Russian Greetings are Fun Posted by yelena on Nov 19, 2010 in Culture, language, Russian for beginners
You’ve all likely heard an expression “nature abhors vacuum”. You can translate it into Russian quite literally as «природа не терпит пустоты» or more figuratively as «свято место пусто не бывает» [lit: the holy place is never empty]. This last one is especially appropriate when talking about people.
And so now we have a new blogger, Natalie, who you’ve already met and greeted yesterday. That’s just what I wanted to talk about, Russian greetings.
Natalie used the word «здравствуйте» for her greeting and with a good reason. The awfully hard to pronounce «здравствуйте», literally meaning “be well” or “be healthy”, is the most formal general Russian greeting.
The old textbooks sometimes translate «здравствуйте» as the equivalent of the British “how do you do”. Nowadays it’s translated as “hello”.
So, if you are meeting someone for the first time, use the polite «здравствуйте». But also use it when addressing anyone with whom you are «на вы», meaning that you address them with the formal respectful “you”. Typically that’s «люди, старше вас по возрасту или положению» [people who are older or more senior ranking than you].
If you are addressing several people at once, you will also use «здравствуйте» regardless of how familiar you are with these people.
Now, it is a tough word to pronounce. The key here is to skip a couple of letters. How many depends on how formal you need this greeting to sound:
Pronounce it as «здраствуйте» and you will retain all the original formality without getting your tongue twisted.
Shorten it to «здрасьте» or even «драсьти» and it becomes one of the most informal and least respectful greetings (actually, I’d go as far as to classify the latter version as downright disrespectful, but maybe it’s just me).
Dropping the last two letters, «-те», you’ll get «здравствуй» – a common greeting between friends. You have to be «на ты» [in the habit of using the informal “you”] with someone to use «здравствуй». Or you can use it to address a child who will, if «правильно воспитан» [properly taught], reply with «вежливый» [polite] «здравствуйте».
How do you know if you can switch to an informal «ты» [you] with your Russian «собеседник» [conversation partner]? He or she will suggest it either by saying «давайте перейдём на ты», «давайте будем на ты» or even a simple «давайте на ты», all meaning “let’s start addressing each other with the informal “you””. Or you can ask «можно на ты?» [may we switch to the informal you?] or «не возражаете, если на ты?» [do You mind if we switch to the informal you?].
If you happen to be at a table with «закуски» [appetizers] and «выпивка» [alcohol], this will happen sooner than later in the form of a mandatory toast «на брудершафт» [to switching to the informal you].
Here’s another way to become «на ты», something I call the transitive property of «ты» [you] «в подходящей компании» [in the appropriate crowd]. If you are «на ты» with person A who introduces you to person B and A and B are already «на ты», then chances are, you will be «на ты» with this person B right away.
Once you are «на ты» with Russians, you have a host of informal greetings to use:
«Привет!» [Hi!] is most appropriate between young people or people close in age. I might be «слишком вежливая» [too polite], but «я твёрдо верю» [I firmly believe] that «привет» shouldn’t be used by younger people to address their elders, except within the family. «Приветик» is a diminutive form of this greeting that shows that give them a word, any word, and Russians will come up with a diminutive for it.
«Как дела?» [How are things?] and «Как жизнь?» [How’s life?] both amount to “How are you” greeting. Except that if that’s how you choose to greet a Russian, be prepared for something more substantial than the typical English-language “fine, thank you”. You are as likely to hear «хорошо» [well], «неплохо» [not bad] and «нормально» [all right] as «так себе» [so-so], «плохо» [poorly], «фигово» [informal: like rubbish]. And in many cases you will also get the full background story as well.
«Какая встреча!» [What a meeting!] and «Какие люди!» [Look who’s here!] are both informal greetings used to express surprise and joy. By the way, «какие люди!» can be used to greet both a group and a single person. Both these greetings are likely to be followed by warm hugs and kisses on both cheeks or a round of manly bear hugs and back-patting and exclamations of «сколько лет, сколько зим!» [lit. how many summers and winters; long time, no see].
Once those are over (you might be offered a handkerchief to wipe the lipstick marks off your cheeks), you might be asked «какими судьбами?» [lit: what fates brought you here; how come you’re here]. And from this point on, whatever plans you’ve made for the day will be null and void and replaced with some kind of «застолье» [a feast, although “feast” is not at all an adequate translation].
As you can see, moving past the formal “you” with its hard to pronounce «здравствуйте» [hello] and bland «доброе утро» [good morning], «добрый день» [good afternoon] and «добрый вечер» [good evening] really opens up the universe of possibilities.