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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When Yes Means No And Nyet Means More

Is there really a difference between no and nyet, and da and yes? Miranda and I are now convinced, thanks to Vita's help, that the difference is fundamental.


Vita has developed a sensible, flexible character and is by no means a difficult child. But sometimes you have to summon all your patience and imagination to extract a definitive answer from her to those simple everyday questions like: Do you want Weetabix or kasha for breakfast? Or, the Golden Egg or Winnie the Pooh for tonight's story? -- a particularly complex decision since her choice of book also determines which parent will be reading: the Russian or the English one.


And Vita's nanny is often confused about whether Vita really means Ya ne khochu (I don't want to) since a few minutes later Vita will frequently say "yes" to something she has only just refused.


But her indecision is far from fickle, or that of a child spoilt for choice; instead her prevarication has taught us about the enormous discrepancy in both language and national attitudes to the way you treat your yeses and your nos.


In England, when you hear "no," you know they mean it, no matter how many superfluous polite words disguise the rejection. In Russia, however, a "nyet" mostly means an unwillingness by the person concerned to be bothered. What you do is talk your way out of it -- or into it. Or, between us adults, bribe your way through it. A Russian nyet is emotional rather than rational.


In English, if you ask "Vita wants some milk, doesn't she?," you either get a no for no or a yes for yes. In Russian you can ask "Vita doesn't want any more milk?" and a yes will mean no, she doesn't, whilst a nyet means on the contrary yes she does want more.


Pretty confusing when a yes or no means an entirely different thing depending in which language it is uttered.


And whilst an English yes is often as strong a sentiment as the most meticulous legal contract, a da in Russian may be no more than a very preliminary agreement to look into something further, or, as a popular joke puts it, a way to get rid of someone who is too pushy and annoying to deal with. In other words da means yes as much as the English now, meaning immediately, means the Russian seychas, literally translated as "this hour" but usually interpreted rather more flexibly.


Watching the confusion written across Vita's face as she is forced to make a choice between da, nyet no and yes with all the unwritten subtleties they imply, one can't help feeling sorry for her, only hoping that her eventual mastery of such niceties will herald a new breed of truly international diplomat.