Да, нет (часть вторая)

by Don  

The other day I came across an intriguing quote in a blog entry on Irish English:

Another interesting influence from Irish is its absolute lack of the words yes or no, so when our ancestors were speaking English as a second language, they would translate how they would use such words originally in Irish.

Although international English influences mean young people do this way less nowadays, a lot of us Irish still simply don’t use these words. In the Irish language (and in other languages like Thai for example), this issue is resolved by simply repeating the verb of the question. Can you swim? I can! Do you like tomato juice? I don’t. Are you coming? I amn’t.

Yes you read that right: amn’t. This is one I’m surprised other English speakers don’t use! You say isn’t, don’t, aren’t… It’s logical if you ask me!

The Russians can do precisely the same thing. Instead of answering yes to a yes-no question, they can simply repeat the verb. Instead of saying no, they repeat the verb with не in front of it. I generally prefer to translate this construction with phrases like do/don't , was/wasn't, have/haven't:

— Хочешь пойти в кино?
— Хочу.
“Do you want to go to the movies?”
“I do.”
— Летом не будешь в Москве?
— Буду.
“Will you be in Moscow this summer?”
“I will.”
— Таня вчера ходила на занятия?
— Ходила.
“Did Tanya go to class yesterday?”
“She did.”
— Дети уже обедали?
— Обедали.
“Have the children had lunch yet?”
“They have.”

This phrases can be preceded by да and нет as well:

— Хочешь пойти в кино?
— Да, хочу.
“Do you want to go to the movies?”
“Yes, I do.”
— Хочешь пойти в кино?
— Нет, не хочу.
“Do you want to go to the movies?”
“No, I don't.”

Sometimes this response can seem very curt, if not downright rude, to the American ear. I once had the following conversation with a woman passer-by in Russia:

— Извините, вы не знаете, где Парк победы?
— Не знаю.
“Excuse me, do you happen to know where Victor Park is?”
“I don't.”

At first I was offended. But then my ratiocination kicked in and I reminded my emotional self that Russian intonation that seems rude to the American ear is often perfectly polite in Russia, and that Russian grammatical constructions don't necessarily have the same emotional content as parallel English structures. I asked a couple Russian teachers about it and was told that for many speakers of Russian this standard response pattern is perfectly normal and doesn't imply irritation or hostility.

PS. I have never seen this verbal response pattern given an official name in the academic literature of Russian. I propose “bipolar verbal response pattern.” How's that for academese?


Comment from: Edgar [Visitor]

Excellent post by Muireann. Poor Noah Chomsky had a “divil of a time” trying to accomodate these structures into his linguistic theory. The fact that he was monolingual and relied on others as native speakers really set limits on his scholarship. The insights provided by both Don and Muireann make good sense: there is no “deep structure” here, only differences in languages.

05/29/10 @ 17:17
Comment from: Muireann [Visitor]

As a native speaker of Hiberno-English, I was very amused by this post - could my linguistic predisposition actually be an advantage in mastering Russian?
I just wanted to mention a strange cultural совпадение I experienced recently in the library of the Akademiia Nauk in Petersburg. While waiting for a librarian to photocopy my passport, I looked at the new books display - and found a book called ‘Irish English As Represented in Film’. It made me laugh out loud as it explained in rigorous linguistic detail (with references to cinematic versions of Roddy Doyle’s novels) why we Irish speak English the way we do. Unfortunately, I doubt if our use of superfluous ‘the’ for emphasis, or of ‘do’ as an emphatic auxiliary verb, would be helpful to learners of Russian. As in ’she does be always studying the Russian’, as they probably say about me back home. See
for this invaluable book!

05/28/10 @ 11:15

Form is loading...