Why, oh Why? [Почему, ах, Зачем?] Posted by josefina on Jan 31, 2009 in language
Да! Yes! Today is the day! Today is the day for the long-awaited post about the difference between «почему» [why] and «зачем» [why; what for]. As you probably notice I’ve taken my time to figure out this, but I think I get it now (наконец-то! [at last, finally]). For a long time I have asked Russians the question Why? in all the wrong ways you possibly could, but now I’m ready to share my freshly acquired wisdom in this area with all of you. And as a way to spice up the discussion I’m throwing in «отчего» [why] and «с чего» [‘from what’; why] also. I want to thank all of you who contributed with comments on the two past post, and especially to Natasha (she’s my boss!), who finally cleared up my favorite expression «с чего бы это?» [‘why did this happen?’] in which «с чего» can only be confused with «почему» and «зачем» as it is an idiomatic expression, like for example «с чего ты это взял?» [‘why do you think so?’], in which it is a synonym of «с какой стати?» [what for?]. The usage of it in idiomatic expressions should not be confused with it in a sentence like «счегоначать?» [where to begin? from what to begin?], because here it has literal meaning. Got it? Let’s move on then, дамыигоспода[ladies and gentlemen]! To get some order in my head with these «двавопросительныхслова» [two interrogative words] I turned to my old faithful, to my trusted and beloved «Толковыйсловарьрусскогоязыка» [Explanatory dictionary of Russian language] and here’s what I found out…
The first interrogative word of today is «почему» [why]. It can have three different meanings: the first being «по какой причине, вследствие чего?» [because of what; for what reason; in consequence of what; owing to what?], in sentences like these:
«Почему ты мне не пишешь?» [Why don’t you write to me?]
«Не понимаю, почему ему не нравится» [I don’t why he doesn’t like it].
In the second meaning it can also have the function of a conjunction in colloquial speech with the meaning «вследствиечего, попричинечего» [in consequence of; owing to; because of; for the reason of]. An example of this is:
«Проспала, почему опоздала на лекцию» [I overslept and that’s why I was late for the lecture].
In its third meaning it can be used as an affirmative answer to a question that contains some form of ‘haven’t you’ or ‘don’t you’ question, or as a kind of objection (once again it’s used in colloquial speech). Here are two mini-dialogues to illustrate:
«- Ты не обедал?» [- Haven’t you had lunch?]
«- Почему, обедал.» [- ‘Why‘, of course I had lunch.]
«- Ты меня не любишь?» [- Don’t you love me?]
«- Почему, люблю.» [- ‘Why’, of course I love you.]
And there’s also the much valuable expression «Почему (быи) нет?», which is an answer meaning «вполневозможно» [quite possibly] or «оченьможетбыть» [very likely].
The second interrogative word of today is the mysterious «зачем» which can be a synonym of «почему» when it’s translated as [why], but it is also a question asking [what for?]. It is used when you ask «Скакойцелью?» [With what purpose; aim; goal; object?]. You can also keep in mind the Russian question «длячего?» [for what?; what for?] The meaning is clearly seen in that «зачем–то» means ‘forsomereasonorother’.
«Зачемпришёл?» [What for did you/he come?]
«Узнай, зачемонаприходила» [Find out for what reason she came by.]
«Онизачем–топредпочитаютгороддеревне» [For some reason or other they prefer the city to the village.]
The third word today is «отчего» [why] and can in many ways be seen as a synonym of «почему», both because it is an older version of word, and as it is used for questions like «покакойпричине?» [because of what reason?]
«Отчегооннезвонит?» [Why doesn’t he call?]
«Незнаю, отчегоэтослучилось» [I don’t know why (because of what) it happened.]
Being the big brother (or older relative) of «почему» it can also be used as a conjunction showing why something happened, because of what, what the reason was in a sentence like this one:
«Улыбнулся, отчего лицо его стало красивым.» [He smiled and that’s why (because of that) his face became beautiful.]
Thus today’s lesson for me as well as (I hope!) you is that when asking someone «Почемутыизучаешьрусскийязык?» you want to know the reason that got them to start study the Russian language, whereas the question «Зачемизучатьрусскийязык?» is used when you want to know what to do with knowledge of Russian language. And yes, there’s a Russian expression «наошибкахучатся» [you learn from your mistakes] that is very fitting right now for finishing off this post… (even though the slang version nowadays is «напьянкахучатся» [you learn from your drunken parties]).
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