Olga Khazan has an amusing account in The Atlantic of going to Russia and trying to use her very rusty native language. I enjoyed it, of course, but one section requires amendment, since she doesn’t seem to have quite understood what was going on:

We’re sitting in a cafe with my cousin, who has lived in Leningrad/Saint Petersburg her entire life. She is offering Rich more food. He says, “I’m full” in English, and I try to teach him the words for “I’m full” in Russian, because I enjoy feeling smarter than others.

Sut,” I say—full—remembering a word from childhood refusals to eat more buckwheat kasha. There’s no English letter for the “u” sound there, but it resembles the noise you’d make if you experienced a tremendous blow to the stomach.

“Sit,” he says.



I look at my cousin, who is turning red. “Actually,” she tells me in Russian, “that word can mean something else.”

Apparently the word I had been broadcasting to the entire restaurant is prison slang for “pissing from fright.”

Ya nayelsa,” my cousin tells Rich gently. I have eaten enough.

I’m pretty sure there’s no such slang meaning for сытый [sytyi] ‘satisfied, replete, full’ (of which the short form is сыт [syt]); what her cousin was trying to tell her was that she was saying it wrong, leaning on the initial /s/ so that it sounded like ссыт [ssyt], the third person singular of the (very vulgar, but not slang) verb ссать ‘to piss; to be very afraid.’ I’m pretty sure if you pronounce сыт correctly, you don’t have to worry about the people at nearby tables looking askance at you. But of course if I’m getting it wrong, I hope my Russian-speaking readers will correct me. (Thanks for the link, Bathrobe!)


  1. slawkenbergius says

    It’s not even that vulgar–about as vulgar as “piss” or “shit.” It’s perfectly normal to say (especially if you’re Khazan’s age) to someone “ладно, не ссы” (don’t worry about it). As for the embarrassment factor, I don’t think anyone that overheard them would have interpreted a first-person pronoun paired with “ssyt,” however suggestively pronounced, as meaning “I’m pissing.” Even if he had said “ia ssu” it wouldn’t raise any eyebrows in a public setting except insofar as it’s an odd thing to say.

  2. slawkenbergius says

    Also, I’m not sure what word she used for “abandon” her bag but if she said “оставить сумку” that would have been the correct thing to say. Trust your instincts!

  3. It’s not even that vulgar–about as vulgar as “piss” or “shit.”

    Those are pretty vulgar to me. (Kids today…)

  4. Olga’s amusing but predictably exaggerating. The word’s borderline vulgar and doesn’t belong in a restaurant but it’s by no means confined to prison slang and it just means to be afraid.

    What surprising me more was Olga’s insistence that she had problems ordering food in restaurants, finding seats on trains, or explaining the Big Bang by her “loss of fluency in native language”. Pardon me. She was a little girl in 1989. Modern restaurants, travel agencies, or creationism debates simply didn’t exist – not just for someone her age, but for the society as w whole. She couldn’t have “forgotten” the stuff which she didn’t have – she could only have “learned” it as she was growing up, and she didn’t. It isn’t a story of a loss of fluency – it is a story about not quite developing a child’s language age- and culture-appropriately.

    Also the idea that being bilingual slows down acquisition of new words, and facilitates loss of word memory, strikes me as very strange and probably incorrect in most if not all circumstances. The author admits as much before embarking on “badness of bilingualism” tangent – she begins from explaining that she felt bad about her Russian heritage & eager to become 100% American hence her Russian disappeared. And I would agree that the immigrants’ assimilationalist fervor and old-self-hatred of a born-again are the most effective causes of language loss. BTW a roadblock is simply КПП.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Fun with word-initial long consonants. Most of the world misses out on it!

  6. SFReader says

    There is another very interesting thing going on here.

    Russian language has genders and almost every word, including verb endings must have one. (Syta, ya nayelas instead of Syt, ya nayelsya)

    For some reason, Olga and her friend use masculine ending instead of feminine as suits their gender.

    This is an odd, but increasingly popular phenomenon among some Russian women who reject feminine endings in favor of masculine in their daily speech.

    My preliminary theory is that it has something to do with feminism

  7. For some reason, Olga and her friend use masculine ending instead of feminine as suits their gender. […] My preliminary theory is that it has something to do with feminism

    As I understand the story, Olga and her cousin are telling Rich the masculine forms that he would be expected to use, not the forms they would use themselves.

  8. When I saw the word, “sut,” in the title, I assumed that the reference would be to, “суть” or essence.

    And why wasn’t she using the feminine form? But then, I may be missing the суть дела. (The heart of the matter.)

  9. road-block in Russian is also blockpost – блокпост. КПП is wider, it could be a check-point entrance to an compound or a large building.

  10. I was surprised she used U for the Ы sound. Isn’t it usually represented in English with Y?

  11. I agree with Dmitriy above, ssat’ – ссать is vulgar and not be used in polite conversation, even though it’s not as rude as many others.

    For aficionados, there is a corresponding rear end reference – очко играет (ochkó igráyet, igrat’ – to play) with a multiple play on words. Ochko means a score point, an eye, spectacles, a rough toilet – shithole — and an anus. So the phrase “у него очко играет” can be taken to mean ‘he has eyes quivering’, or ‘his stomach is playing up,’ or ‘he is scared shitless.’

  12. Ian Press says

    Yes, it is indeed usually represented by ‘y’, but rather nice to see her representing it as ‘u’. Russian (and Slavic) ‘y’ originates mostly in a long ‘u’ in Proto-Slavic; you can see this nicely in, say, Russian ‘syn’ as against Lithuanian ‘sūnus’ or Russian ‘byt” as against Lithuanian ‘būti’. Note too Lithuanian ‘muilas’ ‘soap’ and Russian ‘mylo’, here a Lithuanian borrowing from Russian (leaving out the dialectal, etc. details). Down in the Trans-Carpathan region you get all sorts of wonderful pronunciations, including retention of the labial nuance. In Russian you still hear a bit of the ‘u’ especially where ‘y’ is preceded by a labial consonant, e.g. in ‘mylo’ and ‘byt”. But some people will hear it in ‘sty’ if they’re really trying! Lots of folk reckoned ‘y’ was a sort of diphthong, and it may well have past through such a stage. Remember too that the cyrillic for ‘y’ is ‘ы’ in Modern Russian; but at an earlier stage, in, e.g., Old Church Slavonic, it was ‘Ꙑ’, i.e. the symbol for a short ‘u’ plus an ‘i’.

  13. I had an Ukrainian explain to me how to say Kiev properly in Ukrainian – Kyy-iee-w.
    Surely, a transliteration should give the idea of an original pronunciation? I can’t twist ‘sut’ to sound anywhere close to “сыт”.

  14. And why wasn’t she using the feminine form?

    Because, as Erik says, she was trying to tell Rich (masculine) how to say it.

    I can’t twist ‘sut’ to sound anywhere close to “сыт”.

    Well, of course not, because there is no English vowel that sounds anything like ы. I think “sut” is just as close as “syt” (the “official” transliteration), and I approve of creativity in these matters.

  15. SFReader says

    Nordic languages for some reason use letter “y” to represent “u” sound which is exact opposite of what Olga did here.

    I wonder why?

  16. One also sees older English works that refer to “Prince Muishkin,” etc.

  17. Stefan Holm says

    I wonder why

    No, ‘y’ never represents /u/ in Nordic contexts. But Norwegian and Swedish (not Danish) like English have gone through a vowel shift. It has (in certain phonetic environments) been a matter of both closing and rounding. In the standard IPA chart of vowels you can talk about a counter clockwise chain reaction going from the bottom left corner to the bottom right, then up to the top right and finally to the top left. Thus (German compared to Swedish in parenthesis):

    /a:/ has become /ɑ:/. (Vater – fader): Sw. vowel much like in Eng. father
    /ɑ:/ has become /ɔ:/ or /o:/. (Stahl – stål)
    /o:/ has become /u:/. (Rose – ros): [ru:s]
    /u:/ has become /ʉ:/. (Du – du): the Nor/Swe sound difficult for foreigners to reproduce.
    /y/ is still /y/ (Süden – syd): but is slightly more fronted then e.g. German ‘ü’ (in für) or French ‘u’ (in tu or sur).

    (For Russian ‘ы’ we use ‘y’. It’s the fricatives that differs in Swedish transcription of Russian from both both the English and the German varieties).

  18. Ian Press says

    I agree with you, Sashura; it’s funny how people perceive these ‘odd’ sounds (most languages are full of them). If you like, ‘y’ in Russian is like French ‘u’ but without the rounding/labialisation. I don’t want to get involved here in etymology (Vasmer will tell you lots about Russian ‘sytyj’); ‘sut’ indeed seems odd, but I just wanted to suggest that perceptions often latch on to interesting nuances.

  19. Hmm, and I assumed that Olga rather purposefully used English “u” and “i”, and “u” and “i” again, for an elusive vowel which is universally, and largely misleadingly, transliterated as “y” in English. I thought that she was actively trying to make a point that neither she, nor her friend, could get anywhere close to the expected pronunciation of Russian “ы”.

    In other words, it isn’t like she didn’t know how she was supposed to transliterate it. It’s just both of them couldn’t figure out how to pronounce it right, and she chose all sorts of “wrong transliterations” to convey the sense of futility of their wrong pronunciations?

  20. The “u” implied by the spelling “sut” is the English short “u”, traditionally transcribed /ʌ/, although it is actually more centralized than cardinal [ʌ], which is the unrounded version of [ɔ]. As such, it is probably the best match in English for Russian’s high central vowel. Indeed, in some accents just (the adverb, not the adjective) is pronounced [dʒɨst] rather than [dʒʌst] when unstressed; this is spelled “jist” in dialect writing.

    Unrounded [y] (French “u”) would simply be [i]; it is too fronted to be [ɨ].

  21. David Marjanović says

    /a:/ has become /ɑ:/. (Vater – fader): Sw. vowel much like in Eng. father

    In the kind(s?) of Swedish I’ve heard – probably all from Uppsala – it’s a distinctly rounded [ɒː].

    BTW, Vater and Stahl have the same vowel; what exactly it is depends on the accent (both front and at least central unrounded count as standard).

  22. “Prince Muishkin”
    oh yes! In the early 90s I worked on a joint Russian-American newspaper called We/Мы. Our American partners transcribed мы as mui.
    And within the company We/Мы became known as wymya – вымя – udder.

  23. Mikhail Isaev was for some reason unable to post the following comment, so I am doing it for him:

    To me, as a native speaker of Russian, the whole situation described by Olga sounds very artificial.

    Neither ‘syt’ (‘full’ meaning ‘not hungry’ in predicative form) nor ‘ssyt’ (‘is afraid’, ‘hasn’t got the guts to do smth.’ in 3rd person, present tense) would make a complete meaningful phrase when pronounced apart from the rest of the sentence. That’s just not the way Russian language works, even in its colloquial form.

    You have to say, for instance, ‘Ya syt’ (‘I am full’) or ‘Da on ssyt prosto’ (‘Well he’s just afraid of doing/trying this’) to make it actually intelligible.

    So be it ‘Syt’ or ‘Ssyt’ — a reply like this simply would not have been recognized by the people in the cafe as a meaningful phrase at all.

  24. Incidentally, “ссать” seems to be the only Russian verb spelled with “ы” in its endings.

  25. Incidentally, “ссать” seems to be the only Russian verb spelled with “ы” in its endings

    because it is one of those super-rare exceptions among verbs ending with -ать which belong to 2nd спряжение (conjugation class) – and the other exceptions are all spelled with endings -ишь / -ите because the preceding letters ж/ш requires a syllable with “и” according to the rules of spelling (although it’s still pronounced as -ышь / -ыте) . The three officially recognized conjugation exceptions in this group are дышать, держать, & слышать

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