by admin on January 14, 2016

It’s interesting how you can learn so much about your own language by learning another language — or by hearing a non-native speaker speak your own.

This entry is inspired by a lecture at chess.com by grandmaster Alex Yermolinsky, called “1. e4 — Don’t Be Embarrassed.” Gjon Feinstein had suggested that I listen to this lecture after my recent blog post, Why Does Anybody Play 1. e4? Yermo’s lecture was a humorous presentation of what was really a train wreck of a game. In fact, I would say it’s one of the worst games I’ve seen a GM play.

It was the end of a tournament, Yermo was tired, he hadn’t playing well, he was paired against some super-low-rated player (and by that I mean as low as me, like 2150 or something), and then to make it completely ridiculous, the game started 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 Qf6?! (Just for clarification, … Qf6 was the opponent’s move, not Yermo’s.)

Yermo got a good position but kept making stupid little mistakes that gave his opponent some hope. One time he just out-and-out hung a pawn, and not just any old pawn but one that was supposed to play a crucial role in his attack. It was a little bit like reaching for your sword and finding the sheath is empty. Another time he thought his opponent had no defense when in fact he had a perfectly good defense that should have been obvious. Finally, to end the comedy of errors, Yermo’s opponent hung a rook. Just moved it right where Yermo could take it. “This is how grandmasters win games,” Yermo said sarcastically.

What I found interesting about the lecture was that at least three times Yermolinsky started a sentence with “Nu, well, …” For example, “Nu, well, no regrets.” It was so fast that you might miss it — it kind of sounded like “nwell” — but knowing Russian, I knew what he was saying.

If you look up in a dictionary, you’ll see that “Nu” translates as “Well.” So what Yermo was doing was saying “Nu” and translating almost immediately into English. He didn’t do this with any other words. I think that “Nu” is just so reflexive with him that it comes out, maybe unconsciously, before his conscious brain turns it into “Well.”

I once had a Russian teacher — her name was Rhonda and she was one of the two American chaperones when I spent a semester abroad in Russia — who told us in no uncertain terms not to use the word “nu” in conversation. I can still remember her saying, “Skazhite nu bez nu!” (Say ‘well’ without saying ‘well’!) Her point, which I think was a valid one, is that although “nu” roughly translates as “well”, Russians use it differently from the way that Americans use “well.” By constantly using the word in our normal way, we (the American students) were making ourselves sound peculiar.

So what does “nu” mean in Russian? And what does “well” mean in English? The wonderful thing about both words is that they have rich meaning that isn’t even conveyed by the letters on the page.

To understand how Yermo used “nu” in his lecture, you first have to realize that part of the Russian culture is very fatalistic, more so than American culture. The attitude is that there are some things you just can’t control, and so you resign yourself to them. I think that Yermo was expressing this attitude, saying that the game had become so farcical by this point that there wasn’t any point in worrying about it or asking why. The word “nu” was a verbal shrug of the shoulders. You might translate it as something like “what the hell.”

I don’t mean to imply that this is the only meaning for “nu,” but it is not quite what Americans usually mean when we say “well.”

But what do we mean? My first thought was, we don’t mean anything. That is, “well” is often used just as a delaying tactic while you are figuring out what to say next. It’s like “um,” except a little bit less obvious. In fact, I would venture to say that this is the most common usage of “well.” Rhonda was probably correct that Russians don’t use “nu” in this way, and was right to discourage us from doing it. The Russian word definitely means something, it’s not just a meaningless place-holder.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that “Well” often means something in English too. I’ll give two examples. First of all, the word can in fact be used to express pleasure or satisfaction, often in a sarcastic way. Think of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, saying “Well, my little pretty…” When used to connote pleasure, “Well” is often repeated, as in “Well, well, well, …” or intensified, as in “Very well.” Even so, I would emphasize that these expressions do not represent intense pleasure; in fact, it is usually a somewhat puzzled or uncertain or diffident pleasure, so that “well” is also serving its function as a delaying tactic.

Another usage of “well” is to anticipate the listener’s displeasure. Picture this. Your wife sent you to the store to buy (oh, let’s take a random example that has nothing to do with reality) Oikos no-fat Greek yogurt, plain, in a 16-ounce tub. But you weren’t listening very hard and you came home with Dannon 2-percent regular yogurt, vanilla, in an 8-ounce tub. She asks you if you got the Oikos no-fat Greek yogurt like she asked you. Here a very appropriate way to start your answer would be, “Weeelllll….” Stretched out very long. The longer the better.

I don’t think you can do that with “nu.”

Of course, there are some places where the Russian and English mean the same thing. The people who wrote the dictionary didn’t just make it up, after all. For instance, I think that the phrases “Nu a chto?” and “Well, so what?” are essentially identical. In both cases the function of “nu/well” is to challenge the listener. It’s a provocative “well,” designed to goad the listener into a response, rather than a defensive “well.”

I think it’s cool how these very common words acquire all these subtle meanings and nuances by the context and the way they’re said. They express a state of mind more than anything else. Perhaps there are some linguists in the audience who can explain why? Are there other state-of-mind words? (I guess curse words are an obvious example, but are there some less extreme ones?) And does anyone have any other favorite uses of “well” or “nu“?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Roman Parparov January 14, 2016 at 10:29 am

Dana, ‘nu’ also means “Come on” when used to express coercion or frustration:
“Nu, oden’sja uzhe”, “Come on, put the clothes on”
“Nu skol’ko mozhno?”, “Come on, how many more times?”
It also can mean “At least”
“Nu, odnu zadachu ty reshil?” “Did you solve at least one problem?”
The ‘nu’ word also infiltrated the Hebrew language, mostly in the ‘come on’ meaning.


Edward January 14, 2016 at 10:52 am

In an interview recently Kramnik said defenses to 1.e4 are worked out so well it now very difficulty to get an advantage with 1.e4. It would be fun to require in certain tournaments the top GM’s play the French, Caro Kann and other asymmetrical non Sicilian defenses to 1. e4.


paul b. January 14, 2016 at 2:43 pm

Nu is also a Lithuanian word, not too surprising given that Russia and Lithuania have been entangled for centuries – mostly in warlike ways.

Nu is a kind of verbal emoticon signaling surprise and a heads up, often with a somewhat unpleasant overtone:
Nu, what’s going on here?
Nu velnias! – (the devil! – your car just got rear-ended)
Nu, look at what she’s wearing! (scolding)
Nu, you call that a chess move?
Nu!?, I just got mated.


paul b. January 14, 2016 at 2:44 pm

Nu is also a Lithuanian word, not too surprising given that Russia and Lithuania have been entangled for centuries – mostly in warlike ways.

Nu is a kind of verbal emoticon signaling surprise and a heads up, often with a somewhat unpleasant overtone:
Nu, what’s going on here?
Nu velnias! – (the devil! – your car just got rear-ended)
Nu, look at what she’s wearing! (scolding)
Nu, you call that a chess move?
Nu!?, I just got mated.


Roman Parparov January 16, 2016 at 2:27 am


Dana, are you aware that your favorite Bird got destroyed twice on the very top level very recently, in the same Nxd4, exd4, Bc4 variation:

Saric – Carlsen (!), Tromso 2014 1-0
Caruana (!) – Fish, Skopje 2015 1-0


admin January 16, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Thanks, Roman! I knew about the Carlsen game, of course, but I had not seen the Caruana-Fish game. It’s particularly interesting for me because Fish played the move that Carlsen should have played (6. … Nxe4) and that I would play if I got to this position. I had looked at the position after move 10 on the computer and concluded that Black was okay. But practical tests were needed, and so I’m glad that Fish and Caruana did so. Black needs to make an improvement somewhere around moves 14-16, I think. I am dismayed that he gave up his two bishops so easily.

I have not yet gotten this position (after move 10) in a tournament game, but I suspect that well-prepared White players are going to throw it at me, so I had better get ready! Thanks.


Roman Parparov January 17, 2016 at 9:41 am

Balogh is not very optimistic about the Black’s position after the 10th move; my stockfish had the evaluation wobble between 0.40 to 0.60 after being left for a night with that position (10th move).


admin January 18, 2016 at 8:46 am

Hi Roman, I’ve had a chance to look at the line now without the computer as well as seeing what other people have done with the position in ChessBase. In general, I am okay with playing a line that is -0.5 for Black provided: 1) Black has the opportunity for mischief, and 2) I understand what Black wants to do in the position. I am not okay with it if White can simply sit on the position with a comfortable advantage. I am also not okay with it if Black can only survive by playing “computer moves.”

I think that Black does have chances to create mischief here, and I was going to post a long reply to you, but I think it really deserves a separate post of its own. Stay tuned!


Rob January 16, 2016 at 7:49 am

Dana…I have something about 10 meters or so from my front door.

Well? You might wonder – what the heck does this have to do what I am talking about?
I bet you can guess, as in this case, it is not as deep as the subject of your commentary.



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