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Why is it:

Как тебя зовут? = How's your name?

and not:

Что тебя зовут? = What's your name?

3 Answers 3

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"Как тебя зовут?" literally translates to "How are you called (by others)?".

"Что тебя зовут" is ungrammatical. You could say "Чем тебя зовут", but that's just unidiomatic and sounds weird outside of certain specific contexts.

English and Russian work differently, and there are a lot of cases where you can't translate phrases word for word.

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  • But doesn't как mean how?
    – AZeed
    Commented Jul 22, 2022 at 14:54
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    @AZeed It does mean that. And "звать" is to call someone. There is no "name" (имя) in the question. "Как" is related to the "зовут" here. "Как зовут (кого? who?) тебя?", lit. "How [people] call you?". In "What is your name?" name is the subject. In "Как тебя зовут" the subject is implied "they/people/others" that call you (by your name) and "how"/как clarifies the way they call you (you can answer "громко"/loudly and it'd be understood/correct, although not expected for this idiomatic way to ask someone's name).
    – Dan M.
    Commented Jul 22, 2022 at 16:55
  • In English they actually ask какое ваше (у вас) имя? In Russian the question is in passive как (они/другие люди) тебя называют/зовут?
    – V.V.
    Commented Jul 23, 2022 at 4:12
  • But why can't it be "Что тебя зовут?", which literally translates to "What are you called?"?
    – AZeed
    Commented Jul 24, 2022 at 17:58
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    @AZeed because English and Russian work differently and there are a lot of cases when you cannot translate phrases word to word
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 15:27
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Как тебя зовут literally means "how do they call you?".

It's an idiomatic way of asking for someone's name, and it actually works this way in a lot of languages other than Russian: Come ti chiami?; Wie heissen Sie? etc. Even in English, "they call me John" is a valid, if pretentious way of introducing yourself.

When you're asking for someone's last name or patronymic, your would use Как ваша фамилия? or Как ваше отчество?, which are closer to the English way of putting it.

However, they also use как instead of что. Literally, you'd be asking "How's your last name?". This is because Russian tries to avoid syntactic ambiguity in cases where что could be both a subject and an object.

When you ask something like Кто твой папа? "Who's your dad?", there are two possible answers: Он мой папа "He's my dad" or Мой папа плотник "My dad's a carpenter". In the first case, the answer to кто is the subject; in the second, it's an object.

Russian, for some reason, avoids that kind of ambiguity for the word что. If you want to ask "What do you call a mouse?", you have to think first which blank in the phrase "you call <a thing> <a name>" you want the answer to fill.

If you're looking for the thing, i.e. an answer in the form of "you call a computer device a mouse", then you'd phrase the question as Что такое мышь?.

If you're looking for the name, i.e. "you call a mouse Whiskers", then you'd phrase it as Как назвать мышь?

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"What's your name?" would literally be more along the lines of "Каково твоё имя?", which is actually correct, but sounds like something medieval.

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