Daniel Brooks

The Russian language has several words which enjoy a rich depth of meaning. Some of these words are made up of only two or three letters. They punch well above their weight, being short but powerful. I’d like to say a few words about one of these words which is ‘там’ meaning ‘there’ (pronounced like ‘Tom’).

The word ‘там’ means something is in a fixed place, as opposed to going somewhere. Your fishing gear is ’там’ meaning it is (perhaps) in the garage. Someone might be located in a large place, such as another country and be ‘там’. Where is Bill? He’s in Spain, gone overseas for the winter, if not the duration. He’s ‘там’ as opposed to travelling in Spain’s direction.

This word can comprise a sentence. It can mean that the thing you are looking for is right in front of you and all you have to do is open your eyes and look for it. It can suggest that someone is absent minded and his or her eyesight could be improved upon. Someone new to Russia can use ‘там’ without fear that it has an unpleasant double meaning and construct a state of mind using this one three-letter word.

The word ‘там’ is often used to give a general idea about a place where things are located without having to define where they are. This saves time for the explainer. The closest translation of this meaning into English would be ‘over there somewhere’, shown by nodding your head in a general direction and saying ’там’. In this way, all the valuable and proprietary information about its precise location is withheld. It’s out there, somewhere.

Let’s take the example of a garlic squeezer. In our family, we squeeze garlic into lots of things. Garlic is squeezed into soup, onto our salad and in most of the meat and fish dishes we eat. Our garlic squeezer is a member of the family. It’s been with us for over a decade. It is gun metal grey and has markings on the back where I have used it as a hammer. Being grey, it camouflages itself into its surroundings. Whenever I need it, I can’t find the damn thing. It disappears into thin air, just as I put a fresh clove of garlic into my hand. I often call out to my family members and say, where is the garlic squeezer? They answer ‘там’. This means the garlic squeezer is where it should be, in the vicinity of the kitchen and probably where I left it since in our household, I do most of the garlic squeezing. Saying ’там’ means, keep looking.

An irreplaceable item is a cork screw to open a wine bottle. When it can’t be found, it’s needed. The definition of bad form is to keep wine drinkers waiting. Only yesterday I was visiting an established expat in his Moscow apartment who hails from the UK. He assigned the task of opening the wine to me. When it came time to open yet another bottle, the cork screw had disappeared into thin air. I asked, where is it? My host answered ’там’ and leaned his head over in the direction of the living room. He was using the word in the traditional Russian way, giving me confidence that he has one or more cork screw, located roughly northeast of his head. It turned out to be in somewhere else but never mind, there it was. ’Tам’.

Another use of the word ’там’ is when it joins forces with ‘кто’. As with там, which has letters that transliterate into English ones, ‘Кто’ is pronounced ‘kto’ with the emphasis on the o.

‘Кто там’, meaning ‘who is there’ is used when someone calls you in your apartment on your intercom before you can buzz them into your building. After that, you ask the same question again when that person finally shows up at your door and rings the doorbell. Even if you know who the person is and can clearly see through the peephole that he is your son in law, the person behind the door needs to call out кто там (who’s there).  The person answering can say ‘я’ (literally ‘I’ meaning ‘it’s me’ and pronounced ‘ya’). There is no need to call out a name, something you might not want the neighbors to know.

The word ‘там’ is often used if you ask directions in Russia. You might ask someone to help you find an address on a given street where the buildings are not marked at all or each street number is 100 meters apart. As a general rule, the more lanes a street has in Russia, the farther the buildings are from one another. If you go on foot in the wrong direction to find a street address, that might put you 200 meters (or more) away from where you are going. This can be rough going if it’s freezing cold outside and the sidewalks are covered with ice. Often, if you ask for directions, the answer will be ‘там’ meaning – that way. The trick is to use the word ‘там’ over and over as a question until a consensus is reached.

I’m a big fan of learning a few words in a language and understanding all the ways they can be applied in a given country, even if you don’t understand the local language at all. For example, Italians use the phrase ‘va bene’ all the time. Literally, va bene means ‘it’s going well’ but in general usage it means ‘all right’. It’s used in a host of ways. It can mean yes. Or you can say it when you agree to something, such as something you are haggling about. It can be used to ask ‘OK’? In German, there is a similar word which is ‘genau’ meaning ‘exactly’. I’ll leave it up to the reader to ponder the differences between the German uses of ‘exactly’ and the way Italians say ‘va bene’.  Like ‘ там ‘ some words reflect the culture of the country in which they are used.

While ‘там’ is an exemplary word, it is in the minor leagues compared to other Russian words, such as ‘вот’ (pronounced pretty much like ‘vote’ and meaning ‘here’). This one word ‘вот’ has a host of meanings.  I had planned on writing about both ‘там’ and ‘вот’ in this article before realizing that ‘вот’ will need to be laid out in an entirely new discussion. That comes later (потом!).