Russian Language Blog

Word of the Week: пить [to drink] Posted by on Oct 29, 2008 in Uncategorized

The word of the week today is a part of a delicate subject. I know. But this is Russian language and since some people tend to consider this language to have as many words for sipping drinks as the Eskimos do for snow, then I would like to set the record straight and clear up once for and all the myth that Russians love to drink themselves unconscious as soon as opportunity is given. Their relationship with vodka is not even close to the cliché, nor is it in real life as romanticized as it seems in Russian books and Soviet movies. There is here, as things often tend to be, much more than meets the eye – more than just settling with having learned that you make a toast using the words «на здоровье» [‘to health’] and that’s all you need to know *nudge, nudge, wink, wink*. Дамы и господа [ladies and gentlemen], I think it’s high time to take a closer look at the verb «пить» [impf. to drink]. It is a verb that I, and many people with me, often confuse when speaking with the verb «петь» [impf. to sing]. That’s partly because the sound «е» sounds just like «и» when unstressed in Russian, and partly because the conjugation of both these verbs are off the wall and hard to remember (don’t sweat it if you’re scratching your head trying to come up with «я пью» when wanting to say ‘I’m drinking’ but having it come out as «я пою», which really means ‘I’m singing’, it’s happened to the best of us, even though the difference here is, after all, существенно).  Such mispronunciation often leads to misunderstanding of you when you say «я больше не буду петь!» [I’m never going to sing again!] but what you really mean is «я больше не буду пить!» [I’m never going to drink again]. I googled the verb in Russian and the first site I came across was this intriguing blog «Бросить пить» [To quit drinking], chronicling one man’s efforts to stop drinking (obviously, alcohol, as we know that other forms of liquid are not only okay to consume, but may actually be good for you. – no, I wasn’t really talking about wine, but okay…)

The imperfect verb «пить» has a couple of possible perfect ‘friends’, as I like to call them (because calling them ‘comrades’ would be making a political statement that I’m not likely to make any day soon, though I must confess that my fingers ache to do so). For example «попить» [to drink some; to drink a little bit (of something)] in a sentence like: «я бы водички попила»  [I would like to drink some water] and «допить» [to drink up something; to drink all (of something)] like for example in: «он быстро допил стакан чаю» [he finished the glass of tea fast]. Others that are useful are more or less involved in the process of drinking alcohol specifically; and are, so to speak, synonyms to the verb «пьянствовать» [impfv. to drink too much; be frequently drunk]. which is a bad thing and largely to blame for the average Ivan Kuznetsov dying at an average of 55, in the prime of his life, leaving children and wife Masha to curse the national «потеха» [fun; amusement]. And rightly so. Another one of these perfect friends is «выпить» from the commonly known phrase used rather frequently «оннедураквыпить» [‘he likes to drink; he can hold his drink]. This verb has another imperfect friend – «выпивать».

Other words that share a common root with this verb are, for example:

«питьё» – drinking; drink, beverage.

«годный для питья» – fit to drink.

«питьевой» – drinking (attrib.).

«питьевая вода» – drinking water.

«питьеваясода» – baking soda; bicarbonate of soda.

Indeed, as a foreign student in Russia I am expected to try at least one new brand of vodka a week and wake up with my head under a toilet in a stranger’s bathroom every Saturday morning. If not, then how in the world can I claim to be getting the full Russian experience? Today I will admit to something that’s both shameful for me and for my country of origin – yes, Sweden; it just had to be the one country in the world where alcohol is sold only in state stores on weekdays between 10 am and 7 pm – I have never drunk as much in my life as I did when I used to live in Saint Petersburg and spent my days almost solely with other Swedish students. I’ve never seen such drunkenness as I saw back then during the fall of 2004. Nothing I came across since has ever even managed to come close to it, and that’s not to say a little – look, I’ve been to random parties with even more random men and women in tiny villages in faraway Siberia and you can trust me. Russians know how to handle the «градусы». Scandinavians – not so much. Perhaps at home in Stockholm they can – because it would be too expensive to let oneself go completely – but as soon as they step out of the plane on Pulkovo Airport they’re out of control. In Russia alcohol can be bought anywhere at anytime by anyone. This can cause quite the shock for the innocent Scandinavian. Such a society is not something we’re used to. I’m speaking from experience. The first time I realized that I could go to the kiosk across the street at 2 am and get a beer I was so happy that I was almost ready to trade in my European Union passport. Almost. Then morning came, the beer was finished and I realized that was just brief moment of madness. It happens. To the best of us. At first here in the Urals I was very disturbed by seeing kids on their way to school with a beer in hand before 8 in the morning. But then I noticed how many adults were doing the same thing on their way to work and I realized that me being disturbed wasn’t really going to do anything about it – to make a difference; I’d have to go to the root of the problem. Which is most likely going to turn out to be a place where I don’t want to go.

To make a long story shorter – in Russia I’ve met many different ways of dealing with alcohol. But one thing I’ve noticed here is that people are acutely aware of the shady side of drinking too much; also they are more forgiving to people who tend to drink too much. Russians judge less. Accept more. That’s one of the traits in Russians I love so much – their merciful dealing with human weakness. Perhaps that’s because I feel that I am too – deep, deep down inside – just like a character in the best of classical Russian novels; a weak human being with too high ideals, who keep trying to reach them but just fails and fails and falls down again and again. Russians forgive me this. Because they’re a people that understands weakness, that has the gift of «сострадание» [compassion]. That might even be one of my favorite words – «со» [with] and «страдание» [suffering]. Dang, I should’ve picked that for word of the week… well, too late! And the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions…

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  1. Lars D:

    Your posts are really, really great. They’re teaching very useful stuff in a very interesting manner and I enjoy every time you make a post. Keep them coming! До следующий раз 🙂

  2. stas:

    Usually, you clear it up once and for all, not once for and all… So, yo sentece have to be “I would like to set the record straight and clear up, once and for all, the myth that Russians love to drink themselves unconscious.”

    And even though the difference here is, after all, существенная. The word difference is feminine in Russian, so существенная has to be.

    As long as you understand the consequences – it’s OK to drink. Just watch yourself and your life. Beer – it is so much more than just a morning drink!

  3. alexey:

    8 years old kids drinking beer? Are you sure? That would be shocking even to most Russians! Maybe you are confusing beer with kvas? It looks the same, sold in similar bottles, cans, etc.

    Anyways, drinking is WORST disaster in Russian history.


  4. Yellow Blue Bus:

    Before I visited the regions I did not like drinking alcohol at all let alone Vodka. But as tradition and socialising had it I was invited on many occasions to partake in a celebratory drink.

    Some good advise given to me at the time was if your drink always drink the same drink, never mix vodka with another alcoholic substance and always follow up with something to eat or nibble. fruit or cucumber.

    Hey da.

    It the mixing of spirits that really get to you.

    I would have to agree I saw more Swedes “Binge Drinking” then drunk Russians.

  5. Elena:

    Hello there!! Usually we say “За здоровье!” (for health). When we drink we drink for something, e.g. for health, for friendship, for love, for luck etc. To say “Na zdorovie!” sounds wrong for me!! Native speaker 

  6. Charly:

    Not really a comment so this special post, but still.
    I found this blog some month ago and am a huge fan!
    I am studying Russian and it’s a constant struggle, so I love reading your posts and explanations here, very informative and interesting and a great read.
    So thank you a lot! And keep on posting! 😀

    With this post anyway you just inspired me to prepare myself a pot of that Russian Evening Tea I have here and drink it from my original Trans-Sib tea glass (yes, one of those very Russian ones with the silver cup holder).