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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH: To Be, Or Not to Be, It's a Tricky Question




Students of Russian are usually a little put out to discover that there is no convenient verb that fully correlates to the English "to be," but rather a number of devices that serve this function.


Some relief is to be had in that often you don't have to use any verb, adding instead a dash: Rossiya - samaya bol'shaya strana v SNG (Russia is the largest country in the CIS).


"To be" someone or something requires the infinitive byt' and the instrumental case: Tyazhelo byt' soldatom (It's tough being a soldier); nekhorosho byt' zavistlivym (it's not good to be envious). And, of course, there is the question that transcends all language barriers: Byt' ili ne byt' - vot v chyom vopros ("To be or not to be, that is the question.")


If the subject and complement are the same, yest' is used: prikaz yest' prikaz (an order's an order).


Yest' is used to express "there exists": Bog yest', (There is a God) and "there is" and "there are": V etoi strane yest' mnogo krasivykh gorodov (there are many beautiful towns in this country). U vas yest' vremya seichas? (Do you have time now?).


"To be" with habitual or frequentative meaning is translated by the verb byvat': Ona chasto byvayet v plokhom nastroyenii (She's often in a bad mood); Vybory prezidenta byvayut raz v chetyre goda (presidential elections are [held] once every four years). When you ask for a certain item in a shop and the assistant tells you Ne byvayet, it means that thing is never stocked there.


While English often uses the verb "to be" to define a location or position, Russian uses the reflexive verb nakhodit'sya, which literally means to find itself: Gde nakhoditsya vokzal? (Where is the station?). You can nakhodit'sya in a non-literal sense as well: Strana nakhoditsya v tyazholom polozhenii (The country is in a difficult situation).


(Since the non-reflexive form of verb nakhodit'/naiti can also mean "to find" in the sense of "think of" or "rate," John Lennon's quip when the Beatles returned from their first U.S. tour works in Russian too: "How did you find America?" - "We turned left at Greenland!")


Raspolozhen also means "situated": Dom raspolozhen u reki (the house is situated by the river).


When describing the position of objects, the verbs stoyat' (to stand) and lezhat' (to lie) are used. Shkaf stoit v uglu (the wardrobe is in the corner). Pis'mo lezhit na stole (the letter is on the table). Note also on lezhit v bol'nitse (He's [a patient] in the hospital).


The verb sidet' (to sit) is used when the person is in a place he cannot leave or does not want to leave. Vchera ya sidel doma tsely den' (Yesterday I was at home all day). And if you remember that sidet' v tyur'me means "to be in prison," you will get the reference when you hear that someone sidel (literally "he sat" or "has done time in prison."