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5 Russian Phrases That Can Have Different Meanings

Some Russian phrases can be surprisingly difficult to interpret when used in a different context. In Linguistics this problem refers to the theory of indirect speech acts. Indirect speech acts, unlike direct acts, illustrate speaker intention implicitly.

If you want someone to open the window, you'll say:
Открой окно, пожалуйста. – Open the window, please.
This is an explicit utterance which describes your intention directly.

Or, if you don't want to seem rude, you'll hint that it's hot inside in hope someone will open that window.
Как здесь жарко! – It's so hot in here!

The list below has Russian phrases that have different meanings.

  • 1. Я вам не скажу

    (Literally: I shall not tell you; Actual meaning: I don't know).

    My Chinese students often came across with this response on streets while asking their way to the theatre, museum or restaurant. First, they were shocked and upset with "Russian inhospitality", then were confused with their wrong insight into Russian culture. "Ой, я вам, наверное, не скажу" (Oh, I think I shall not tell you) literally makes you think that the speaker is refusing to help you:

    • - Скажите, пожалуйста, где автобусная остановка?
    • - Ой, я вам, наверное, не скажу.

    However, this response just means that the person doesn't know if there is a bus stop nearby. Perhaps, he or she will shrug the shoulders passing by you.

    Of course, assertive intonation and frown on his face may be the most eloquent response to your question. "Я вам не скажу!" uttered in irritation is a direct explicit way to say "I just don't want to talk to you".

  • 2. Не говори!

    (Literally: Don't say; Actual meaning: I agree with you).

    • - Сейчас очень трудно найти хорошую высокооплачиваемую работу. (It's hard to find a good high-paying job now).
    • - Не говори! Уже год ищу. (You're telling me! I've been looking for it for a year).

    Sentences containing objects (Не говори ему/Не говори никому) have literal meaning: Don't tell him/Don't tell anyone.

  • 3. Да что ты говоришь!

    (Actual meaning: You don't say!)

    Like in English, this russian phrase is used either to express surprise or sarcasm when someone says obvious things.

    I'm a very sarcastic person.

  • 4. Где там!/Куда там!

    (Actual meaning: colloquial phrases to express negation).

    • - Антон получил повышение? (Did Anton get a promotion?)
    • - Где там! Наоборот, понизили в должности. (No! He got demoted).

    "Где там" or "Куда там" uttered slowly with lengthened vowels to show you're truly upset.

    Let out your sadness.

  • 5. Ну смотри

    Besides the accurate translation ("Look at this!"), this expression can be interpreted as "Now you are totally responsible for your choice, I'm not going to interfere".

    • - Тебе надо пойти к доктору. - You'd better see a doctor.
    • - Нет, я чувствую себя хорошо. - No, I feel good.
    • - Ну смотри. - Ok, if you think so.

    When the speaker gives you a menacing look and says: "Смотри у меня!”, he warns you against doing something. Otherwise, you will be punished.
    Not until you finish your homework, young lady.
    Do you know any Russian phrases or expressions that confused you? Comment on the article and share your remarks and observations with us!

— Ekaterina
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