How to Say What in Russian, Pronunciation and Examples

Close-Up Of What Text On Blackboard

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The most common way to say "what" in Russian is Что (SHTOH). However, there are many other words for "what," depending on the context of the sentence. Just like in English, "what" in Russian can play a number of roles, including as a pronoun, determiner, and adverb.

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Что

Pronunciation: SHTOH

Translation: what

Meaning: what

This is the most common and grammatically correct way to say "what" and can be used in any situation and any social setting. Что is always pronounced with a "sh" and not a "ch" sound, despite its spelling. The best way to remember the correct pronunciation is to memorize it.

Example:

- Что тут происходит? (SHTOH toot praeesKHOdit?)
- What's going on?

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Чего

Pronunciation: chyVOH

Translation: what

Meaning: what

Чего is the genitive form of Что and is often used instead of it in questions and in affirmative sentences. Other declensions of Что are:

  • Nominative: что
  • Genitive: чего
  • Dative: чему
  • Accusative: что
  • Instrumental: чем
  • Prepositional: о чем

It is a good idea to learn these, as you will find that Что is often replaced by one of these depending on the meaning of the sentence.

Example:

- Чего вы ждете? (chyVOH vy ZHDYOtye?)
- What are you waiting for?

Чего can also be used in informal speech instead of "what."

Examples:

- Аня!
- Чего?
- AAnya!
- chyVOH?
- Anya
- Yeah?/What's up?/Yep?

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чё

Pronunciation: CHYO

Translation: what

Meaning: what

Чё is an accent variation used in informal speech. This variation is common to many areas of Russia, including Siberia and the Urals, but can also be heard in everyday speech almost anywhere in the country.

Чё is a shortened form of Чего.

Example:

- Чё стоим, кого ждём? (CHYO staEEM, kaVOH ZHDYOM?)
- Literal translation: Why are we standing, who are we waiting for?
- Meaning: What's happening, what are we waiting for?

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шо

Pronunciation: SHOH

Translation: what

Meaning: what

Another accent variation, Шо is more common in the southwest parts of Russia such as Stavropol and Kuban, as well as among Russian speakers in Ukraine. This is an informal way to say "what" and can only be used in very relaxed social situations.

Example:

- А шо это? (a SHOH Ehta?)
- What's that now?/And what's that?

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Чем

Pronunciation: CHEM

Translation: what

Meaning: what/with what/what about

Чем is the instrumental declension of Что and as such is used to replace Что whenever the meaning of the sentence requires the pronoun what to decline.

Example:

- Чем ты недоволен? (CHEM ty nydaVOlyn?)
- What are you unhappy about?

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То, что

Pronunciation: toh, shtoh

Translation: that what

Meaning: what/that which

The expression "то,что" is used to emphasize the "that" meaning of "what."

Example:

- И то, что она сказала, я запомнила на всю жизнь. (ee TOH, shtoh aNAH skaZAluh, ya zaPOMnila na VSYU asTAFshooyusya ZHIZN')
- And I remembered what she had said for the rest of my life.

"То, что" is also often used in informal speech to mean "that." Although it is technically considered to be incorrect usage, as a Russian learner you should be aware of this expression as it has become so widespread in everyday language, especially among young adults and teenagers.

Example:

- Я думаю то, что Толстой - великий писатель. (ya DOOmayu toh, shtoh talsTOY - vyLEEkiy piSAtel)
- I think that Tolstoy is a great writer.

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Какой/какая/какое

Pronunciation: kaKOY/kaKAya/kaKOye

Translation: what/which/which one

Meaning: what

Какой is often used as "what" in sentences where something is pointed out or specified, whether directly or as a way to dismiss it.

Examples:

- Вас искал мальчик. Какой мальчик? (vas eesKAL MAL'chik. kaKOY MAL'chik?)
- A boy was looking for you. What boy?

- Да какая разница? (da kaKAya RAZnitsa?)
- What's the difference?

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Зачем

Pronunciation: zaCHYEM

Translation: what for/why

Meaning: what for

Зачем usually means "what for" and is used in situations where the speaker wants to emphasize that they are questioning the reason why something has been done.

Example:

- Зачем ты это сделал? (zaCHYEM ty EHta SDYElal?)
- What did you do that for?

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Который

Pronunciation: kaTOriy

Translation: what/which

Meaning: what

Который can be used as "what" in a number of situations, such as asking the time or an ordinal number.

Examples:

- Который час (kaTOriy CHAS)
- what time is it?

- Который по счету? (kaTOriy paSHYOtoo?)
- What number/which out of these?

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Вдруг/если

Pronunciation: VDRUG/YESli

Translation: suddenly/if

Meaning: what if

Both "вдруг" and "если" are often used to mean "what if."

Examples:

- А вдруг я опоздаю? (a VDRUG ya apazDAyu?)
- What if I'm late?

- Ну а если я откажусь? (noo a YESli ya atkaZHUS'?)
- And what if I refuse?

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Other Expressions That Mean "What" in Russian

Here are some common Russian expressions that mean "what":

  • Что ли: used to express doubt

Example:

- Книжку почитать, что ли. (KNEEZHku pachiTAT', SHTOH li)
I could maybe read a book or something.

  • Что ты!/Что вы!: used to express surprise, fear, or objection

Example:

- Я бросаю учебу. Что ты! Опомнись! (ya braSAyu ooCHYObu. SHTOH ty! aPOMnis!)
- I'm quitting school. What? Have you lost your mind?

  • Чуть что: meaning at the first sign, at the first opportunity.

Example:

- Чуть что, сразу звони. (chut SHTOH, SRAzoo zvaNEE)
- If anything at all happens/at the first sign, ring immediately.