Russian Language Blog

There Is More To Marriage Than “Брак” Posted by on Apr 21, 2011 in Culture, language


Are you married? Please don’t be offended by what seems to be my idle curiosity. There’s a reason for my asking you this (or is it “me asking you this”?)

How would you ask this simple question in Russian? The answer depends on the gender of the person you’re speaking with. So if you are asking a woman, you’d say «Вы замужем?» Yet if you are asking a man, the question becomes «Вы женаты?»

But what if you would like to keep it gender-neutral? Then you can ask «Ваше семейное положение?» [What is your marital status] or «Состоите ли Вы в браке?» [Are you married?]

The word «брак», of course, has another meaning in addition to “marriage”. Its second meaning is “defective articles, discards”. While some marriages do end up discarded, the two «брак»s are not linguistically related.

«Брак» as in «счастливый брак» [happy marriage] is Slavic in origin and actually shares its root «бра-» with the word «брать» [to take]. Suffix «-к-» is then added to the root. So it makes total sense that after a groom «берёт замуж» [takes in marriage] his bride, and she, in turn «идёт замуж» [becomes married], their marital status changes from «неженатый» and «незамужняя» [unmarried] to «состоящие в браке» [married].

«Брак» as in «некачественный товар»  [low-quality goods] is borrowed from a Germanic and is directly related to the English “break”. As many other foreign words, this one entered Russian language «в эпоху Петра [in Peter the Great’s time].

Now, let’s see, would you say that the word «брачащиеся» describes

(a) A couple in the process of entering into the matrimonial bonds or

(b) Goods in the process of being inspected by quality control and found defective

(c) Neither, the actual word is «брачующиеся»

If you answered (a) – pat yourself on the back.

If you answered (b) – you already know it was the wrong answer. A word that describes (b) is «бракуемый».

If you answered (c) – you’re only partially correct. The word «брачующиеся» used to be the norm until September 2009. Ever since then it is officially «брачащиеся», but you can still hear the old version in some Soviet-era movies.

A must-know Russian «брак»-related phrase is a slogan of telecommunication professionals «За связь без брака!» which means either «To high-quality connections” or “To connections that don’t end up with marriage” depending on the context. You see, the word «связь» can mean either “connection” or “relationship”.

You might also hear a phrase «хорошую вещь “браком” не назовут» [nothing good would ever be called “discards”].

It is also interesting that when two people are married, they are said to be «связаны узами брака» [lit: tied by the bonds of marriage]. In English these people are called “spouses”. In Russian they are «супруги». The word «супруг» has the same root as the words «упряжь» [harness] and «упряжка» [a team of horses] and has a literally meaning of someone in the same harness and consequently pulling the same load.

By the way, a still-popular in Russia 1964 movie «Брак по-итальянски» [Marriage Italian-style] with Sophia Loren, made popular use of a language form «по+корень+ски» in news headlines, typically with negative connotation:

«Забастовка по-французски» [Labor Strike French-style]

«Ипотека по-американски» [Mortgage American-style]

«Демократия по-советски» [Democracy Soviet-style]

«Распродажа по-лужковски» [Sale Luzhkov-style]

Finally, May is probably the most popular month for weddings in the US. But in Russia the common belief is «в мае жениться – век маяться» [to get married in May is to drudge through the rest of your days].

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  1. David Roberts:

    “My asking you” is really the correct one but “me asking you” is what you’d hear more often than not in the UK, and almost certainly in USA also.

    • yelena:

      @David Roberts Thanks, David, for lifting the weight off my shoulders! Not only was I right (I love when it happens), but there was really no way for me to be wrong either 🙂

  2. Ken Bankston:

    Nice article. It is interesting to note that the traditional attitude toward the marriage relationship shows in the language. In English, the word “spouse” doesn’t seem to to have the same connotation of shared or joint effort that the Russian «супруг» with it’s connotation of both partners being harnessed, or yoked, pulling the same load together as a team. I think that is a very healthy attitude.

    • yelena:

      @Ken Bankston As I was writing this post, I found it interesting that the English “spouse” came from the Latin “spondere” – to promise solemnly and is actually related to “sponsor”.

  3. Ken Bankston:

    It also brings to mind a Russian saying which, translated into English, says, “Two people, one devil.” Again an insight into the cultural attitudes regarding marriage in the Slavic world.

    • yelena:

      @Ken Bankston Ken, thank you! I actually completely forgot about this saying “муж и жена – одна сатана”.

  4. Ken Bankston:

    Yes. I like the concept of marriage as being yoked together to pull the same load, a team, rather than the concept of marriage being merely a solemn promise. Promises are easily broken, but when you and your partner become a team, two people one devil, then it is a much harder thing to break. I think it would be interesting to learn more about Russian traditions regarding marriage and family and the unique words that have been coined to describe these relationships.

  5. darya:

    Лен, “авиакатастрофы” поправь) а вообще классно)

    • yelena:

      @darya Даша, ну это не в моем посте, так что поправить не могу. Но я сейчас напишу Наташе. Спасибо за подсказку!

  6. sam:

    glad I’ve found the russian blog – this page has bought a smile to my face. It’s a very long time since I studied russian ….so this is a fun way to start again!

    • yelena:

      @sam Hi Sam, welcome to the blog! It’s exciting you’re restarting studying the language. Let me know how it goes and if you have any questions.

  7. Brianog:

    я нашёл ваш веб сайт очен интересно
    у вас тоже возможностъ обсудит по Skype ? Давно Я учил Русский язык по вечернее отелеление и сеичасс хочу практика