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Is there a way to describe the difference in meaning between инстина and правда? Is the difference more or less significant in colloquial speech, in comparison to more formal or legal writing? I often see правда translated to 'true' in the sense of 'really,' which seems softer or at least without the ontological weight that истина has as 'a truth.'

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"Истина" is of a higher register, is more pathetic (in its archaic sense of "full of pathos." As was kindly pointed out to me in comments, "pompous" might be a better term) if you will (or just strict - when one is talking about Boolean operations, it's about "истина" and "ложь", not about "правда" and "неправда"). It's something unarguably true, almost axiomatic. In another meaning, "истина" stands for something authentic, like in "истинные патриоты" ("правдивые патриоты" meaning those who don't lie). So in colloquial speech, they are not interchangeable in the overwhelming majority of cases, not to mention that one will hardly ever hear "истина" in colloquial speech.

You just cannot say "я тебе истину говорю, я встречался с друзьями".

If you want to delve deeper and grasp the difference on an ontological level, this article may be a good starting point. There are some nice examples of the use of "правда" and "истина" as quasi-synonyms cited in that article.

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    "is more pathetic if you will" - please be careful with this word in English. I would rather use "lofty". – Alexander Jan 10 at 18:46
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    Pathetic "1 .having a capacity to move one to either compassionate or contemptuous pity" – Alexander Jan 10 at 21:32
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    Pathetic в разговорном английском одназначно означает "жалкий". Патетический в значении "пафосный", "напыщеный" - это скорее pretentious или pompous. – AR. Jan 11 at 2:34
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    я тебе истину говорю, я встречался с друзьями. I think it's fine to say that. – user7808407 Jan 23 at 7:52
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    @user7808407 fine but intentionally in a higher register – shabunc Jan 23 at 11:57
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From my perspective истина is an idea that came from the Bible and in meaning is very close to objective reality. Although the very word objective is superfluous since the opposite of reality is falsehood, that is a lie. Истина, I think, can also be understood as Being. With non-Being being an opposite.

Правда is related with law as in Latin juris (право). A righteous (праведный) person in the Bible is someone who succeeds in following the God’s law. Hence правда is about truthful (!) reflection of a mere fact.

I feel that most people in Russia though wouldn't be able to explain this difference. When they start thinking about the diffence, they can’t define it. I suspect it’s the same in any country and all languages =) They are using these words intuitively and in my opinion according to the explanation I’ve given above. Sometimes these things are getting confused hence an odd idea that правда is a very special word that can’t be translated into other languages. When someone says это правда (this is true (!)) he states that he is not lying in his account of phenomena, and he would never say that what he is saying is истина (noumena).

In mathematics or programming a word истина is used because math is about absolute truths (!). So истина is absolute and правда is relative. There is a word правдоруб (from правда and рубить (to axe)). It is used to describe someone who operates facts to hurt people, using law as an axe, not caring about other’s feelings or about истина (the truth (!)). The most important thing for such a man is to be right by all costs.

To conclude I’ll quote a Wikipedia article on truth:

All Germanic languages besides English have introduced a terminological distinction between truth "fidelity" and truth "factuality".

So, basically, истина is ‘fidelity’ and правда is ‘factuality’.

As I am from the continent it’s hard for me to imagine what’s happening in minds of English-speaking people and if there is such a distinction in English, and if there is how to express it in English.

  • It is interesting to look at this from religious aspect, and then expand to everyday usage. And I agree that истина is for universal "truths" while правда can be different for different people. – farfareast Jan 15 at 13:21
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  • Истина - is an objective fact that is true.
  • Правда - is a subjective message (spoken or written) that is considered to be true.

Правда may be not истина, when person spoken (or listening) belives in some false facts.

  • This answer is misleading. It does not work like this: if I am not sure of what I say I may just change the word "истина" for "правда", and all is okay. No, both words translate the word "the truth" in a perfectly correct way, and by default all truth is objective. – Evgeniy Jan 19 at 11:43
  • @Evgeniy, the no "default" truthfulness. Philosophers were and are discussing objectivness of truth for thousands of years and did not come to any conclusion. And this forum is not about philosophy (they had their own forum). This exactly question is about semantics. And when I say "истина" I refere to smth, that should be (by my opinion) considered an objective truth. When I say "правда", I refer to some text (in written or spoken form), I consider to be true. In English both are "truth", but in Russian there is a difference. – ksbes Jan 20 at 7:04
  • nonsense, sorry – Evgeniy Jan 20 at 10:33
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В английском слове "the truth" есть два аспекта. Они отражены двумя разными словами русского языка. Истина — то, что есть на самом деле. Корень слова — "тот самый", "настоящий". Правда — то, как правильно думать и делать. Оба слова используются в самых разных регистрах. По умолчанию лучше использовать слово "правда".

Эти значения накладываются на разные реалии русского языка и порождают огромное количество разных примеров. Приводить их все было излишне — наверное, ответ на ваш вопрос может занять целую книгу. Приведу вот какой: "истинная дочь" — это та, которая дочь на самом деле, а не только на словах. А "праведная дочь" — это дочь, которая делает всё правильно, всё как подобает. Это словосочетание может появиться только в высоком регистре. Немножко похожее слово "правдивая дочь" — это дочь, которая говорит всегда правду… То есть говорит то, что и надо думать об обсуждаемом предмете (англ. the truth).

PS: дополнительные примеры здесь - https://french.stackexchange.com/questions/30249/

  • Если кто-то считает нужным перевести ответ на английский — я считаю, что оригинал надо оставить на месте, потому что он в любом случае точнее. Задан вопрос о довольно тонком месте в русской лексике, которое имеет значение для многих людей. По-настоящему тонкие вопросы языка имеет смысл обсуждать на самом языке, потому что слова мы объясняем при помощи слов, и при переходе на другой язык системность объяснения теряется, теряется и смысл. – Evgeniy Jan 19 at 11:53
  • Перевод - у меня в ответе. Причём максимально по существу, без воды. И не надо путать иностранцев используя "корень слова" не в орфографическом смысле ("истина" и "настоящий" разнокоренные и разногнездовые слова) (UPD: минус - не от меня) – ksbes Jan 20 at 11:34
  • @ksbes отстаньте от меня со своей чепухой – Evgeniy Jan 20 at 23:08

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