Thursday, 11 December 2014

Yes? Да? Так? Make up your mind! (UPDATED)



Learning languages can be a wonderful experience, especially when you realise how similar some words are with regards to their sounds. These words are often called 'false friends', and using them out of the context of the language could land you in a mind-numbing situation.

Malay is my native language, but I realised there are a few simple words in Malay that are very similar to Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian words. I imagined that maybe if a Malay-speaker speaking an East Slavic language for the first time, he or she might get these mixed up with these words.

Here I use primarily the Malay Cyrillic alphabet to transcribe the Malay language examples instead of the regular conventional Latin alphabet official in Malaysia. To find out how to read it and revert it back to Latin I suggest reading the whole series about the Malay Cyrillic alphabet.

Addendum: Due to hindsight, I decided to add one more word here, but be warned that in Russian, it is a swear word. If you will be offended by this, please skip reading the last subsection of the post for the last word. The word in English is censored, but the word in Russian isn't.

Я - Yes and I!

Yes in Malay is - Я (Ya), but the word is a heterophone to the Russian word for I - Я! They are spelt the same, but are pronounced differently and have different meanings.

Я in Malay would be pronounced with a schwa sound instead of a normal 'uh' sound, but depending on some dialects, like the Bornean dialect of Malay, Я would be pronounced as 'yuh'. In Russian, Я would be pronounced with an 'uh' sound like in father.

The spelling is undoubtedly the same if we write them down in Cyrillic, but they carry totally different functions. One is an affirmative, but the other is a pronoun. Let's take a look in two different conversations.

"Умур каму лима бәлас таҳун, кан?" / "You are fifteen years (old), right?"
"Я, бәтул." / "Yes, (that's) right."


"Извините, вы говорите по-английски?" / "Excuse me, do you speak English?"
"Нет, я не говорю по-английски." / "No, I do not speak English."

On the other hand, the most commonly used Malay word for 'I' is 'сая' or 'saya', only a syllable extra from Russian 'I' that is 'Я'. The resemblance is uncanny and confusing when you really think about it :P

Так - No and Yes!

Так means 'No' in informal Malay (it's a shortened form of тидак, tidak), but in both Ukrainian and Belarusian, так means 'Yes'!


They are pronounced and spelt the exact same way, but their meanings are polar opposites. Here is an example of the same question being said in the three languages, but where using Так will have totally opposite outcomes.


"Адакаҳ каму Аҳмад?" / "Are you Ahmad?"
"Так, сая Али." / "No, I'm Ali."

"Ви Ахмад?" (Укр.) / "Вы Ахмад?" (Бел.) / "You (are) Ahmad?"
"Так, я Ахмад." / "Yes, I (am) Ahmad."


Да(ҳ)- Yes and Yes!

In colloquial Malay, даҳ (dah) is a peculiar word just because it has a number of meanings in different contexts. Usually when I use the word, it usually refers to whether an action has been completed or not. It's a shortened form of 'судаҳ' (sudah), which loosely translates to 'already'.

The word could be used in a question or an answer. When it is used as an answer, its meaning would equate to 'yes', just like Я/ya. In fact, using даҳ instead of я would actually make more sense.

"Кау даҳ минум убат?" / "You (have) already drank (the) medicine?"
"Даҳ." / "Yes (I have)"


The word даҳ would have the same function as Russian yes: да! They are already have the same function as an affirmative and they are almost similar in spelling and pronunciation (only dah has a slight h sound at the end, prolonging the vowel 'uh').


"Ты выпил лекарство?" / "You drank (the) medicine?"

"Да." / "Yes (I have)"


Сука - Like/Love and B****!

This is the word I find the most ironic and hilarious. It has totally opposite meanings in totally different contexts!

Сука (suka) in Malay (and Indonesian) mean 'like' or even 'love' depending of the degree of attachment to the thing being 'liked'. It's what you would say to someone you have romantic feelings for, especially for the first time. 

In Russian however, it is known as a word to describe a female dog. Like its English counterpart, the word is usually used as an insult, usually used to express great anger and annoyance at someone else. (I am trying to be very polite here, for the sake of children).

This homophone reminded me of a funny story my friend told me in my old school IISM.

This particular friend of mine hailed from Uzbekistan, and like most of his fellow countrymen, he spoke fluent Russian. He takes Malay classes in school. One day, his Malay teacher kept repeating "Saidahmad [my friend's name] suka!" many times in class, for no apparent reason. In Malay, that would mean "Saidahmad likes (it)!" but in Russian, it means... you could probably guess it. It's no surprise that he became annoyed, but not overly offended by it (since in Malay the meaning is different).

I suspect that his Malay teacher may have known the meaning of the word in Russian in the first place, and knowing that my friend is a Russian-speaker, he did that to make it a 'joke' of some sort in class. Perhaps this is why, but then, I was never there when it happened. I laughed quite a bit when he told me this story.


The Russian insult must be pronounced with a stress on the first syllable, but the Malay verb has no particular stress condition. However, stress is usually put on the first syllable, just like the Russian swear word. If you're ever speaking Malay in Russia, don't say this word loudly or else you'd get people glaring at you or worse. Be careful!

A love confession in Malay might go like this:


"Сая сука аўак." / "I like you."
"Сая сука аўак жуга." / "I like you too."


A break-up in Russian might go like this:

"Я тебя ненавижу, сука!"  / "I hate you, b****!"
"Как ты смеешь это говорить!" / "How dare you say that!"


It really is a wonder how you could end up with these kind of words with double or triple meanings. Let me know in the comments if you know any words in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian which sound the same but have different meanings in your own language!

1 comment:

  1. Ahaha, this reminds me of the language mixes of malay and bangla that I noticed when we first came here. I think the funniest of all though is that bangladeshi ladies call one another "bhabi", which comes out sounding like "babi", which is like.. A major insult here :P a malay lady actually asked me once, why they keep calling one another that! Quite hilarious, really. And then there's my sister who calls me "appy", which is equivalent to "kakak" here.. Except it makes people panic because they think a fire went off somewhere xD

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