Category: "Negation"

Да, нет (часть первая)

May 18th, 2010 — posted by Don

The standard Russian word for yes is да and for no — нет. For the most part they work pretty much like we would expect:

— Ты хочешь чаю?
— Да, пожалуйста.
“Do you want some tea?”
“Yes, please.”
— Ты хочешь пойти в кино?
— Нет, спасибо.
“Do you want to go to the movies?”
“No, thanks.”

Russian sometimes doesn't work quite the way we would expect, though, when answering a question that has не in it. Remember that не is often including in Russian questions to make the question softer, more polite. But if the question is in the negative in Russian, there must be a negative somewhere in the answer as well. Let's say you are in Russia waiting outside the subway station for a woman named Tanya. You've never met Tanya; your friends have arranged the meeting, and you have only a general description of her. You spot someone who sort of matches the description, so you walk up to her and say:

— Извините, вы не Таня?
— Нет, я не Таня.
“Excuse me, you aren't Tanya by any chance, are you?”
“No, I'm not Tanya.”

In such a case, when the woman says нет, she is negating the idea of being Tanya. That interchange makes perfect sense to the American ear. Now consider this version:

— Извините, вы не Таня?
— Да, я не Таня.
“Excuse me, you aren't Tanya by any chance, are you?”
“No, I'm not Tanya.”

In this case when the woman answers да, she is confirming your spoken negative supposition that she is not Tanya. Notice that despite the да in the original, it sounds better to have no in the English translation. (An English speaker would never say “Yes, I'm not Tanya” in this context.)

If the woman turns to be Tanya, then the question can be answered like this:

— Извините, вы не Таня?
— Нет, я Таня.
“Excuse me, you aren't Tanya by any chance, are you?”
“Yes, I'm Tanya.”

In this case Tanya is denying your stated assumption that she is not Tanya, so she answers нет and then corrects you. Notice once again that word for word translation “No, I am Tanya” simply doesn't work in English.

Let's see a few more examples and note their translations carefully. Let's say you need to ask a Russian whether she speaks English. It may turn out like these examples:

— Вы не говорите по-английски?
— Нет, не говорю.
“Do you happen to speak English?”
“No, I don't.”
— Вы не говорите по-англисйки?
— Да, не говорю.
“Do you happen to speak English?”
“No, I don't.”
— Вы не говорите по-англисйки?
— Нет, говорю.
“Do you happen to speak English?”
“Yes, I do.”

Notice this carefully: although very often да and нет correspond to English yes and no, sometimes the grammar of responding to a question requires a negative in Russian where it makes no sense in English. A professional translation in such a context requires replacing нет with yes in English. People with limited language experience might think “That's a bad translation or a dishonest translation because it says the opposite of what the words actually say.” They would be mistaken. Sometimes what appears to be an opposite translation is in fact the best translation, as long as it communicates the original intent and informational content of the source sentence.

Не (часть вторая)

December 30th, 2009 — posted by Don

After two weeks of studying Russian every student knows that не means not. Thus «Я не говорю по-русски» means “I do not speak Russian.” Seems pretty simple. Nonetheless, не can sometimes be misleading because Russians often use не in offers/suggestions to make them softer, more polite, less pushy. Consider the following sentences and translations:

Не хочешь пойти в кино? Would you like to go to the movies?
Не хочешь чая? Would you like some tea?
Не будем смотреть телевизор? Shall we watch TV?
Не передашь мне журнал? Could you hand me the magazine?

Notice that none of the English translations have ‘not’ in them. The не in the Russian sentence simply makes the request a bit more polite, and therefore the best translation of such sentences often contains could or would in them.

Notice that a beginner might be tempted to translate «Не хочешь чая?» as “Don't you want some tea?” That would be a bad translation. When an English speaker asks “Don't you want some tea?”, he is asking because he is surprised that the other person doesn't seem to want tea.

Не (часть первая)

December 24th, 2009 — posted by Don

The word for not in Russian is не. It can be used to negate nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases, and most other parts of speech:

Он не студент. He is not a college student.
Я живу не в Москве. It's not Moscow that I live in.
Он не понимает тебя. He doesn't understand you.

When you want to contrast something by first saying what it is not, you then use the conjunction «а» to introduce the thing it is:

Он не студент, а строитель. He's not a college student but rather a construction worker.
Я живу не в Москве, а в Туле. I live not in Moscow, but in Tula.
Она говорит не по-польски, а по-русски. She is speaking not Polish but Russian.

When не negates a verb, it is pronounced with the verb as a single word and is almost always unstressed, which means it's pronounced [ни] not [не]. Thus «я его не знаю» “I don't know him” is pronounced [я йиво низнаю]. There are a few exceptions where the не becomes stressed when negating a verb, and of those it's particularly important to know that when the past tense of быть is negated, the не becomes stressed and the быть form becomes unstressed. This happens in all past быть forms except the feminine:

В прошлом году он не был в Москве.
В прошлом году она не была в Москве.
В прошлом году оно не было в Москве.
В прошлом году они не были в Москве.