In Russian, one can ask "там холодно?", literally is it cold there? and "там" is assumed to refer to outside (unless a suitable referent is in the context). The construction can be used in other weather-related questions and statements, e.g. "там снег" it is snowing outside (lit. there). This question is specifically about там meaning "outside" rather than "there" in situations when it has no referent in context.

I checked with a native and could not get her to accept non-weather-related sentences with this construction, e.g. "там много людей" there are many people outside (it can be used when там has a referent). She also rejected "там будет снег сегодня?" will it snow today? (also can be used with a referent), so the construction is really rather restrictive.

I would be tempted to analyse this as a case of degrammaticalization: там is a deictic adverb, but gets used non-deicticly, "outside". It is perhaps also worth noting that other translations for "outside" are complicated in some sense: на улице on the street has four syllables (not sure if this would be a reason for там to take over functions) and снаружи outside can only be used when you are in a closed space (i.e. not when the windows are open).

I am aware that degrammaticalization is rare. And I must admit to poor knowledge of Russian. I do not know the origins of там. Is there something to say for an analysis of degrammaticalization in this case?

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    This makes me wonder, what about the use of the pronoun "it" in similar English sentences? Some people seem to feel that "it" in a sentence like "It's raining" or "It's cold" has a specific meaning something like "outside" or "the weather", but I haven't seen this described as an example of degrammaticalization. Aug 18, 2018 at 22:21
  • @sumelic that's true, I didn't realise that. Although "it" can be used in other contexts as well, e.g. "it has been five years".
    – Keelan
    Aug 19, 2018 at 4:46
  • So what is supposed to be the correct version? Там есть много людей? Aug 19, 2018 at 9:32
  • @VladimirF only if там refers to something in context. Otherwise, много людей на улице or so.
    – Keelan
    Aug 19, 2018 at 9:59
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    Also, you should clarify what you mean by 'там is a grammatical item '. An expletive (based on your weather examples)? If so, traditionally it is not considered as such; even in the sentences you present там is very restrictive. In addition, I do not agree with the 'non-weather' judgements. By no meanis is this, then, an instance of degrammaticalization. Aug 19, 2018 at 19:13

2 Answers 2


If I understand you correctly, you are interested in там in the sense of "outside/outdoors."

Here are more examples for you:

  1. Talking about the weather:

Там идет снег?

Там идет дождь?

Там такая гроза. etc.

In all the examples above, там refers to a specific, limited space (in close proximity to the speaker). It basically means "not here."

  1. "Non-weather" situations:

Там так шумно.

Там так много людей. etc.

I don't think "на улице" (meaning "outside") is verbose. Сегодня на улице так хорошо.

A general methodological remark. You should never give sentences in isolation to language informants, nor should they really know what construction you're interested in.

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    I have heard "там холодно?" both in a room with a window but without the speaker or listener looking at it, and in a corridor without windows. That is what triggered me. But having thought about it a little more, these were situations that the speaker was preparing to go outside and though she hadn't spoken about that yet it may be implicit in the context (and thus, indeed, you wouldn't need a non-deictic interpretation). Thanks for the methodological remark also, I may have gotten carried away and given too much information to my informant.
    – Keelan
    Aug 20, 2018 at 5:05

I checked and thus suppose "там" - there is akin to German "dort". That is more comfortable for me to deal with as I don't speak any Balto-Slavic language.

In German, "dort" may be replaced with "da" in many dialects. "da" converged from different Old German roots and therefore means here in certain contexts, e.g. "ich bin da" ("I am there, here", but cannot substitute "come here"). That reading would make sense for your example, too. A temporal sense was also attested (but let's not get into that).

Then, another parallel would be then. So, let's have a look at the roots: *so, *seh₂, *tod - gendered demonstrative pronouns, reconstrions for Proto Indo European, whence also Latin " "tum" and tam", which are glossed as then and so, derived via *tóm and *téh₂m, but a definition is difficult for these particles, as is the reconstruction.

Then, "outside" is an interpretation. Different readings are possible, as suggested in the comments, too. The question remains why the construction is as specific. It's a fossilized idiom, as far as your description goes. The question must be, when did it become fossilized and how was it understood before, specifically?

I don't know nearly enough about PIE or later developments to be able to tell how it came about. A simple explanation would not involve here or there, but time - "then", Ancient Greek τῆμος (têmos, then) and Rus. тогда́ are ultimately from the same root. Future tense was not inflected per se in PIE and still English, French and German, at least, use auxiliary verbs for simple future constructions. That is, the question "will it rain, be cold" seems much more plausible then a reference to the present. Hence, "там будет снег сегодня?" (will it snow today?) would be redundant, if там was used to construct a future tense (which may be more complicated, this is just a sketch of an idea).

If there was degrammaticalization (?), I suppose that would involve the other word. The syntax is opaque to me, but "it rain!", "you comin'?" "me so cold", "so, rain then, huh?" and the like would not be unheard of. It's confusing at least, because снег is a noun, as far as I can tell, but холодно is predicative and a "simple" form of an adjective at that. There was some argument about how to translate хла́дный, by Dan Polansky et al, by the way.

I think it's not merely fossilized, but simple on purpose. Any rain err questions?

  • Sorry, could you clarify? How can you determine that the expression is fossilised if you don't know the original production rules? It seems to me this answer is highly speculative.
    – Keelan
    Aug 20, 2018 at 5:11

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