Russian Grammar

A different way of conveying meaning


 

Okay, so now you can read the Russian alphabet and sound out Russian words.  Congratulations!

Pretty soon, you're going to be noticing that the Russian words you're carefully sounding out aren't quite as you would expect them, and, even more strangely, they change a bit from time to time - the endings of the words vary from stamp to stamp.  To understand why words change their form, we have to get into some of the grammar of a language - the rules for how it is built and used.

If you've never learned a foreign language before, you'll find this a bit new and different, because much of our own grammar is a result of just copying and learning patterns without understanding the reasons for them, and it is really only when we have to learn another language that we start to understand what these patterns are and why.  Of course, if you have learned another language, even only for a year or two, you will already know a bit about these things and it will be much easier for you to appreciate how Russian builds its own sets of grammar rules.

Our objective here is not to teach you Russian grammar.  Rather, it is merely to explain some of the things to do with how and why Russian grammar is what it is so that you'll at least not be totally bamboozled by the way that Russian words change their endings from time to time!

Let's examine some of these grammatical issues.

Singular/Plural

This is the same as in English.  One dog.  Two dogs.  Normally in English, we show that a word is referring to more than one of something by adding an s.

Russian is a bit more advanced than English.  When referring to the quantity of something, it has an ending that is used for the singular, then a second ending if referring to two, three, or four of a thing, and then a third ending if referring to five or more.  Wow - an interesting idea, and while very different to our narrow English definition of simply showing singular or plural, when you think about it, the ability to add extra quantity information to the words is actually quite helpful.

Gender

Ah ha.  I've written something like 250 or more web pages for this site so far, and now, at last, I finally get a chance to talk about sex!  Indeed, I'm almost going to get to talk about "kinky sex" because in Russia, they have three different genders, not just two.  :)

Okay, I'll calm down and struggle to preserve the "family" rating of this website.....

In English, we make almost no use of sexual distinctions in the way we use words, other than to say "his chair" or "her chair" to refer to the gender of the person in such expressions.  So this idea of gender is a bit new to us.

In most other languages, every thing has a gender.  For example, in French, the word for table is considered to be a feminine word, but the word for chair is considered to be a masculine word.  Don't ask me why!  There is no rational reason that I can see why inanimate objects should be distinguished, completely artificially, into male and female, and why the language should then vary itself to reflect this artificial distinction whenever talking about the object.  However, it is a fact that most other languages do give a gender to every object and thing (all nouns - naming words such as chair, table, John, etc).  Perhaps some people might say that it helps to reduce confusion for example, say you are talking with a friend about your new table and matching chair.  If you then say "it is green" your friend doesn't know if you are talking about the table or the chair, but in French, if you say it (female form) is green (female form) it is obvious you are talking about the table, but if you say it (male form) is green (male form) then it is obvious you are talking about the chair.  So maybe there is a use for the concept after all.

Anyway, Russian goes one step further than many other languages.  It has not only masculine and feminine genders, but has a neuter gender as well!  Oh great, you might think - things that don't have a real sex (like tables and chairs) are sensibly given a neutral gender, but if you thought that, you'd be wrong.  There is no discernable pattern as to how the Russian language assigns genders to things, and things randomly seem to be either masculine, feminine, or neutral.

Why am I telling you all this?  Because, in Russian, words that describe nouns will change their form depending on whether the noun is masculine, feminine, or neutral.

Case

This is where our knowledge of English fails us.  English is one of not many languages where the meaning of a sentence is very dependent on the order of the words in the sentence.  For example, consider these two sentences :

John shot Janet

Janet shot John

It is fairly obvious that in the first sentence, Janet got the bullet, whereas in the second sentence, it was John that was shot, isn't it.  The meaning of the sentence is totally dependent on the order of the words - we have no other clues as to who shot who.  For those of us that speak only English, this is such a normal thing that we never even stop to think about it, or to realise that there might be another way of saying in a sentence who shot who.

Most other languages have an extra feature that we don't really have in English these days.  It is called "case" - and it is a way whereby nouns can change their spelling as they change their use.  To keep using the shooting example above, one type of "case" is the case whereby the noun is in the "doing something" case, and another type of case is whereby the noun is in the "having something done to it" case.  Lets say that the "doing something" case is shown by putting a letter "a" on the end of the noun, and the "having something done to it case" is shown by putting the letters "er" after the word.

So then, using our specially created "case" rules, we can say

Johna shot Janeter  which means that John (did something) shot Janet (had something done to her) - obviously John was the shooter and Janet was the victim, same as in ordinary English.

But we can also say

Janeter shot Johna  and this now means Janet (had something done to her) shot John (did something) and you can see that this word order now means that John was again the shooter, whereas in regular English, it can only mean the opposite.

This use of "case" actually makes a language more expressive and gives greater opportunity for constructing sentences.  It is not an easy thing for English people to learn, because we have not grown up using it all our lives, but if you understand what it is used for and why, then at least you can get the positive mental attitude thing (!) and not be too flustered or bothered by it.

Of course, the reason for all this discussion is because the Russian language uses cases.  It has six different cases!  So each word can have potentially up to six different forms, depending on the way in which the word is being used in the sentence.

Verb Conjugation

Verbs are "doing words" - they describe an action.  In all languages (that I'm aware of) a verb can be used in six different ways - the using of it these different ways is referred to as "conjugation" :

First person singular - to describe something that I am doing (eg I walk)

Second person singular - to describe something that you are doing (eg you walk)

Third person singular - to describe something that some other single person is doing (he/she/it walks)

First person plural - to describe something that I and someone else is doing (eg we walk)

Second person plural - to describe something that you and some other people are doing together (eg you walk)

Third person plural - to describe something that some other people are doing together (eg they walk).

If you think about this (and you've probably never had to unless you've learned a foreign language before), you'll notice that the verb "walk" changes its ending when talking about "he walks" compared to its ending for all other uses of the verb.  Most English verbs conjugate this way - the same ending for five of the six forms, and a simple "s" added for the third person singular - which makes it really easy to learn how to use English verbs, so easy in fact that we never really had to think of using different endings for each of these different situations.

Most foreign languages aren't quite so forgiving, and it is common to find that they will have a different ending for most if not all of the six different ways of using the verb, and in Russian, all six forms have their own special ending.

Verb Tense

Verbs can be used to describe actions that are happening at present, or actions that happened in the past, or actions that will happen in the future.  I walked, I walk, and I will walk mean three obviously different things, don't they.

In English, you can see that we can show that an action occured in the past (ie in the past tense) by changing the verb walk by adding the -ed to the end of it.  (But note also these other forms such as "I was walking" and "I did walk"!)

In Russian, there are more different endings to reflect the past tense of a verb, and sometimes the verb changes completely to show the future tense.

Finding Words in a Dictionary

If you're looking for a word in a dictionary, which different ending do you look up?  Dictionaries tend to follow some standard rules for how they list words.  Nouns are listed in their single ordinary form (using the "nominative" case), and Verbs are listed in their "infinitive" form (before any of the changes for conjugation or tense are applied to them).

How to work back from a word you see on a stamp to its infinitive or nominative single form?  Do what I do - just look up the first part of the word in the dictionary and ignore the last part, then check through the very short list of matching words in the dictionary until you find the one that it obviously is.  Usually dictionaries might give some of the possible endings for the word as part of their information, which makes it easier, still.

In More Technical Terms....

Here are some notes I prepared a while ago on Russian grammar issues in specific.  These are probably only of value to the serious Russian language student during the early part of their studies.

 

This page last modified on May 15, 2010