does not have to fess up to having made any mistakes!