Russian Vocabulary: Question Words

Question marks

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The easiest way to ask a question in Russian is to pronounce an affirmative sentence with question inflection or by using the main question words Кто, Что, Где, Когда, and Как.

However, there are other ways to formulate a question, including using the negative. In this article, we look at Russian vocabulary and question words, as well as the different ways that you can ask questions in Russian.

Basic Question Words

Russian questions can be formed by using one of the five basic question words:

  • Кто (who)
  • Что (what)
  • Где (where)
  • Когда (when)
  • Как (how)

Question words are often found at the beginning of a sentence, just like in English. However, they can also be placed at the end or in the middle of a sentence. The positioning of a question word is used to change the meaning of a sentence or to add context and is often paired with inflection or stress on a particular word to convey the meaning.

Russian sentence structure does not change when adding a question word and turning a sentence into a question. For example, in the following sentence, the pronoun "Я" ("I") is replaced with the question word "кто" ("who"), while the rest of the sentence remains unchanged in its structure (but not the conjugation):

  • Я люблю танцевать - I like to dance
  • Кто любит танцевать? - Who likes to dance?

This unchanging structure makes it very easy to form questions once you have learned the main question words:

Russian Word Translation Pronunciation Example
кто who ktoh

Кто любит танцевать? - Who likes to dance?

что what shtoh Что происходит? - What's going on?
где where gdye / hdye Где можно купить эту книгу? - Where can I buy this book?
когда when kagDAH Когда начнется фильм? - When will the movie start?
как how kak Как дела? - How are you?

Other Question Words

To create more complex questions, use these question words:

  • Почему (Why)
  • Зачем (Why / What for)
  • Куда (Where to)
  • Откуда (Where from)
  • Сколько (How much)
  • Чей (Whose)
  • Можно (May / can)

How to Say Why in Russian

Russian Word Translation Pronunciation Example
почему why pachiMOO Почему ты так думаешь? - Why do you think that?
 
зачем why/what for zaCHYEM

Зачем ты пришла? - Why did you come? / What did you come here for?

Почему and Зачем are often confused by Russian language learners, but it is easy to tell the difference between these question words if you remember that "почему" means "why" while "зачем" tends to mean "what for," or have a context of incredulity, as in these examples:

  • Зачем ты пришла? - Why did you come? / What did you come here for? (context: what for?)
  • Зачем ты это купил? - Why did you buy that? / What did you buy that for? (context: incredulity)

How to Ask Questions With Possessives

Russian Word Translation Pronunciation Example
чей whose (masculine) chey Чей это дом? - Whose house is that?
чья whose (feminine) chyah Чья машина? - Whose car is this?
чьё whose (neutral) chyoh Чьё вон то окно? - Whose window is that one over there?
чьи whose (plural) chy'ee Чьи книги лежат на столе? - Whose books are on the table?

The question word Чей (whose) is a pronoun and as such it agrees in gender, number, and case of the noun to which it refers.

How to Use "May/Can" in Polite Conversation

Russian Word Translation Pronunciation Example
можно may / can MOZHnah Можно это взять? - May I take this?

Можно (may/can) is used in such question types as "May I have..." or "Can I take this?" It is part of the polite but not overly formal register.

Using Intonation to Form Questions

Russian is a very flexible language when it comes to word order and is referred to by many linguists as a "free word order" language. The intended focus of a sentence determines the word order chosen by a Russian speaker. This makes it easy for students of Russian to learn how to form questions by using intonation.

In the following example, a simple statement is turned first into a neutral question, then into two more questions that focus on a different context of the sentence:

  • Statement: Маша ела кашу - Masha was eating porridge
  • Neutral question: Маша ела кашу? Was Masha eating porridge?
  • Focussed question 1: Ела Маша кашу? WAS Masha eating porridge?
  • Focussed question 2: Кашу ела Маша? Was Masha eating PORRIDGE?

In a Russian question, the intonation rises towards the end of the sentence before falling again at the very end. Note that in the focussed questions, the intonational stress is on the word that the speaker wants to emphasize. The voice rises on the emphasized word then falls straight after.

Negation Questions

Russian speakers use negation in questions when the conversation register is polite and formal. Negation is usually done by adding the particle "не" (not). Using this question structure removes the need for the word "please" as these types of questions are sufficiently formal already.

Не подскажете, который час?
Translation: Wouldn't you tell me what time it is?
Meaning: Could you tell me what time it is, please?

Не хочешь кофе?
Translation: You wouldn't like some coffee?
Meaning: Would you like some coffee?

Не могли бы Вы мне помочь?
Translation: Could you not help me?
Meaning: Could you help me, please?