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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.