"Интонация" is the word my tutor mentioned. In case he was right, I'd like to know how important it is. As I understood (don't blame him if I'm wrong!), context-free questions need certain verbal aid to distinguish what the speaker is really after. Example (inspired by the book "русский язык для всех"):

Мама, наш папа выступает по телевизору в пятницу?

  • Can one tell, without intonation nor context, what is really asked here?
  • Is true that stressing certain word with a characteristic pitch, higher than the rest of the words, helps to discern what is asked (namely the doubt relies on the stressed word)? In the previous example, if one stresses "по телевизору" one is asked "in TV?"(or, say, Radio?); if one stresses "пятницу" one is after the day in which dad is on TV, and so on.
  • 1
    Well just a small correction : наш and телевизору. The rest is perfect.
    – petajamaja
    May 28, 2013 at 4:56
  • 1
    I have no time for a proper long answer, but both of your bullet points are true. One exception are the so-called wh-questions ( beginning with words кто, что, какой, чей, когда, зачем, почему итд. ). I.e. if a question begins with interrogative word, you can be understood even without having used proper intonation.
    – petajamaja
    May 28, 2013 at 5:03
  • 1
    Should be пятница, not пятнитца - extra "т" is not required.
    – Anvar
    May 28, 2013 at 7:02
  • Oh yes, @Anvar, I haven't noticed. =)
    – petajamaja
    May 28, 2013 at 9:42

3 Answers 3


Without intonation or context true meaning of the sentence will not be clear.

There are many possibilities for interpretation here (stress is marked in bold).

Мама, наш папа выступает по телевизору в пятницу? That would mean that precisely our dad not Natasha's is gonna be on TV.

Мама, наш папа выступает по телевизору в пятницу? That would mean that our dad and not grandpa or uncle Dima is gonna be on TV.

Мама, наш папа выступает по телевизору в пятницу? That would mean that our dad will be talking on TV and not dancing or moving lips silently as IRA political leaders on BBC back in 80s.

Мама, наш папа выступает по телевизору в пятницу? That would mean that dad will be on TV and not radio or podcast.

Мама, наш папа выступает по телевизору в пятницу? That would mean that dad will be on TV on Friday and not on Monday.

I would say stressing what is meant by intonation is quite important.

  • I'd add that, from the linguistic point of view, the bold, stressed parts of the sentence in each examples above are the topics (or themes) of those sentences. Telling themes from rhemes in Russian is rather difficult in writing, that's why diacritic accents and italics are often used to make that obvious.
    – Yellow Sky
    May 28, 2013 at 20:19

Yes, intonation is crucial to telling what's being asked in Russian, and even to telling a statement from a question.

Inhabitants of Mordovia (a region in Central Russia, home to Fenno-Ugric Erzya and Moksha languages) are notable for using the rising intonation at the end of every sentence, which makes every sentence sound as an interrogative. So Russian dialect spoken in Mordovia uses a supporting interrogative clause чо-ли (< что ли)

Она картошку выкопала (she has harvested potatoes)

Она картошку выкопала чо-ли? (has she harvested potatoes?)

Она чо-ли картошку выкопала? (was it she who harvested potatoes?)


Well, strictly speaking, intonations are not necessary. Any question is just asking whether the whole proposition is true.

That is «Наш папа выступает по телевизору в пятницу» can be false because it's your friend's father who'll be on TV. Or because your relative will be on TV but he is not your father. Or maybe your father will be on TV, but not on friday, and so on. The same is true for, say, english: “Will out father be on TV on friday?” can also be false in multiple ways.

The difference is that in Russian you use intotanion to stress that part ot the question you are particularly interrested in. If you know he'll be giving a speach on friday, but you are not sure whether he will be on TV or radio, you'll stress «по телевизору». If you are sure that your father will be on TV, but you're not sure when, you'll stress «в пятницу». In english you'll have to restructure your sentence: “Is it friday when our father will be on TV?”, while in Russian it is not necessary you just change your intonation. Although you can choose a different structure if you wish: «В пятницу ли наш папа выступает по телевизору?» and in this case intonation doesn't matter.

Update. And one more thing.

While you definitely can use intonations it might be a better idea to restructure your question and put the most relevant part closer to the end. It's not only easier for a non-russian speaker but it also sounds better.

  • Мама, наш папа выступает по телевизору в пятницу?
  • Мама, наш папа выступает в пятницу по телевизору?
  • Мама, в пятницу по телевизору выступает наш папа?
  • Мама, в пятницу по телевизору выступает наш папа?
  • I'm not sure that my English examples are grammatically 100% correct, but I hope you'll get the idea. Feel free to tell me about my mistakes as I'm looking to improve my English skills =).
    – kirelagin
    May 28, 2013 at 12:26
  • I'd like to know why the downvote? does the answer contain wrong information? From a non-Russian's perspective, like mine, what this answer says seems a good, logical analysis.
    – c.p.
    May 28, 2013 at 21:31
  • I guess that the downvote is because of the first sentence of my answer. It might be difficult to admit that you can do quite well without intonations, but it's true, you can (written speech is an obvious example). Restructuring will let you express your intent in almost any situation.
    – kirelagin
    May 29, 2013 at 10:22
  • Though in written speech you don't need the intonations, however when one speeks he cannot use the '?' sign to mark the sentence as a question and using intonation is the only way to do it.
    – Artemix
    May 30, 2013 at 6:04
  • @Artemix Sure, but this is true for almost any language. And this intonation is similar in every [western] language I've heard.
    – kirelagin
    May 30, 2013 at 13:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.