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Ignoring stresses can lead to confusing situations

Today Anastasia Karausheva, Enjoy Russian School tutor, will learn you how to put stresses without stress. Sometimes students who learn the Russian language do not pay attention to stress in words because they hope that native speakers will understand them. I would like to show you that if you shift stress you can change the meaning and find yourself in a confusing situation!

Pair of words му́ка — мука́ (torment — flour) is a textbook example which all schoolchildren remember from their Russian classes because it illustrates how the stress can completely change the meaning despite the same spelling. These kinds of words are called homographs (from the Greek ὁμός, homós, “same” and γράφω, gráphō, “write”). In this article we are going to provide a brief overview of the most frequent Russian homographs and examples of using them.

Russians used to make jokes about homographs but you can find them only in written form because it is hard to produce this in the spoken language. For example, there is a meme “Заварил чайку”, which would mean “I have made tea” (the word “чайку́” is a colloquial form used in the Accusative case). When the stress is not there, one can also read it like “Заварил ча́йку” and here you can see a poor seagull (in the Accusative case as well) suffering.

It also happens when people do not use commas while texting to each other, and it may turn out as a curious situation like in the following dialogue. The woman is asking if her boyfriend can buy a whole head of cabbage and means “це́лую” (Accusative case, feminine singular), but her partner texts back “I kiss you back, how many cabbage heads should I buy?”. It really drives her crazy because she goes on texting him “целую!” (first person, singular), “the whole head of cabbage!” That is how relationships in Russia are ruined.

“Ключи от замка находятся на вахте охраны” is another cool example of how you can interpret a word. Originally it means “Keys to the padlock are at the gatehouse”. Or keys to the castle? (Here we have words за́мка — замка́ in Genetive case, singular.) It depends on how you pronounce it: a castle is за́мок and a padlock is замо́к. Anyway, you can take a chance and ask for a key — maybe you will get one to the castle.

While surfing the Internet and trying to find more examples, I ran into a children book called “Сорок сорок” Russian children will get the meaning immediately but foreigners would get stuck in dictionaries. Why are we using the same words in the title? Actually, they are not the same and we put a stress like this: “Со́рок соро́к”, which means “Fourty magpies”. Nice, isn’t it?

The next picture is based on a mistake of a non-native speaker but it doesn’t make it less funny. “Это не твоя вина!” — the Georgian guy is shouting. Apparently, he means “It is not your wine!” (and students of Enjoy Russian school know for sure that the word “вино́” is never declined), because “вина́” (Nominative case, always singular) is for “fault”. So if you are at the Russian party and someone accidentally (or not?) took your wine you may boldly yell “Это не твоё вино́!”.

My favorite wordplay is about temples and whiskey, which is виски́ (noun, plural) — ви́ски (noun, uncountable) in Russian. This meme says: “If you have read the word “виски” and put the stress on the first syllable it means that you are an alcoholic”. It shows a great example of how our brain can trick us. Or expose our guilty pleasures.  (картинка с виски)


Homographs are also may be used in advertisements, television or posters. Let’s check it out!

There is one notorious Russian TV show which is associated with false medical recommendations and weird illustrations of diseases. Frankly speaking, it deserves to be reviewed in another article but as an example of wordplay, it can serve perfectly. The name of the show is the phrase “Жить здорово!” and it can be understood both ways: either “it is cool to live” (adverb здо́рово) or “to live healthy” (adverb здоро́во). Would you prefer to live здо́рово or здоро́во? 

One more example is from the advertisement poster by Russian mobile operator and it says “Я не плачу, и ты не плати”. This phrase can be translated like “I do not pay (or cry?), so you should not pay too”, because a pair of verbs “пла́чу — плачу́” (first person, singular) is implied here. Well, service fees tend to be high, so Russians usually read “пла́чу”. And what would you say about the Russian language? Я учу русский язык и пла́чу? Or  плачу́?


Of course, it is not the whole list of homographs in the Russian language. Nevertheless, today you learned how to differentiate the most common words with the same spelling but different pronunciation. It means that you try to understand the Russian way of thinking and becoming closer to our culture. Full Russian immersion program in Russia will help you to do that! “Enjoy Russian” school in Petrozavodsk, Russia (close to St. Petersburg) arranges immersion courses since: professional Russian language course, Russian homestay, eventful cultural program in the North-West of Russia and lots of speaking practice with locals.