no beer, no subject

— Добрый день.
— Добрый день.
— Пиво есть?
— Пива нет.
— Пива нет?
— Пива нет.
— Добрый день.
— Добрый день.

— Добрый день.
— Добрый день.
— Пиво есть?
— Пива нет.
— Пива нет?
— Пива нет.
— Добрый день.
— Добрый день.

— Добрый день.
— Добрый день.
— Пива нет?
— Пиво есть.
— Пиво есть?
— Пиво есть.
— Добрый день.
— Добрый день.

Alas, Google couldn’t help me to identify the real author of the poem which I remember since my university days, so let’s call it “folklore”. This dialogue is made up of very short but complete sentences, every one consists of two words only. As discussed earlier, the Russian sentences can be both two-member (двусоставные) and one-member (односоставные). «Пиво есть?» and «Пиво есть.» are classical two-member sentences with subject пиво (beer) and predicate есть (there is). I trust you know that «Добрый день» means “Good day”. A common greeting, it is formally a nominal sentence (назывное предложение), a type of one-member sentence that, just like its English counterpart, has no predicate. «Пива нет?» and «Пива нет.», however, are puzzling.

Let’s compare «Пиво есть» (There is beer) with «Пива нет» (There is no beer). The sad fact of beer absence in English is indicated by laconic “no”. Likewise, in Spanish: “Hay cerveza” and “No hay cerveza”. Easy. Not so in Russian.

First, note that пиво (nominative) inflects to become пива (genitive) in the negative sentence [1]. This change is so universal that every time Russian speakers need to construct a genitive form, they would mentally ask, «нет кого? нет чего?».

Wait a minute, I hear you saying. In Russian the subject, when it is a noun or pronoun, is always in nominative. So, пива cannot be the subject here, right? Right. In «Пива нет», not only beer but also the subject are missing.

Second, what about the predicate? We usually expect a verb to function as one, or form a part of it. But in this sentence we don’t seem to have a verb either. In school, we were taught that нет (no) is a particle (частица), the opposite of да (yes). On the contrary, in our example нет is the opposite of the predicate есть, which is the present indicative form of the verb быть (to be). Logic tells us that нет must be the predicate then.

Our dialogue, grammatically, is in present. To make sure that we are really talking about present, say, today, and not about the beer situation in general, we can be more specific:

— Сегодня пиво есть?
— Сегодня пива нет.

We can leave the present for a while and enquire about the recent past, such as yesterday:

— А вчера пиво было?
— И вчера пива тоже не было.

How sad is that! Note, however, that in the past our verbs behave as expected: the negative is formed by placing the particle не in front of the verb.

But don’t despair just yet. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have better luck.

— А завтра пива тоже не будет?
— Завтра пиво будет.

You see? If было and будет are, respectively, the past and the future of есть, then не было and не будет are, respectively, the past and the future of нет. So this нет is a verb. Most probably it is a contraction of не + есть; cf. its archaic form несть.

OK, we’ve established that «Пива нет» has no subject and identified нет as our predicate. What is пива then? Why, it is the object.

But isn’t it fascinating that in Russian the subject of the affirmative sentence become the object of the negative one? I think it is.

«Пива нет» is an example of impersonal sentence (безличное предложение). It is not important who is responsible for the absence of beer; what is important that there’s none. Curiously, this type of negative sentence remains impersonal even when we specify the potential owner of, alas, still missing beer:

— У тебя пиво есть?
— У меня пива нет.

Can’t we simply say: “Do you have beer?” — “I don’t have beer”, you may wonder. It turns out, in modern Russian the verb иметь (to have) is rarely used to indicate actual possession [2]. It is like Russians, while mentioning the location («у меня» literally means “near me”), are afraid to admit they own anything physical, lest somebody (e.g. the government) take it away. Instead, Russians would turn to reflexive verbs such as иметься (to be available) or найтись (to happen to be found), with this latter in the future tense — being a perfective verb, it does not have present tense.

— У самих револьверы найдутся

Копейку я сунул в карман и остановился, обнаружив, что в том же кармане имеется еще один пятак.

Not only are Russians reluctant “to have” things, they also love to ask negative questions, as if preparing themselves for a likely disappointment. To Russian ear, even abrupt «Пива нет?» sounds more polite than «Пиво есть?».

Хлестаков (громко и скоро). Взаймы рублей тысячу.
Бобчинский. Такой суммы, ей-богу, нет. А нет ли у вас, Петр Иванович?
Добчинский. При мне-с не имеется, потому что деньги мои, если изволите знать, положены в приказ общественного призрения.

Н. В. Гоголь, «Ревизор»

— Сигареты у вас не найдётся? – спросила она без всякой приветливости.

Братья Стругацкие, «Град обреченный»


  1. And vice versa, to transform an affirmative sentence into negative, it is not enough simply to replace нет with есть: we also need to change the genitive back to nominative.

    — Вы просите песен? Их есть у меня!

    In this quote, the genitive (их, i.e. песен) is used on purpose to emulate the Odessa dialect. Thus, instead of grammatically correct but boring «у меня есть песни», the Odessite (supposedly) says «у меня есть песен».

  2. Whenever I encounter the verb иметь in a sense “to possess”, I always suspect it being a poor translation from English or German. Of course, it could be — and is — employed to a comic effect:

    Субъект монотонно бубнил:
    — Имею имение за Варшавою, конечно, небольшое…
    — Имею доход от имения, конечно, небольшой…
    Снится это мне или не снится?
    — Имею луга в имении, конечно, небольшие…
    — Имею тётку в Варшаве…
    — Конечно, небольшую, — неожиданно для себя перебиваю я.

    Тэффи, «Воспоминания»

One Response to no beer, no subject

  1. Pingback: where? | sólo algunas palabras

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