January 01, 2004

Just a Minute

Just a Minute

So you think a minute consists of 60 seconds? Hah! If you’re thinking in Russian, think again. Russian and American time concepts are as different as the words время and “time.” Time in the United States is a linear progression of specific units, a strictly regulated frame for behavior. Russian time is more elastic, a vaguely flowing continuum that defies definition. In American, “Just a minute, I’m coming” means exactly that. In Russian, минуточку (a little minute), сию минуту (this minute) or сейчас (right away) can mean ten or fifteen minutes or longer. “Time is money,” goes the American saying; Поспешишь, людей насмешишь (“Hurry and you’ll make people laugh”) replies the Russian proverb.

“Let’s have lunch three weeks from Tuesday at one-thirty at that Italian place on the corner” would be, for an American, a perfectly normal invitation to a friend. But to a Russian it would sound outlandish. Three weeks ahead? Who knows what судьба (fate) may have in store for him that far in the future? If the date is not for the next day or the day after, he will suggest that you and he could созвониться (call each other), a highly puzzling verb for English speakers, since it is perfectly unclear as to who is to call whom.

“Момент – сейчас приду” (“Just a minute/moment, I’ll be there right away”) can imply a point in time or a period of unspecified length. And момент can be much longer than a moment. With the Russian word’s several meanings, a важный момент в докладе is an “important point in a report,” момент в жизни is an “event” or “stage” in someone’s life, and нужно учесть этот момент means the matter must be taken into account. And if something is done оперативно it is not done operationally but quickly or efficiently.

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