What так и не Really Mean

Amateur language learners are horrified by long words in the target language. This is especially true for learners of Russian, because words in Russian are usually longer. Experienced language learners know that the really scary words are the short ones. There are many little words in Russian that don’t even make any special sense on their own. They are almost always overlooked by textbook and course authors, and rarely make it into example sentences. You may come across these annoying little words in various forums or other places where native speakers communicate naturally, but even this gives almost nothing, no clues. When you come across one of these seemingly unintelligible words over and over again, you begin to suspect that it is some kind of code. And you’re not wrong. These short words, which add little to the literal meaning of a phrase, usually convey what is called communicative meaning, that is, what the speaker thinks about the object, the situation, the interlocutor and themselves.

In ordinary non-adapted Russian text those ну, же, аж, ли, а то, -ка etc, are found literally everywhere. Somehow Russians handle them with great precision, knowing exactly which one to use and where to put it. Unfortunately, using something and rationally understanding why and how you use it are two different skills. As well as native speakers of Russian know how to play with these words, they are just as bad at explaining it. 

I found one of the examples of misleading translation of such short words in the Russian course on Duolingo. The Russian sentence was “Она ему так и не позвонила,” which sounds perfectly natural to me as a native Russian speaker. The English translation was “She did not call him after all”. A student asked on the forum what exactly “так” adds to the meaning of the sentence. The question probably arose because the translation was a bit awkward. Someone pointed out that set phrases should not be translated literally (which is absolutely true), and “так и не” is a set phrase. And finally, the moderator of the forum tried to explain that: 

“Так и не” is an adverb, a set phrase. It’s used to say that something wasn’t very likely to happen, yet it was possible that it would happen, perhaps we hoped for it to happen, but it never happened after all.”

Of course, “так и не” is not an adverb, it is an expression that plays the role of an adverb. But that is not really important here. What is interesting is that the moderator connected this phrase with two things: the probability of the described event and expectations. These two parameters belong to the communicative level of the language, and so does this short phrase. The moderators knew this intuitively and explained the actual function of the phrase more or less precisely. By the way, in the examples given in this answer “так и не” is most often translated as “never”, which I think is correct.

I first learned about the communicative level of language in the book “Semantics of the communicative level of speech” by M.G. Bezyaeva. The author developed the concept of the communicative level as a part of the language system, where all parts are organized around the goal of communication. We speak, we do it to achieve something: we assert, assure, order, rebuke, threaten, demand, warn, etc. We convey much more than the literal meaning of words: we express our expectations and frustrations, our attitudes and impressions about our interlocutor, the object of communication, about ourselves, and about the situation in general. This information circulates at the communicative level of language, and native speakers are usually very good at reading these “overhead” signals.

You’ve probably encountered these special words and phrases in your native language-they’re usually very difficult to translate into other languages, and native speakers don’t really understand why they use them, but without these words you’d sound like a robot (or not a native speaker, just kidding).

So let’s go back to “так и не” and try to decipher it. In her book Bezyaeva explained the communicative meaning of some of these words. She described “так” as whether the situation corresponds to the speaker’s or listener’s idea of a norm. In other words, something happens and a speaker implicitly says “this is normal/not normal” with this little “так”. The exact meaning (whether or not a speaker thinks Х is normal) can be clarified by the context. 

You know that “И” means “and” in Russian. And maybe you have even read or heard the explanation that sometimes “и” also works as an amplifier (almost all particles, according to traditional linguistics, “amplify” something, but this doesn’t explain anything). Bezyaeva said that “и” as a communicative structure is a reference to an analogy, to something similar that happened or usually happens, and thus the speaker bases their expectations on the previous similar experience.  The description of communicative meanings is usually too abstract, but this is because it is a generalization of millions of actual sentences said by native speakers.

So “так и не” in “Она ему так и не позвонила” conveys the following: he was expecting her call because he thought other girls would call in that situation. She didn’t behave according to his ideas about the norm and never called him. “Так и не” implies the expectations that were never met, although these expectations could be reasonable enough. In my mind I see a guy nervously checking his phone, time after time, day after day, until the last hope disappears. 

Photo by Ekaterina Bolovtsova

Of course, “так и не” doesn’t have to be that melodramatic. Here are a few more examples, so that you can understand better what that expression means and how it is used:

  • Я купила эту книгу, но так и не прочитала.  I bought this book, but I never read it. – Usually I buy books and read them, and I expected that I’d find the time to read the new book, but it never happened. 
  • Ты так и не сходил к врачу? You haven’t seen a doctor yet? – Here “так и не” communicates the speaker’s expectations: I expected you to go to the doctor, that would be a normal thing to do, but I know you don’t like to go to the doctor, so I suppose this time is no different, and you still haven’t gone to the doctor. 
  • Она так и не вернула ему деньги. She never returned his money. – Again, there are expectations based on previous experience and the norm, and these expectations were not met: she decided not to return the money.

The power of communicative linguistics and Bezyaeva’s method is that they explain what other approaches and methods can’t. They provide a wonderful insight into how people really talk. I haven’t even scratched the surface of communicative semantics in this article, but I hope you now understand a bit more about the mysterious Russian short words. Please let me know which short words puzzle you the most, and I’ll write about them too!