Same-Same but Different I: Homonyms Posted by josefina 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’.
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» [tense (grammatical term)]:
«Время глагола» [The time of the verb/The verb tense].
«Чувство долга» [The feeling of debt/The feeling of duty].
«Приносить жертву» [Bring a victim/Bring a sacrifice].
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!].
«Курить траву» [Smoke herb/Smoke grass/Smoke weed].
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