Improve your Russian: yat

with 9 Comments

Have you ever wondered why the Russian word есть means both to be and to eat?

When writing this month’s Street Russian newsletter, I found out!

Most of the time I write about an entire word or phrase (for example, March was постоянный бардак, January was С прошедшим…, October was равноденствие) but a penpal sent me some intriguing mail recently, so this month’s Russian Word of the Month was actually a letter of the alphabet that you might not recognize. Here’s a copy of this month’s newsletter with the answer to the есть question…


Improve your vocab: ѣ

Have you ever seen a ѣ before?

I hadn’t… until this postcard arrived in the mail.

Люби свое дѣло? What’s up with that weird ѣ letter?

If you ever travel back in time to pre-revolutionary Russia, you’ll definitely encounter the ѣ. It’s known as the ять, a letter that was booted out of the Russian alphabet in the spelling reform of 1917-1918.

For example, Turgenev wrote a book called Отцы и дѣти (Fathers and Sons) in the 1800s. By the time of the spelling reform, the ять was pronounced like the letter е and, along with several other old letters, eliminated from the written language. Now we spell the book’s title as Отцы и дети.

Okay, history lesson over. 🙂

Here’s another example of the ять from the other side of the postcard. Мѣсто is now место.

Can you make sense of люби свое дѣло now?

It’s люби свое дело, a phrase that translates as love what you do.

So, is ять important? Honestly, ять skills probably aren’t critical unless you end up in a time travel situation or need to translate old Russian documents.

On the other hand, it’s a cool piece of trivia to know AND it solves one of the greatest mysteries that every Russian learner must confront.

What is this mystery, you ask?

You already know what it is: why does Russian have the same word for to eat and to be?

Here’s the thing- those words weren’t the same words before the spelling reform!

Before 1918, to eat was written as ѣсть and to be was written as есть. Now it makes sense, right? 🙂


If you’d like to read future Street Russian newsletters, you can sign up via one of the links below. I send out a short newsletter on the 7th day of the month with a brand new Russian Word of the Month.

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I hope this peek at April’s newsletter has motivated you to keep improving your Russian!

9 Responses

  1. J.T.
    | Reply

    I turned down an informal translation job in February because that freakish ять scared me off…

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      Wow, the text had ять? That must have been something rather unusual.

      Hope your blogging hiatus is going well, J.T. I look forward to your return!

  2. Andrew Sabak
    | Reply

    My first foreign languages as the son of an Orthodox priest were Church Slavonic and pre-Revolutionary Russian, so I can work with such materials all the time! Interesting linguistic note: until the (I believe) misguided decision to eliminate several perfectly good letters, different dialects of Russian spelled things the same way with the [ ѣ ] but pronounced them slightly differently.
    In standard Russian one would pronounce at the end of a doxology “… i vo veki vekov” and in Carpatho-Russian “… i vo v’iki v’ikov”. Replicating this pronunciation difference in spelling would thus split the unity of the language.
    Another example was replacing the Russian letter [ i ] with [ и ], again causing confusion. So now if one says “peace in the world” it would be “mir v mire” and “world in peace” would also be “mir v mire”. So again confusion was deliberately introduced for no essential reason.

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      You blew my mind with this comment, Andrew… Russian used to have an i? No! There goes my old foolproof method for distinguishing Russian from Ukrainian. (At least, that was how I told them apart when I first started learning.) But now I get why мир could be either “world” or “peace”. Previously, I thought that Russian just had a very optimistic view of the world, like “wouldn’t it be nice if our world was synonymous with peace?” 😉

      I must admit that I didn’t quite understand the “i vo veki vekov” part (probably above my current level?) but my husband also read your comment and he lit up like a lightbulb, so it definitely made sense to him.

      You have a fascinating background, by the way. Если не секрет, how old were you when you started learning Russian? Was your father a native Russian speaker or did he learn the language for church work?

  3. […] And a penpal sent some fun mail (from the ять post)- […]

    • Andrew Sabak
      | Reply

      Hello! I just happened upon this again after following a couple of links, so sorry it took two years. Your articles are always interesting. I am taking on-line courses in conversational Russian with a lady at Liden-Denz (a language-training company) in St. Petersburg after having been there each year for two weeks at a time over the past several years. (We are reading Master i Margarita and it is fascinating.)
      In answer to your question: my father knew Russian growing up in the part of Czechoslovakia where people have historically considered themselves Russian, against all sorts of pressures to assimilate into surrounding nationalities. So he knew the local dialect of Russian, standard Russian, Slovak, and Czech, and learned English after returning to America, where he had been born before his parents and brothers as little children moved back after World War I.
      I remember that I was exactly 8 when I started learning Russian, because that was my age when we lived in a specific city in 1958, where one hot summer day I was sitting on the steps and for the only time in my life said that I was bored — whereupon my father went upstairs and came back with a Russian grammar book, which looked like quite a challenge.

      • Katherine

        Welcome back and thank you for your reply, Andrew! Было очень прятно читать!!!)))

        Wow, Liden-Denz, that’s awesome! I read their blog and they always have really useful posts. Seems like a wonderful school. You must have had some very interesting stays in St Petersburg with them. If you’d ever be interested in doing a how-I-study-Russian interview for my blog, I would be very eager to hear about your experiences there.

        Your Russian grammar book story is great. So memorable! People ask me why I started learning Russian and I don’t have a good answer at all. Read too much cold war sci fi as a teenager? Wanted a challenge? Got frustrated with studying Spanish? I don’t even know… but I love your story.

        I hope you’re staying healthy and learning lots of interesting things in your online Russian courses. Enjoy Мастер и Маргарита! 🙂

      • Andrew Sabak

        Sure, anytime! Ask anything. Because of the pandemic and also because of recent health issues, we couldn’t go this past year to St. Petersburg as we had the preceding four (in the springtime), but Liden-Denz is well set up with Zoom and Skype for on-line lessons. and I enjoy the classes very much (twice a week, one hour each; many options available.)

      • Katherine

        Hi Andrew! I’m glad the online classes are working out well for you!
        And thank you 🙂 I see your email address attached to this comment (it’s behind the scenes in wordpress) so I’ll send you a message about a potential interview. Have a great day!

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