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What is the semantic difference between быть and бывать?

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Here is what I was taught regarding the matter.

Some centuries ago бывал was considered a special past tense of быть. I quote from Российская Грамматика written by М. Lomonosov in 1755:

§ 268

Времен имеют российские глаголы десять: осмь от простых да два от сложенных; от простых: 1) настоящее — трясу, глотаю, бросаю, плещу; 2) прошедшее неопределенное — трясъ, глоталъ, бросалъ, плескалъ; 3) прошедшее однократное — тряхнулъ, глотнулъ, бросилъ, плеснулъ; 4) давнопрошедшее первое — тряхивалъ, глатывалъ, брасывалъ, плескивалъ; 5) давнопрошедшее второе — бывало трясъ, бывало глоталъ, бросалъ, плескалъ; 6) давнопрошедшее третие — бывало трясывалъ, глатывалъ, брасывалъ, плескивалъ; 7) будущее неопределенное — буду трясти; стану глотать, бросать, плескать; 8) будущее однократное — тряхну, глотну, брошу, плесну. От сложенных: 9) прошедшее совершенное, напр.: написалъ от пишу; 10) будущее совершенное — напишу.

Бывал corresponds to the fourth tense on the above list. This tense was called давнопрошедшее первое (Distant Past I). Hence the then-current meaning of бывал: (repeatedly) was long ago. Furthermore, as you see in the excerpt above, бывало was used as a modal verb to form Distant Past II (бывало тряс) and Distant Past III (бывало трясывал).

Russian has evolved since then, and nowadays the Russians have a simplified conception about tenses. According to that conception, there are only three tenses: Past, Present, and Future. This simplified conception is what the Russians are taught at their schools and base their speech on.

So бывал is nowadays considered the past tense of a separate verb, бывать, rather than a special past tense of быть. The same happened with махивал, лавливал, жаривал, глатывал, плёскивал, тряхивал, валивал, двигивал, игрывал, etc. Originally a special past tense of common verbs махать, ловить, etc., those words are now considered the past tense of махивать, лавливать, etc., which theoretically can now be also used as infinitive and in the present and future tenses. In practice, such verbs are practically never used as infinitive and in the present and future tenses, but бывать is an exception in this regard.

In modern Russian, the main meaning of бывать as infinitive is: to repeatedly be, to be sometimes, to be from time to time.

Let us consider an example given by the author of the other answer: "Он бывает весел, бывает и сердит." The meaning is: Sometimes he is jolly, and sometimes he is angry.

If you say the same sentence in the past tense, "Он бывал весел, бывал и сердит," your sentence will have a connotation of distant past and repeated character. The meaning will be: There were periods in which he was jolly, and there were periods in which he was angry.

If you now say the same sentence in the future tense, "Он будет бывать весел, будет бывать и сердит," it will still be formally okay from the standpoint of the modern Russian grammar, but will sound weird and will be different from how Russians commonly express the idea. They will rather say something like, "Он иногда будет весел, а иногда - сердит."

Another example: if you say я бывала в Америке instead of я была в Америке, you load your sentence with connotations suggesting that your visits to the USA were repeated and/or in the distant past.

As you see, knowledge of the history of Russian helps deeply understand the meaning and usage of words and expressions.

  • 1
    Спасибо большой за твое отличное объяснения! – jdh Nov 30 at 21:48
  • 1
    *объяснение, извини меня. – jdh Dec 1 at 18:41
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  • быть is pretty much to be in all senses.
  • бывать has several meanings:

1) to be present, not to be absent, to exist somewhere examples: У каждого бывают неудачные дни, Такого просто-напросто не бывает в жизни. Бывали люди и подобрее тебя I think it's the most often usage of the verb.

2) to be for a short period of time examples: Он бывает весел, бывает и сердит

3) to usually be/go to some place example: Я бываю в театре по средам.

4) always imperative бывай, бывайте is used as a goodbye with no special meaning

  • So the difference between \textit{быть} and \textit{бывать} in Russian is essentially the same as that between \textit{ser} and \textit{estar} in Spanish? – jdh Nov 29 at 16:57
  • no, it's not that at all. Both estar and ser are быть, бывать is restricted to the cases I described and only to them. – user7808407 Nov 29 at 19:17
  • Estar is used precisely for the cases you described (except of course 4). – jdh Nov 29 at 19:41

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