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In general I think of "to speak" as being "говорить" and "to say" as being "сказать", but I know this can't be correct, since they are an aspectual pair, and thus their only semantic difference should be that between perfective and imperfective verbs (and the words "to speak" and "to say" seemingly should have translations in both the perfective and the imperfective, not just one or the other).

In most languages that I know besides English (German: sprechen vs. sagen, Spanish: hablar vs. decir) there is a clear way to differentiate between "to speak" and "to say".

But are the two words translated interchangeably into Russian, the choice between "говорить" and "сказать" coming down to aspect only?

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The difference is not purely aspectual.

The perfective counterparts to говорить meaning "to talk, to speak" would be поговорить ("to have been talking"), заговорить ("to start speaking") etc.:

Я говорю по-английски // я заговорю по-английски

Я говорю с учительницей // я поговорю с учительницей

There is no imperfective cognate counterpart to сказать indeed (except for archaic сказывать), so говорить is used as a suppletive imperfective form to сказать meaning "to say, to tell":

Я говорю ему, что люблю его // Я скажу ему, что люблю его

Я говорю "хватит!" // Я скажу "хватит!"

So imperfective говорить means both "to say" and "to speak" while perfective сказать and поговорить can only mean perfective forms of "to say" and "to speak", respectively.

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  • Interestingly in the Synodal edition of the Bible the imperfective of "сказать" sometimes seems to be "сказывать". For example Matthew 24:23, 24 reads: "Но и некоторые женщины из наших изумили нас: они были рано у гроба и не нашли тела Его и, придя, сказывали, что они видели и явление Ангелов, которые говорят, что Он жив." – David42 Jul 15 '16 at 3:27
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    @DavidC: this apparently continues the Church Slavonic distinction between глаголати, рещи and сказывати ("to speak", "to say" and "to make known"), which in its turn reflects the distinction between original Greek words. – Quassnoi Jul 15 '16 at 13:57
  • I stick to the point that English aspects and perfects don't corespond to the Russian aspect pairs, "Я хотел бы с вами поговорить" does not necessarily corespond to "I'd like to have been talking to you." – Yellow Sky Jul 17 '16 at 3:55
  • @yellowsky: well I had to put something in those quotes. – Quassnoi Jul 17 '16 at 9:52
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When we say "сказать" - we mean to tell few words for a short period. when we say "говорить" - it is usually much longer. Я хочу сказать - means I stand in front of a microphone, and I want to say a few words. Я хочу говорить - means I will be staying here for a long time and I will say a lot of words. "Я хочу сказать маме как я ее люблю" vs "Я хочу говорить всему миру как я люблю мою маму"

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It is the same kind of difference as in English (and in other languages you mentioned). For example "он говорил два часа подряд, но так ничего и не сказал". It is the same kind of relationship that exists between "смотреть/видеть" (look/see), "слушать/слышать" (listen/hear) etc.

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  • Right but смотреть/видеть and слушать/слышать have the same aspect – Chill2Macht Jul 14 '16 at 20:04
  • Indeed, they do. How about "искать/найти" (search/find)? – Dima Jul 15 '16 at 0:02

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