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The Rule of Three Posted by on Jun 21, 2011 in Culture, language, Other Blogs

Have you ever heard of «тройное правило» [the Rule of Three]? Of course, you have! But if you are still not sure «о чём идёт речь» [what I’m talking about], here’s a quick link to a Wikipedia entry.

Ok, so as you can see, the rule of three is «всеобъемлющее» [universal]. By the way, if you are wondering, the gender of «правило» [rule] is neuter which explains the ending of the adjective “universal”.

I came across the explanation of this rule by way of a post titled “Linguistic Threesomes” on The Book of Three blog. As I read through numerous examples of three-word «выражения» [expressions] commonly used «в английском языке» [in English language], I couldn’t help but wonder «работает ли это правило в русском языке» [whether this rule works for Russian language].

Sure, one of the «часто используемых слов» [frequently used words] in spoken Russian language «состоит из трёх букв» [has three letters]. In fact, «воспитанные люди» [well-mannered people] refer to it as «слово из трёх букв» [the three-letter word].

Then there are all the literary and historical and cultural examples – «три богатыря» [three heroes (of Russian folklore)], «три девицы под окном» [the three maidens by the window], «Братья Карамазовы» [the Brothers Karamazov (there were three of them)], «три танкиста» [three tank crewmen (from a song)], «три основоположника марксизма-ленинизма» [three founders of the Marxism-Leninism], «третий Рим» [the third Rome], «сообразить на троих» [to share 0.5L of vodka between 3 people] and many more (feel free to add examples in the comments or on the Facebook page)

There are also plenty of three-word phrases, including

  • «Пошёл к чёрту» [Go to hell]
  • «Дети – цветы жизни» [Children are the flowers of life]
  • «Старость не радость» [Old age is no joy]
  • «Семьяячейка общества» [Family is the building block of a society]
  • «Учиться, учиться и учиться!» [To study, to study and to study!] – ok, this does have 4 words, but there are 3 repetitions of the key word, so I say it counts.
  • «Будете проезжать, проезжайте» [If you are passing by, do pass by]
  • «Казнить нельзя помиловать» – depending on where a comma is placed, the meaning of this phrase changes between “execute, do not pardon” and “pardon, do not execute”. (Credit for remembering this phrase goes to our reader, Rob, who talked about this example in one of his extensive and helpful comments)
  • «Богатые тоже плачут» [Rich also cry] – this was a title of a hugely popular soap opera and the phrase «прочно вошла» [became deeply embedded] in Russian language

What three-word Russian phrases can you add to this list? Do you think the linguistic rule of three holds for the Russian language? Or should it be replaced with the rule of four… or more?

Finally, here’s a quick marketing quiz for you. As you know, European and American brands made quick inroads into Russian markets. So «Макдоналдс», «Пицца Хат», «Проктэр энд Гэмбл», «ИКЕА» and many-many other global companies had to not just translate, but localize their marketing messages to the Russian audience. Can you match brands to their slogans (some slogans are specific to particular makes/models/products):

  1. «Просто сделай это»
  2. «Думай иначе!»
  3. «Вот что я люблю»
  4. «Пауза, которая освежает»
  5. «Будь собой. Не дай себе засохнуть»
  6. «Всё будет в шоколаде»
  7. «Качество меняет всё»

a)      Ford

b)      Nike

c)      Sprite

d)     Mars

e)      Apple

f)       Coca-cola

g)      McDonalds

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  1. Keni:

    # Просто сделай это» – (b) Nike

    # «Думай иначе!» – (c) sprite

    # «Вот что я люблю» – (g) McDonalds

    # «Пауза, которая освежает» – (f) coca cola

    # «Будь собой. Не дай себе засохнуть» – (c) Sprite

    # «Всё будет в шоколаде» – (d) Mars

    # «Качество меняет всё» – (e) apple

  2. abe:

    There are four karamazov brothers. You are not counting Smerdyakov.

    • yelena:

      @abe You’re right, Abe. I guess I should’ve clarified – three legitimate brothers Karamazov 🙂 Ok, so how about the three loves of Natasha Rostova then?

  3. Rob McGee:

    «Всё будет в шоколаде» is interesting because it doesn’t seem to be in any way a translation of an existing English slogan — all the others translate ad slogans that were originally in English.

    (Well, except for «Не дай себе засохнуть» — but although it’s far from being a literal translation of “Obey your thirst,” it still captures the spirit of the original.)

    • yelena:

      @Rob McGee You know, Rob, it’s a very good point – a lot of times the direct translation of slogans just doesn’t work, like the case with the Foster’s beer slogan. Then it has to be completely re-imagined.

  4. Joerg:

    Nike «Просто сделай это»
    Apple «Думай иначе!»
    McDonalds «Вот что я люблю»
    Coca-cola «Пауза, которая освежает»
    Sprite «Будь собой. Не дай себе засохнуть»
    Mars «Всё будет в шоколаде»
    Ford «Качество меняет всё»

  5. Rob McGee:

    A few other English-to-Russian translated ad catchphrases that I still remember seeing years ago… can you guess the brands?:

    «____ — лучше для мужчины нет!»

    «Ваша киска купила бы ____»

    «____: Попробуй радугу фруктовых ароматов!»

    «____ из _____: Моделируйте ваши волосы, по вашему вкусу!»

  6. Rob McGee:

    “a lot of times the direct translation of slogans just doesn’t work, like the case with the Foster’s beer slogan”

    You mean, “Faaawstah’s — Awst-RILE-yin fa bee-yuh”?

    I assume the difficulty in that case is not that the slogan is linguistically impossible to translate. Rather, the American cultural perception that Australia is “exactly like our untamed cowboy Old West, but with marsupials!!” is not shared by Russians.

  7. Bob:

    . . . and I thought the ‘rule of three’ referred to the three things you need to consider when declining Russian words: Gender, Number and Case 🙂

    The marketing quiz and the “Russification” of English company names reminded me of an interesting section of a Russian grammar book I own: “Using Russian”, by Derek Offord (ISBN 0521457602). In a section called “Faux Amis” (“False Friends” in french), he details words that ‘sound’ American but in Russian have a very different meaning. For example, the word авантюра might imply “adventure”, but really means “a shady enterprise” or “a risky business venture”. The real Russian word is приключние. Perhaps this might be a neat topic for another article?

  8. Bob:

    PS – Rob, how far down memory lane do I need to stroll for these slogans? I want to guess that the third one is Skittles, since the Russian version comes close to the English tagline “Taste the Rainbow”, but I think it’s a bit too new to fit your “years ago” description.

  9. Rob McGee:

    Bob: These are slogans that I heard constantly on Russian TV or saw everywhere on advertising posters when I lived in Moscow from 1993-94. I’m sure there were others, but I listed the ones that have “stuck in my head” all these years. (And I think part of the reason I remember them is that the corresponding English slogans also ran on TV for years and years.)

    By the way, you’re correct about Skittles! There was also an ad campaign for Snickers that described the толстый-толстый слой шоколада of the candy bar; the phrase became legendary and was often parodied, although it wasn’t the “official ad slogan” for Snickers.

    If you need a hint on the first one on the list: the brand name rhymes with “нет”!

    And here’s a видео-намёк (“video-clue”) for one of the other slogans…

  10. Rob McGee:

    «Учиться, учиться и учиться!» [To study, to study and to study!] – ok, this does have 4 words, but there are 3 repetitions of the key word, so I say it counts.

    Personally, I would argue that “WHAT would you DO for a KLON-dike bar?” also follows the Rule of Three, if you go by sentence rhythm and key words instead of the actual number of words. (Note that if you translate the advertising jingle с английского на «тарзанский», the result is: “WHAT, FOR KLONDIKE?”)

    So by that logic, «Учиться, учиться и учиться!» definitely fits (the и doesn’t count here), although arguably «Пошёл к чёрту» is really a TWO-word slogan like Apple’s “Think Different”, because there is some redundancy between the preposition к and the dative ending on чёрту.

  11. Delia:

    My favorite Russian three word expression is Утро вечера мудреннее (Morning is wiser than evening, basically it means “one needs to sleep on it”)

    I think this is a better Wikipedia article about three
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3_%28number%29 which I think explains historical, or religious fascination (or tradition?) with number three.

    Lena: In the English translation of Да здравствует… it should be Long Live …

    • yelena:

      @Delia Delia, you’re absolutely correct and I just changed the translation 🙂

  12. Delia:

    Sorry, forgot to mention: In the Wikipedia article when you scroll all the way down, notice one of the articles

    “People in Threes Going Up in Smoke and Other Triplicities in Russian Literature and Culture” (Fall 2005, Rocky Mountain Review) by Lee B. Croft.

  13. Delia:

    Bob: there’s a similar translation from French in Russian “Ложные друзья переводчика”. Just Google these three (!!!) words in Russian and you will see a lot of entries for many languages.

    • yelena:

      @Delia Delia, I love the Wiki article that comes up after searching “ложные друзья переводчика”. While it’s not the most gripping, it covers several languages, not just English. Also, a while ago Josefina wrote a couple of posts on the same topic – Part I and Part II

  14. Fatemeh:

    Nice post, thanks.

  15. saint facetious:

    You are forgetting one of the biggest “rule of threes” in Russian history, the тройка tribunals.

    • yelena:

      @saint facetious Hi Saint, great to know you’re still reading 🙂 You’re absolutely right. That is the very dark side of the “rule of threes”.