Russian Language Blog

Not So Nuclear Russian Family Posted by on Mar 1, 2012 in language, Russian for beginners

If you have the time, you might like the Russian-language sitcom Сваты. Much of it is available on YouTube. It’s a good sitcom to practice conversational Russian as well as to try to figure out who’s who in this crazy extended family.

Want to play a quick game of associations? I’m going to say (ok, write) a word and you quickly reply with whatever word comes to mind. Ready? Here we go: FAMILY…

Now, play this game with a native Russian speaker: СЕМЬЯ… and they will likely respond with ячейка общества. The набившая оскомину (here: overused, old and boring) Soviet phrase семьяячейка общества can be translated as “family is society’s fundamental unit”. So let’s talk about this fundamental unit.

Russians have plenty of words that describe family ties. And many are confusing. It all starts with свадьба (wedding). In English language men and women simply get married. In Russian, a woman выходит замуж while a man женится:

  • Не хочу учиться, а хочу жениться! (I don’t want to study, I want to get married) says Mitrofanushka (diminutive of a man’s name Митрофан) in Denis Fonvizin’s comedy Недоросль (The Minor).
  • Уж замуж невтерпёж (Already can’t wait to get married) is a phrase sometimes used as in articles for and about women. By the way, it is a very handy mnemonics for a grammar rule: all adverbs ending in sibilant consonants (ж, ч, ш, щ) must end with a soft sign (ь) except these three – уж (already), замуж (marry), невтерпёж (can’t bear any longer).

As we already discussed, молодожёны (young couple) acquires not just their вторая половинка (second half) or спутник/спутница жизни (masculine/feminine life partner), but a whole new extended family.

Жена (wife) gets свекровь (husband’s mother) and свёкор (husband’s father) and becomes невестка (daughter-in-law) to the husband’s entire family, except for the father. To her father-in-law, she is сноха (daughter-in-law). If her husband is not the only child in the family, his брат (brother) becomes wife’s деверь (brother-in-law) while сестра (sister) becomes wife’s золовка (sister-in-law).

  • У меня дома аврал. Завтра свекровь со свёкром приезжают и мы все готовимся. (It’s crunch time at home. My husband’s parents are arriving tomorrow and we are getting everything ready)
  • Я у золовки, за детьми присматриваю, пока она в магазин поехала за молоком. (I am at my brother’s sister, watching the children, while she went to pick up milk)

Муж (husband) gets тёща (wife’s mother) and тесть (wife’s father) and becomes their зять (son-in-law). If his wife is not the only child, her brother becomes husband’s шурин (brother-in-law) while sister becomes свояченица (sister-in-law).

  • У меня шурин – электрик, вот и помог с ремонтом. (My wife’s brother is an electrician and helped me out with remodeling).
  • Свояченица со свояком разводятся и она пока у нас живёт (My wife’s sister and her husband are getting divorced and for now she is staying with us).

As stories go, долго ли, коротко ли (after a while), супруги (husband and wife) become родители (parents) when they have their own bundle of joy, сын (a son) or дочь (a daughter).

Now all those parents-in-law become бабушки (grandmothers) and дедушки (grandfathers) and start doing their best spoiling their внук (grandson) or внучка (granddaughter). And sisters- and brothers-in-law now call themselves дядя (uncle) and тётя (aunt).

  • У меня шесть младших братьев и сестёр. Пока что у них нет детей, так что на Новый год моя дочка получает гору подарков не только от бабушек и дедушек, но и от всех дядь и тёть. (I have six younger brothers and sisters. They don’t have children yet, so come the New Year my daughter gets a pile of gifts not just from the grandmothers and grandfathers, but from all the uncles and aunts as well).

But what about the two sets parents of the happily married couple? After all, they become each others родственники (relatives) as well. They become сваты (parents of a child’s spouse) – сват (father of child’s spouse) and сватья (mother of a child’s spouse). This might be particularly confusing because there is a similar-sounding Russian word сваха means a match-maker.

Even more relatives join the extended family after a child gets baptized. First, there are крёстный отец (godfather) or simply крёстный and крёстная мать (godmother) or simply крёстная. These godmother and godfather become  кум and кума not just to the families of their крестник (godson) or крестница (goddaughter), but to each other as well.

Finally, let’s talk about cousins or двоюродные братья (male cousins) and двоюродные сёстры (female cousins) who might also be the old-fashioned and now rarely-used кузены (male cousins) and кузины (female cousins). Not much to say here other than when cousins grow up and have children of their own, these children become троюродные сёстры (females) and троюродные братья (males) to each other. When they grow up and have children, these kids become четвероюродные brothers and sisters to each other. Same goes for дядя, тётя, племянник (nephew) and племянница (niece) ties between cousins and their children. The words are the same, but the adjective двоюродный/ая is added.

And now it’s practice time. Get out your family album and look through it figuring out who’s who in your extended family. And don’t forget about yourself. For example, I am мама, жена, дочь, племянница, двоюродная тётя of two adorable двоюродные племянницы, троюродная сестра and, of course, сноха и невестка. It’s your turn now.

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  1. Minority:

    По правде сказать, даже я не особо разбираюсь в хитросплетениях названий родственных отношений в России.) There’re always useful words “родня”/”родственник” [relative], especially if it’s someone “седьмая вода на киселе” [lit. “the seventh water on the kissel”, “related only through Adam”] = “дальний родственник” [distant relative]

  2. Rob McGee:

    Не лёд трещит,
    Не комар пищит!
    Это кум до кумы судака тащит!

    (“It’s not ice cracking, it’s not a mosquito squeaking! It’s godfather dragging a perch-fish to godmother!”)

  3. Rob McGee:

    двоюродная тётя of two adorable двоюродные племянницы

    Hmmmm… if I understand you correctly, then these two adorable girls are, in English, your “first cousins once removed” — and you, likewise, are a “first cousin once removed” to them. But your son is “second cousin” to the girls, and they to him.

    (In the case of cousin relationships, the Russian kinship terms seem to me a little bit simpler than the English, which partly makes up for the crazy complexity of Russian in-law terms!)

  4. Rob McGee:

    If his wife is not the only child, her brother becomes husband’s шурин (brother-in-law)

    However, my sister’s husband is not my шурин; he’s my зять, as well as being the зять of my mom and dad! In other words, зять describes the relationship of a man to his wife’s parents AND to her siblings, and thus can be translated as either “son-in-law” or “brother-in-law”.

    Also, в маловероятном случае, если бы я женился на женщине (“in the quite unlikely event that I were to marry a woman”), then my sister would be золовка (“sister-in-law”) to my wife, but my wife would be невестка (“sister-in-law”) to my sister and her husband, and also невестка (“daughter-in-law”) to my mom, but сноха (“daughter-in-law”) to my dad. (Assuming the terrible shock of seeing me вступить в гетеросексуальный брак didn’t kill both my parents, of course.)

  5. Olga Tarn:

    Hевестка – женщина по отношению к семье мужа, т.е. жена сына, брата, деверя, шурина.
    Зять – мужчина по отношению к семье жены, т.е. муж дочери, сестры, племянницы.

  6. Rob McGee:

    You know, I thought of another category of “family terms” we haven’t covered: The equivalents of the English prefix step- (that is, related by the re-marriage of a parent).

    “Stepbrother” and “stepsister” are really easy: You just add the adjective сводный/сводная to the appropriate noun брат or сестра.

    For stepparents and stepchildren, the situation is more complicated, although if you read a lot of Russian fairytales, you’ll soon learn the feminine terms:

    мачеха — (“stepmother”) who is usually evil, and often wishes for the death of her…

    падчерица (“stepdaughter”), who is cruelly treated, but kind and beautiful, and who ends up marrying a царевич (“prince”) — or, at the very least, a handsome and wealthy merchant.

    The masculine “step” terms aren’t as commonly seen in сказки and I have trouble remembering them, but they are пасынок (“stepson”) and отчим (“stepfather”).

    I can’t remember any Russian fairytales where the male hero has a wicked отчим (stepfather), but I think I’ve seen one or two Soviet сказки (not necessarily Russian) where the male hero’s тесть (father-in-law) turns out to be some sort of magical and evil оборотень (shape-shifter). But as in English fairytales, it’s the мачеха and сводные сестры who are more often in the villain roles.