Russian Language Blog

Same-Same but Different III: Homographs Posted by on Sep 1, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners, Russian life, when in Russia

Can it really be true that we’ve saved the best for our final, third, part of “Same-Same but Different”? After two posts – one on «омонимы» [homonyms] and another about «омофоны» [homophones] – we made it all the way to the truly troubling and trickiest of them all: «омографы» [homographs]. Here and now is when not only your intuition will be put to the test, but also your ability to «запоминать» [impfv. to remember, to make it a point to remember; to memorize (it’s perfect ‘friend’ is «запомнить»)] words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently. The last part is imperative because these words differ in meaning depending on how you pronounce them. I’m sure everyone already knows and agrees with me that «знать, на какой гласный падает ударение» [to know which vowel is stressed (lit. ‘to know on what vowel the stress falls)] in Russian words is «один из самых сложных моментов русского языка»  [one of the most difficult moments of Russian language]. «Омограф» [homograph] comes from Greek and means ‘written the same’. Russian language – rich as it is in several other ways as well – has many pairs of homographs. A large number of them are the results of simple morphological coincidence; though it of course would have been much more «любопытно» [curiously; also: interesting] for us had there been more to investigate behind them. Today’s post will only include a very «маленькое количество омографов» [small amount of homographs] to illustrate this complicated – for non-native speakers, that is – phenomenon.

Found on a wall in Yekaterinburg during the summer of 2007 (can you guys imagine how long I’ve been searching for a reason to post this picture here?!): «Скоро зима. Скорее пиши на дверях туалета свой стишок, писака» [Soon (it will be) winter. Hurry up and write (or: pee – depending on where you put the stress) your little verse on the walls of the toilet, scribbler (also: poor writer, hack writer)].

The highly imaginative and kind of profound graffiti above probably needs to be explained. First of all, it uses two so-called ‘negative’ diminutives derived from neutral nouns: «писака» [both fem. & mas., poor writer, hack writer, scribbler] from «писатель» [mas. writer] and «стишок» [little verse, bad poem, poor quality poetry] from «стих» [verse; pl. poetry, poems]. But it is also partly built around the homographs «писать» [impfv. to write] and «писать» [impfv. to piss]. Many foreigners in Russia have confused these two verbs with each other and made a fool of themselves; just as many foreigners will make the same mistake and thus also a fool of themselves in the future. Partly this is because most of us aren’t taught that the «писать» [to piss] way to pronounce this verb has a WHOLE OTHER meaning and so we don’t know how important it is to pronounce it right, i.e. «писать» [to write].  But only in infinitive form – and I’m guessing also in imperative because of the graffiti above – are these two verbs true homographs. As soon as you start putting them in first person singular present time, you’ll come to see that it is not really as easy to confuse them with each other anymore:

«Писать» [impfv. to write] becomes «я пишу» [I write].

«Писать» [impfv. to piss] becomes «я писаю» [I piss].

The same is true for all other forms of these two verbs in present tense, like in second person singular for example:

«Писать» [impfv. to write] becomes «ты пишешь» [you write];

«Писать» [impfv. to piss] becomes «ты писаешь» [you piss].

Of course it would be embarrassing to realize the next day that you told a Russian «мне нужно писать» [I have to pee (or: I need to pee)] when what you really wanted to inform them of was «мне нужно писать» [I have to write (or: I need to write)]. But I’m certain they’ll get over it. Let’s consider another sometimes annoying hompgraph: first person singular in present tense of both «платить» [impfv. to pay] and «плакать» [impfv. to cry] is written like «плачу». Say you asked a Russian girl/boy out to dinner, they said yes and everything has been going great up until the moment that you get the bill on the table. How do you pronounce the sentence «я всегда плачу» so that it means ‘I always pay’ and not ‘I always cry’ (unless that’s what you want to say)?

Your date will be impressed with your «ЩЕДРОСТЬ» [fem. GENEROSITY] if you say….

«Я всегда плачу» which is 1st person singular of «платить» [impfv. to pay].

Your date will be impressed with your «ЧУВСТВИТЕЛЬНОСТЬ» [fem. SENSITIVITY] if you say…

«Я всегда плачу» which is 1st person singular of «плакать» [impfv. to cry]

Has anybody else ever walked up to the counter in a Russian store and asked for «мука» [torment], when what you really needed in order to bake cookies was «мука» [flour]? That happened to me on a regular basis. In fact it happened so much that I would think I was always saying the word wrong even when I got it right… Has that ever happened to you?

Here’s a tiny little list of other homographs worth memorizing:

«атлас» [atlas];

«атлас» [satin].

«замок» [castle];

«замок» [lock].

«потом»: instrumental case singular of «пот» [sweat].

«потом» [(adverb) then].

«уже»: short comparative form of «узкий» [narrow], i.e. meaning ‘narrower’.

«уже» [already].

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  1. Niklаs Bönnemаrk:

    To the best of my knowledge, the only pun that can be observed in the photo is with the word “писака”, which, with a little fantasy, can also mean “a pisser”, but the imperative form of “пи́сать” (‘to pee’) is “пи́сай”. It is actually not clear if there is any pun intented in that text.

    As for “плáчу” or “плачý”, you seem to have mixed up the stress. The first person present form takes the same stress as the infinitive for either of these verbs, so “я плáчу” means “I cry”, and “я плачý” means “I pay”.

    Having said that, I would just like to add that I read your observations with great interest, and I look forward to reading more of them!

  2. josefina:

    Hi Niklas! I think that you might be right about the picture grammatically (or: linguistically) lacking any true pun. But as I am proud to be a philologist, it is my job to allow for freely associations to roam wild in the world of language and express openly what Freud called “sublimation” 😉 And yes, I think the only word with a pun might actually be “писака”… and no decent dictionary would tell me that it is actually “писай” in imperative.

    I am always more than happy to admit my mistakes (I think that almost every comment I write in this blog is to fess up to some mistake or other that you, our lovely and very attentive, readers have noticed), but I double-checked the stress in both “плакать” and “платить” and it seems like I didn’t mix them up at all? Or perhaps you mean something else?

    I’m glad you enjoy my observations!

  3. Niklas Bönnemark:

    Hmm… “плáчу” is 1st p sg pres of “плáкать” (‘to cry’; stress on the 1st syllable in both forms), and “плачý” is 1st p sg pres of “плати́ть” (‘to pay’; stress on the 2nd syllable in both forms). As far as I can see, you seem to have connected one present tense form with the other infinitive and vice versa. Eller? 🙂

  4. Natasha:

    Sorry, but you did mix up плачУ (I pay) and я плАчу (I cry). They work this way:
    Платить (pay)- я плачУ, ты плАтишь, он/она плАтит, мы плАтим, вы плАтите, они плАтят
    Плакать (cry) – я плАчу, ты плАчешь, он/она плАчет, мы плАчем, вы плАчете, они плАчут.
    The stress and ending only changes in платить 🙂

  5. Shady_arc:

    Actually, the stresses did get mixed up in your sentences “Я всегда плачу” (“I cry” is плАчу and “I pay” is плачУ, the stresses are the same as in infinitives). Even the stress in “всегда” is misplaced. Is it that the wrong letters were underlined? I doubt you really pronounce “всегда” this way, given that you have much exposure to the language ^_^.

  6. Dennis:

    You did indeed mix up the stress on the the two verbs! One way to remember the difference is memorize the the sentence: “Whenever I pay,I cry!” or in Russian: «Когда я плачУ, я плАчу!».
    Regards and keep up the great blogs!
    Dennis MacLeay

  7. Dennis:

    You did indeed mix up the stress on the the two verbs! One way to remember the difference is memorize the the sentence: “Whenever I pay,I cry!” or in Russian: «Когда я плачУ, я плАчу!».
    Regards and keep up the great blogs!
    Dennis MacLeay
    P.S.Wouldn’t the word «скорее» here be better(скорее) translated into English as “better” or “ought to” as in “You ought to on write on bathroom doors!”

  8. Vitaly:

    It is an interesting analysis. You made some mistake:

    «Я всегда плАчу» which is 1st person singular of «плакать» [impfv. to cry].

    «Я всегда плачУ» which is 1st person singular of «платить» [impfv. to pay]

    How can you explain the word: “писюк”?


  9. Юсэф Хулиганов:

    духи и духи

    spirits and perfume

  10. Joerg:

    Hi Josefina!
    What a great blog this is! I can hardly stop to read through its history, since your entries are so interesting, разнообразные and helpful in improving one’s knowledge of Russian. I’m glad that I’ve finally run into it…

    As for the stress on “плАчу” (I cry) and “плачУ” (I pay) your readers are right. Also the stress on “всегдА” should be at the end.

    Anyway, thank you so much for your outstanding work!
    Kind regards from Austria