A comment on this question of mine alerted me to the difference.

Is this a case of the linguistic equivalent of "convergent evolution"? I don't see how that can happen with two languages as closely linked as Russian and Ukrainian.

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    I'm afraid that this Q is nearly offtopic as it is mostly about the Russian language. The Ukrainian word for "torture" is тортури (a calque from some Romance language — German?). The word *pytaty has equivalent meaning (of "to ask") in most Slavonic languages (see Vasmer's dictionary), and only in Russian it is different. Most certainly, we cannot answer why the Russians don't even make difference between "asking" and "torturing". An unknown socio-cultural phenomenon. :-) Aug 14, 2017 at 20:22
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    Yeah should be closed as off-topic. This quesiton is more suited for Russian SE
    – piznajko
    Aug 15, 2017 at 2:49
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    @bytebuster i thought that to ask in Russian is спросить which is quite different from пьітать, so there is a difference for them.
    – Yola
    Aug 15, 2017 at 8:32

1 Answer 1


Well, IMHO meanings of питати and пытать can be considered as relatively close. Although in most Slavic languages питати and similar words really mean something like “to ask”, but there are nuances:

  • Russian — to torture, (colloquial) to try / to attempt / to check, (colloquial dated) to ask / to inquire / to question (see in Wiktionary).
  • Slovak, Moravian, Macedonian — to ask / to beg (actually, I was unable to verify that the word really has “to beg”-like connotation through modern dictionaries, but, as Vasmer's and Melnychuk's etymological dictionaries both claim that, I suppose that at least it was partially true for that languages in some past times).
  • Lower Sorbian, Upper Sorbian — to look for / to search / to find (according to Melnychuk's etymological dictionary and pytaś in Wiktionary).

I consider first two entries in the above list to be approximately the same: simply the word got meaning of something like polite plea/supplication in some languages/dialects and of hard high-pressure interrogation in others; except that meaning in Russian was then somehow shifted to tortures (personally I suppose either “check” → “test/temptation (Christianity)” → “mental anguish/tortures” → “any tortures”, or “question” → “interrogation with tortures” → “tortures of any kind” path — though I don't have enough competence to make such assumptions reliably). It is not uncommon for Slavic languages to have diverging meanings for similar/cognate words, e.g. Russian вонь means “stink”/“stench” while Czech vůně means “fragrance” (pleasant sensation) or “smell” (neutral word).

Both Ukrainian питати and Russian пытать certainly derive from same origin (see Proto-Slavic *pytati). Modern usage of the root пит:

  • Ukrainian:
  • In modern Russian, it is hard for me to somehow categorize пыт-words. Such words can have not only one of the three meanings mentioned in the beginning of this answer for пытать (although пытать tends to the 3rd, its cognates can refer to any of the following: (1) to ask / to inquire / to question, (2) to try / to attempt / to check, (3) to torture), but also some intermediate state between them. Пытка “torture”, попытка “attempt”, пытаться “to try”, опыт “experience”, испытание “test”, испытывать “to feel”, пытливый “curious”.

P.S.: No, I'd not call it “convergent evolution”. Convergent evolution — that's when some things with different natures/origins get similar traits due to influence of somewhat similar environments. I'd better say “convergent evolution” for Ukrainian питати and Russian питать (“to feed”); or for Ukrainian керувати and кермувати. While in the case you've asked about it looks more like fork/divergence of Old East Slavic word.

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    There is also prominant example or different meanings: Ukrainian (and probably many slavic languages, at least Polish too) "вродливий" (=beautiful) and Russian "уродливый" (=ugly). Just in case you need such sample :) Aug 15, 2017 at 18:07
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    @KyryloYatsenko, ha, we're thinking in same direction :). <!--Or examples of fully opposite sense: Russian _уродливый_ (commented part in the answer). But thanks anyway.
    – Sasha
    Aug 15, 2017 at 18:58
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    Ну, ні то й ні :) Також може бути цікаво: uk.wikipedia.org/wiki/Фальшиві_друзі_перекладача Aug 15, 2017 at 20:16

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