Russian Language Blog

Same-Same but Different II: Homophones Posted by on Aug 28, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners, Russian life, Traditions, when in Russia

Two days ago we discussed «омонимы» [pl. homonyms] here on our blog. As a part of that process I tried to be funny but was probably only silly when I used the popular phrase «гнать самогон» in a sentence so it wouldn’t mean «гнать самогон» as in ‘to distill moonshine’ – like it usually does – but ‘to chase the moonshine (or home-made vodka, if that’s what you prefer to call it)’. This example was not true grammatically, I am afraid. If you really want to say ‘to chase the moonshine’ in Russian you would have to use the reflexive version of the same verb – «гнаться» [to chase, pursue] – together with the preposition «за» [here: after] which forces the noun coming after it into the «творительный падеж» [instrumental case] like this: «гнаться за самогоном» [to chase after the home-made liquor]. Why am I elaborating so much on this when it is such a minor correction? You never know; anyone of us might end up «в такой сложной ситуации» [in such a difficult situation] one day where we must speak about this in Russia. «Шутки в сторону» [joking aside], this is important grammatical commentary!

Today we’re going to continue our discussion about words that look or sound the same but mean different things and talk about «омофоны» [homophones]. «Омофон» [homophone] is a word that is pronounced the same as another word but differs in meaning. «Омофоны» [homophones] are commonly used by teachers of «русский как иностранный» [Russian as a foreign language] at universities in Russia as a way to test the students’ «слух» [hearing] – even though sometimes even Russians themselves can’t hear the difference between two homophones. For example, back in June this year a friend of mine in Yekaterinburg – «студент из Китая» [a student from China] – «сдавал гос(ударственный) экзамен по русскому как иностранному» [was taking his state exam in Russian as a foreign language] and the teacher pronounced a word that sounded like «грип». She then asked him which noun she was pronouncing: «гриб» [mushroom] or «грипп» [influenza]. These two words are homophones due to the rules of assimilations in Russian phonetics which make the «б» at the end of a masculine noun sound like a «п». Since «гриб» [mushroom] and «грипп» [influenza] sound exactly the same when pronounced correctly, I don’t know what the right way to «сдать этот экзамен» [pass this exam] would’ve been. Perhaps to answer ‘both’?

Because «омофоны» [homophones] can easily be confused with each other they also offer much material for «каламбуры» [pl. word-play, puns]. As such they are more widespread in English than in Russian (consider  couples like bare/bear and right/write, for example), but even in Russian language they may arise as a result, for example, of the devoicing of final voiced consonants, like in the example above with  «гриб» [mushroom] or «грипп» [influenza], as well as in the case with «немой» [dumb; mute] and «не мой» [not my]. In some contexts, however, it is unlikely that any confusion as to the meaning of a word which sounds the same as another will arise, even though it can happen. And it has happened to me many, many times. For example, «дне» is the form used in the prepositional case singular of two Russian nouns: «день» [day] and «дно» [bottom]. For the longest time I thought that «Максим Горький»’s [Maxim Gorky’s] play «На дне» translated into English “On the Day”. I have yet to read this work – which could be one of the reasons as to why I misunderstood the title – but now I know that the correct translation of it is “At the Bottom” (the English translation is commonly called “In the Lower Depths” – which is sort of the same thing). And also that there’s a big difference in meaning between those two titles!

Believe it or not, but I once did manage to confuse the two highly differing words «лук» [meadow] and «луг» [onion, bow] with each other. It happened during a lecture on Russian modernism literature when I only heard the professor pronounce the title of one of the early 20th century writer «Андрей Белый»’s [Andrei Bely’s] collection of critical articles – the professor didn’t write it up on the black board. The result of this was that I thought this collection was called «Лук зелёный» [‘The Green Onion’] – and kept wondering to myself what these articles had to do with onions? did it perhaps contain some recipes using onions? was Bely himself maybe a big fan of onions? – which is as hilarious as it is embarrassing when you consider that «зелёный лук» in Russian actually means ‘chives’. The real title of the collection is «Луг зелёный» [“The Green Meadow”]. It might not make more sense but at least it is correct.

Here is a list with a few (far from all of them!) common homophones in Russian language. And while you’re reading through them, I want you to ask yourself if you’ve ever confused any of them with each other? Like I did – twice – in my examples above?

«кампания» [campaign];

«компания» [company (in various senses)].

«порог» [threshold];

«порок» [vice (fault, sin)].

«труд» [labor];

«трут» [tinder].

«плод» [pond];

«плот» [twig].

«род» [kin, sort, kind, genus, gender];

«рот» [mouth].

«шагом» instrumental case singular of «шаг» [step, pace];

«шагом» adverb [at walking pace].

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  1. Ryan:

    In my phonology class last spring the (Russian) professor mentioned a study that showed that native Russian speakers are actually above chance in distinguishing pairs like гриб and грипп, so evidently they aren’t exactly homophones. I’ll try to dig it up later today.

  2. David Roberts:

    плод = pond is interesting. When you bear in mind that for many people in Asia л and р sound the same, we see that плод is almost the same word as пруд (also = pond), just the vowel has mutated. Do плод and пруд mean exactly the same or are they different kinds of ponds?

  3. Natalya:

    I once did manage to confuse the two highly differing words «лук» [meadow] and «луг» [onion, bow] with each other

    And you did it again. 🙂 You proceed to use them correctly in your example, but here you reversed the meanings. The onion is actually луК, and the meadow is луГ, not vice versa.

  4. David Roberts:

    плод = pond has a “100% homonym”
    плод = fruit

    If you’re into sound shifts you can see how плод derives from the same root as фрут which is probably borrowed from western European fruit/fruto and its variants

  5. Shady_arc:

    плод = fruit, harvest
    плот = raft

    I am a native speaker of Russian, and have never heard of “плод” meaning “pond”. It most likely has been confused with “пруд”(pond) which has indeed an homophone “прут”(twig)