Russian Language Blog

To everything (Turn, turn, turn!)… Posted by on Sep 19, 2012 in language, Russian for beginners

♪♫ …there is a season (Turn, turn, turn!):
A time to sow,
A time to reap,
A time for war,
A time for peace,
A time to learn confusing Russian verbs with an indecent number of syllables,
A time to say “Фиг с этим!” and study Esperanto instead…

Hi, everybody — can you guess what time it is now? 😉

And you might have also guessed that the theme for this post is “turning,” and how to express this in Russian. The English verb “to turn” has roughly a kajillion idiomatic uses and phrasal forms that make it tough for beginning students of Russian to translate. So, in practice, there are dozens and dozens of different Russian verbs that can translate the English “to turn” — it all depends on context.

But for now, I’m going to skip over such important examples as оказываться/оказаться (“to turn out a certain way; to prove to be”) and становиться/стать (“to turn [sweet/moldy/green], etc.; to become different”) and превращаться/превратиться (“to turn into; to be transformed; to morph”), as well as various other verb constructions that can be translated with “turn.”

Instead, let’s take a look at some verbs that express “turning” in the physical senses of “rotation.”

The most basic “turn” verb-pair is поворачивать/повернуть. The imperfective conjugates:

я поворачиваю
ты поворачиваешь
они поворачивают

And the perfective conjugation goes:

я поверну
ты повернёшь
они повернут

Also, you may sometimes encounter an alternate form of the imperfective: повёртывать (я повёртываю, etc.)

Anyway, this verb means “to turn” in various transitive senses, such as “to (partly) rotate” or “to change direction of travel”:

Ведьма медленно повернула свою голову (“The witch slowly turned her head.”)
«Миш, поворачивай-ка машину назад — я забыл дома кошелёк!» (“Mike, turn the car around — I left my wallet at home!”)
Ковбой повернул коня налево (“The cowboy turned the horse to the left.”)

When you add the suffix -ся, the verb becomes intransitive — again, in various senses:

Слегка храпя, Спящая красавица повернулась на левый бок (“Snoring lightly, Sleeping Beauty turned onto her left side”)
Ключ совсем не поворачивается — замок, наверно, заржавел. (“The key won’t turn at all — probably the lock has gotten rusty.”)

The Slavic roots -ворот- and -врат- (“turn”) have a gigantic number of other Russian derivatives, from the always-plural concrete noun ворота (“gates”, gen. ворот) to the abstract noun извращение (“perversion; corruption”). But they’re also the basis for several more “physical turning” verbs that conjugate like поворачивать/повернуть.

For example, переворачивать/перевернуть means “to turn over completely; invert”:

Папа перевернул блин, потому что первая сторона уже поджарилась (“Dad flipped the pancake over, because the first side was done.”)
Нельзя переворачивать всё вверх дном! (“Don’t turn everything upside-down!” — i.e., “Don’t make a big mess of the place”)

Another useful verb pair is завёртывать/завернуть (and, yes, sometimes you’ll hear the imperfective заворачивать instead). In some contexts it means “to shut by twisting tight,” as in:

Сантехник завернул клапан ключом (“The plumber turned off the valve with a wrench”).

But it can also mean “to wrap something up”:

Мама завёртывает ребёнка в одеяло (“Mom is wrapping the baby in a blanket”)

♪♫ Like the Circles That You Find in the Windmills of Your Mind…♪♫

While поворачивать/повернуть may signify a partial rotation (or, at most, one complete 360° rotation) there are a number of verbs that can be used when something whirls continuously around and around. Possibly the most important one to know is вертеть(ся) — and note that the present conjugation has a “consonant mutation” in the 1st-singular as well as shifting stress:

я верчу(сь)
ты вертишь(ся)
они вертят(ся)

No perfective is given here because the verb inherently describes non-completed, continuous motion.

Thus, you can say transitively Она хваталась за велосипедное колесо и вертела его (“She grabbed the bicycle’s wheel and gave it a spin”), or intransitively Ветряная мельница вертелась (“The windmill is spinning”). And if you ever find yourself not-quite-able to remember a word, you’ll also find the intransitive form in the expression «Слово у кого-нибудь вертится на кончике языка» — “The word is [spinning] on the tip of someone’s tongue.”

By the way, in English, we often make a clear distinction between “rotate” and “revolve” — especially when talking about the движение планет (“movement of planets”). Which is to say that the Earth rotates вокруг своей оси (“around its own axis”), but revolves вокруг Солнца (“around the Sun”). In Russian, however, you can say Земля вертится… (“The Earth spins…”) in either context.

In addition to вертеть(ся), you may also encounter вращать(ся), which conjugates regularly: я вращаю(сь), ты вращаешь(ся). Like вертеть(ся), it doesn’t normally have a perfective, and for the most part, these two verbs are interchangeably synonymous — although one may be preferred over the other in certain fixed expressions and idioms.

The verb крутить(ся), can also be a synonym for the two above, at least when their meaning is “spin” or “whirl.” Like вертеть(ся), it’s got a consonant mutation and a stress shift:

я кручу(сь)
ты крутишь(ся)
они крутят(ся)

But this word has other possible translations. When it’s transitive (without the -ся), it can mean “to make by twisting/rolling” — and in this transitive sense, it has prefixed perfective forms, either with с- or за-. For example, Моряк cкрутил сигарету (“The sailor rolled a cigarette”).

And finally, in colloquial speech, the intransitive крутиться has the figurative meaning “to hang around close to someone,” sometimes implying “to be annoyingly underfoot”:

«Господи, почему ты всё крутишься около меня под ногами? Перестань!» — с раждражением сказала мать дочке. (“For heaven’s sake, why are you always following me around like a shadow? Quit doing that!” — the mother irritably said to her little daughter.)

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  1. Stas:

    Rob, I doubt that you ever hear Мама завёртывает ребёнка в одеяло (“Mom is wrapping the baby in a blanket”) even if it is grammatically correct. Мама заворачивает… is more pleasant for Russian ear.

  2. Rob McGee:

    Thanks for the correction, Stas!

    But just one question: Is заворачивать the preferred imperfective of завернуть in ALL contexts, or are there times when завёртывать should be used?

    Hmmm… I just tried an experiment… Google “auto-corrects” завёртывать to заворачивать, and similarly for отвёртывать and перевёртывать.

    After a little more searching, I found a Russian page advising that the prefixed imperfectives with -вёртывать are nowadays considered archaic, and that it’s usually best to use the -ворачивать forms instead.

    Is this correct?

  3. Stas:

    It seems correct. Yes, I would say that it is more archaic or, maybe, local. It may be still in use in rural areas. Or somebody uses it to emphasize something in his or her speech. However, I would not totally rely on my corrections. I usually go by what my gut tells me. And you know gut is not the most accurate linguistic device.