мне нравится

For Anglophone learners, abundance of reflexive verbs in Spanish must be overwhelming. Cómo te llamas, no me acuerdo, pórtate, no se para, siéntese, cómo se dice, tengo que irme, no me daba cuenta, que te calles, nos vemos, fíjate bien, and so on and so forth. For me, on the other hand, it was almost a relief. Wow, it is just like in Russian! (It’s always comforting to find similarity where you least expect it.) Of course, there are plenty of differences between Spanish verbos reflexivos and Russian возвратные глаголы, but the concept is the same. How on earth English even works without reflexive verbs?

True reflexive verbs (лично-возвратные / собственно-возвратные глаголы) are the most straightforward: the grammatical agent coincides with the grammatical patient, so they could be easily rendered in English with the help of “oneself”. Russian мыться / Spanish lavarse is a textbook example, but there are lots of others: вытираться, одеваться, раздеваться, переодеваться, защищаться, наклоняться, опускаться, подниматься, прятаться, скрываться, уколоться. Some of these actions are usually done in front of a mirror (so one has a literal “reflection” to look at): бриться, краситься (in the sense “to make up”), прихорашиваться, причёсываться, умываться

Reciprocal verbs (взаимно-возвратные глаголы) are also easy. Here, English expressions “each other” or “one another”, their clumsiness notwithstanding, are often to the rescue [1]. This class includes встречаться, знакомиться, познакомиться, переписываться, переругиваться, обмениваться, обниматься, целоваться, жениться, разводиться, ссориться, мириться, прощаться and расплёвываться, among others.

In one of The Vicar of Dibley episodes, a comic situations arises from a confusion regarding the request “Will you marry me?”: Mr Campbell asks the Vicar Geraldine Granger whether she would officiate while Ms Granger interprets it as a marriage proposal. No such hilarious ambiguity in either Russian or Spanish: женить / casar is “to marry off”, жениться / casarse is “to get married”, and that’s that.

Beyond these two classes, things get complicated. It could be more useful to talk about “meanings” [2] rather than classes or groups, especially for polysemic verbs. For example, собираться means

  • “to gather” (oneself) as in «Собирайся!» // “Get ready!” (true reflexive);
  • “to gather” (as a group): «мы собираемся по пятницам» // “we gather on Fridays” (reciprocal);
  • “to be assembled”: «ящик собирается из деревянных планок» // “the box is assembled from wooden planks” (passive) [3];
  • “to intend”, “to be going to”: «я собирался поздравить её» // “I was going to congratulate her” (I have no idea how to classify it)

Sometimes the meaning of a reflexive verb is easily guessed from its non-reflexive counterpart. Some other times it is not so trivial: cf. прощать “to forgive” and прощаться “to say goodbyes”, or выбирать “to choose” and выбираться “to get out” (with difficulty). And some other times they are almost opposites, as просыпать “to oversleep” and просыпаться “to wake up”.

«Собака кусается»… Что ж, не беда.
Загадочно то, что собака,
Хотя и кусает ся, но никогда
Себя не кусает, однако…

As Boris Zakhoder points out, кусаться has nothing to do with biting oneself (whereas Spanish morderse means exactly that) but “to bite habitually”, without a definite object [4]; слышаться does not mean “to hear oneself” but “to be heard”; удивляться not “to surprise oneself” but “to be surprised”; родиться not “to give birth to oneself” (how, one may wonder; cloning perhaps?) but “to be born”.

Мне нравится, что можно быть смешной —
Распущенной — и не играть словами,
И не краснеть удушливой волной,
Слегка соприкоснувшись рукавами.

This verse from a poem by Marina Tsvetaeva contains two reflexive verbs: нравиться and соприкоснуться. The former is so-called inherent reflexive verb: the non-reflexive form (нравить) does not exist, at least in modern Russian. The expression «мне нравится» is usually translated as “I like”, but it differs from «я люблю» (literally “I love”) in a sense that there is no active “I” (я). Instead, the reflexive verb нравиться (“to please”) in third person causes я to take dative case to become мне. So more literal translation of «мне нравится» would be “it pleases me”. In «мне нравится Париж» (“I like Paris”) the Russian indirect object (мне) corresponds to the English subject (I) while the Russian subject (Париж) to the English object of liking (Paris). One has to keep that in mind when conjugating the verbs:

Person singular plural
1 я никому не нравлюсь nobody likes me мы нравимся зрителям viewers like us
2 ты ему нравишься he likes you Вы мне нравитесь I like you
3 мне нравится джаз I like jazz ей нравятся Канны she likes Cannes

The verb прикоснуться, just like its unprefixed parent коснуться, means “to touch fleetingly” (something or somebody, but not oneself), while doubly-prefixed соприкоснуться is reciprocal: you need a touching partner (animate or inanimate) to do that.

Other inherent reflexive verbs include бояться, смеяться, улыбаться, надеяться, гордиться, клубиться, трудиться, ерепениться, ёжиться, кукожиться, садиться and ложиться [5]. Finally (and I only say so because I want to finish this post today), some reflexive verbs are both reciprocal and inherent, for instance здороваться “to greet”, препираться “to bicker” and расставаться “to part”.

As a homework, think of (a) perfective and (b) non-reflexive forms of a verb отмухиваться. Can you conjugate them?


  1. The “each other” bit may give an impression that reciprocal verbs should always be used in plural. Not really. One can say «мы встретились», “we met each other” as well as, for instance, «ты мне встретилась» or «я встретился с ней». The former is shorter; the latter variants are better used when one needs to be more explicit about those “we”.
  2. V. V. Vinogradov distinguished at least 15 “meanings” of Russian reflexive verbs.
  3. Качественно-пассивно-безобъектное значение (qualitative-passive-objectless meaning), according to Vinogradov.
  4. Активно-безобъектное значение (active-objectless meaning), according to Vinogradov.
  5. Ложить, the non-reflexive counterpart of ложиться is considered non-standard. It is often used colloquially and/or for a comic effect: «— Ложи, — говорю, — взад! <…> Ложи, — говорю, — к чёртовой матери!» (Михаил Зощенко, «Аристократка»)

жил один рыжий человек

Жил один рыжий человек, у которого не было глаз и ушей.
У него не было и волос, так что рыжим его называли условно.

There was a red-haired man who had no eyes or ears.
Neither did he have any hair, so he was called red-haired theoretically.

In Russian, adjectives agree with the noun in case, gender, and number. For instance, «рыжий кот» (ginger cat) in nominative [Example 1m]:

adjective noun
singular рыжий кот
Nom / m / s Nom / m / s
plural рыжие коты
Nom / pl Nom / m / pl

If we change the noun to genitive, the adjective follows suit [Ex. 2m]:

adjective noun
singular рыжего кота
Gen / m / s Gen / m / s
plural рыжих котов
Gen / pl Gen / m / pl

Replacing кот (tomcat) with кошка (female cat), we have [Ex. 1f]:

adjective noun
singular рыжая кошка
Nom / f / s Nom / f / s
plural рыжие кошки
Nom / pl Nom / f / pl

And in genitive [Ex. 2f]:

adjective noun
singular рыжей кошки
Gen / f / s Gen / f / s
plural рыжих кошек
Gen / pl Gen / f / pl

Luckily for learners of Russian, the plural forms of adjectives are the same irrespectively of gender. (It was not always the case.)

Now let’s add some cardinal numerals to our ginger tomcat [Ex. 3m]:

numeral adjective noun
1 один рыжий кот
Nom / m Nom / m / s Nom / m / s
2 два рыжих кота
Nom / m Gen / pl Gen / m / s
3 три рыжих кота
Nom Gen / pl Gen / m / s
4 четыре рыжих кота
Nom Gen / pl Gen / m / s
5 пять рыжих котов
Nom Gen / pl Gen / m / pl

What just happened? As you can see, the numerals other than один cause the nouns and adjectives to change the case to genitive. But if with пять (and above) both nouns and adjectives become, logically enough, plural, with the numerals два, три and четыре the noun stays in singular. We already mentioned that these three numerals behave as if not quite plural. The reason is, Proto-Indo-European and its descendants, in addition to singular and plural, had a grammatical number called dual (in Russian, двойственное число), which was used for pairs only. In modern Russian only a few traces of dual remain. However, some properties of dual were somehow extended to groups of three or four. I recently learned a (not widely known, but useful) term маломножественное число (literally, “few-plural number”), but I’d like to have something shorter. On Tamara’s suggestion, we can call this number “fewral” (pronounced /ˈfjuːrəl/; never mind that there is an identically spelled Turkmen word for February) or, for Spanish-speaking learners,“pocal” (from poco; please ignore the Romanian word meaning “goblet”).

Now, once again, let’s change the cat’s gender [Ex. 3f]:

numeral adjective noun
1 одна рыжая кошка
Nom / f Nom / f / s Nom / f / s
2 две рыжих кошки
Nom / f Gen / pl Gen / f / s
3–4 три-четыре рыжих кошки
Nom Gen / pl Gen / f / s
5–20 пять рыжих кошек
Nom Gen / pl Gen / f / pl

Comparing the masculine and feminine examples, you might have noticed that the pattern for 2 is not exactly the same as for 3 and 4. This is because the feminine form две is different from masculine (and neuter) form два, just like одна is different from masculine/neuter form один. Otherwise, we see the now-familiar story: “fewral” nouns are in genitive singular, adjectives in genitive plural.

And this could be “it”… if it not were for the fact that another way is possible [Ex. 4f]:

numeral adjective noun
1 одна рыжая кошка
Nom / f Nom / f / s Nom / f / s
2 две рыжие кошки
Nom / f Nom / pl Nom / f / pl
3–4 три-четыре рыжие кошки
Nom Nom / pl Nom / f / pl
5–20 пять рыжих кошек
Nom Gen / pl Gen / f / pl

That’s right, both «две рыжих кошки» and «две рыжие кошки» are correct. But why? Going back to Examples [1f] and [2f]: did you notice that the genitive singular form, кошки, is identical to the nominative plural? Well this is how Russian feminine nouns behave, as a rule. So in “fewral” we can have either «рыжих кошки» (both genitive) or «рыжие кошки» (both nominative, both plural). Makes sense? Kind of. I think it is a matter of personal preference. I, for example, prefer «две шуточные песни» to «две шуточных песни». Perhaps my internal grammarian just likes to maximise the number of nominatives. Shame I can’t do the same with masculine and neuter.

You may ask, why did I write “5–20” rather than “5 and more”? Because when we reach 21, we say «двадцать одна рыжая кошка» (back to singular), then 22 «двадцать две рыжих кошки» or «двадцать две рыжие кошки» (back to fewral), and so on. Every time we hit a numeral ending with один/одна, два/две, три or четыре, we repeat the singular and fewral spiel again and again.

Last but not least: all these strange things happen only when our cardinal numerals are in nominative. As soon as we put them in any other case, the whole construction declines in a totally regular fashion, e.g. «одному рыжему коту» (dative) or «двумя рыжими кошками» (instrumental).

For homework, please take Kharms’ «один рыжий человек», and see what could happen with two, three, eleven and fifty-one theoretical red-haired men using Example [3m].

их нравы

In Russian, possessive pronouns (притяжательные местоимения) agree with the noun of the possessed, or possessee, in case, gender, and number. To be more precise, this is the case for the first person, мой (my), наш (our), твой (thy) and ваш (your). In the third person singular, we don’t care about case, gender, and number of the possessee anymore, however the distinction is made between masculine and neuter его (his, its) and feminine её (her). Finally, for the third person plural possessor, the unique form их (their) is used. You can’t go wrong with их. Well, almost.

Number → Singular Plural Self
Person → 1 2 3 1 2 3
m n f
Nom m мой твой его его её наш ваш их свой
n моё твоё его его её наше ваше их своё
f моя твоя его его её наша ваша их своя
pl мои твои его его её наши ваши их свои
Gen m моего твоего его его её нашего вашего их своего
n моего твоего его его её нашего вашего их своего
f моей твоей его его её нашей вашей их своей
pl моих твоих его его её наших ваших их своих
Dat m моему твоему его его её нашему вашему их своему
n моему твоему его его её нашему вашему их своему
f моей твоей его его её нашей вашей их своей
pl моим твоим его его её нашим вашим их своим
Acc m an моего твоего его его её нашего вашего их своего
m in мой твой его его её наш ваш их свой
n моё твоё его его её наше ваше их своё
f мою твою его его её нашу вашу их свою
pl an моих твоих его его её наших ваших их своих
pl in мои твои его его её наши ваши их свои
Ins m моим твоим его его её нашим вашим их своим
n моим твоим его его её нашим вашим их своим
f моей твоей его его её нашей вашей их своей
pl моими твоими его его её нашими вашими их своими
Prep m моём твоём его его её нашем вашем их своём
n моём твоём его его её нашем вашем их своём
f моей твоей его его её нашей вашей их своей
pl моих твоих его его её наших ваших их своих

The word Ваш (capitalised in written Russian) is the polite form of second-person singular or plural possessive pronoun. Grammaticaly, it behaves exactly like ваш, even if you address just one person, for example «Ваше величество» (Your Majesty). When we talk about the single royal, say the Queen, in the third person, we should utilise the third person singular, i.e «её величество» (Her Majesty), not «их величество», if we don’t want to sound illiterate. Note that Russian styles such as величество (Majesty), высочество (Highness), сиятельство, светлость, превосходительство (Excellency), преосвященство (Holiness) etc. are invariably neuter.

The reflexive-possessive pronoun свой does not have analogue in English. It always points to the subject of the sentence irrespectively of the person, gender, and number of that subject. It could be roughly translated as “one’s own”… except that “own” has its own exact analogue, собственный. This latter is used to amplify the sense of possession, so свой собственный stands for “one’s very own”.

With свой, we avoid possible tautology. For example, «у тебя есть своя машина» is better than somewhat repetitive «у тебя есть твоя машина». Another reason to use свой is to sound a bit less personal. In the sayings like «своя рубашка ближе к телу», the subject (the owner of this proverbial shirt) is not identified, probably because «моя рубашка ближе к телу» would sound too mean. It sounds mean enough as it is.

Russian possessive pronouns can be nominalised as to refer to (a group of) people. For example, the word наши also means “our people” and in times of war was often used as an antonym of враги “enemy”. The idiom «и нашим и вашим» (literally, “both to ours and to yours”) is a (shorter!) Russian equivalent of “hold with the hare and run with the hounds”. Likewise, свой or свои could mean “one’s kin” or “friend” as in «Свой среди чужих, чужой среди своих», “At home among strangers, a stranger among his own”.

Моей душе покоя нет My heart is sair
Сын или Бог, я твой Son or God, I’m thine
Первая его работа вызвала большой шум. His first work caused quite a stir.
Но, к великому её сожалению, банка оказалась пустой. But to her great disappointment it was empty.
Отче наш Our Father
Их нравы Their morals
Свои люди — сочтёмся It’s a Family Affair — We’ll Settle It Ourselves

The Soviet-era posters used a lot of наш while reserving их for the enemy.

Разгильдяев с производства гони: наши машины портят они
Kick the slobs out of the production line, they damage our machinery

Трудовой народ, строй свой Воздухофлот!
Workers, build your own Air Fleet!

Ребята! Ваша шалость с огнём приводит к пожару
Children! Your messing around with fire leads to conflagration

Добьём немецко-фашистских захватчиков в их берлоге!
Let’s finish off the Nazi invaders in their lair!

Printable table of Russian possessive pronouns

послушай, Зин

The first time I read the word зин I almost fell off the chair. (I was sitting on the sofa though.) Of course, зин is nothing but a Russian spelling of zine, itself a short of fanzine (фэнзин), which is a blend of fan and magazine. However, the meaning of the Russian word магазин (shop, store) is very different from that of magazine. My first association of зин was with the name Зин as in Vysotsky’s song:

“Ну, и меня, конечно, Зин,
Всё время тянет в магазин,
А там — друзья… Ведь я же, Зин,
Не пью один!”

Владимир Высоцкий
«Диалог у телевизора»

“And, of course, Zin,
I always long for the <liquor> store,
There are my friends, because, Zin,
I never drink alone!”

Vladimir Vysotsky
Dialogue by the TV set

By the way, I already mentioned this song when discussing Russian terms for in-laws. But why Зин instead of Зина?

You might remember that Russian has six cases. Or at least this is what we were taught in school. Well, that is not exactly true. There are remnants of up to ten additional cases! One of them is vocative. According to Russian Wikipedia, the historic Slavic vocative started to die out (by getting mixed with nominative) as early as XI century. By XIV—XV its use was restricted to addressing the higher social ranks and by mid-XVI century it disappeared from vernacular altogether, the only remaining forms being those to address the clergy. Nevertheless, until 1918, the vocative case was formally listed as the seventh case of the Russian language.

Nominative Vocative Meaning
Бог Боже God (in monotheistic religions)
Господь Господи Lord
Иисус Иисусе Jesus
Христос Христе Christ
владыка владыко lord; bishop
отец отче father
старец старче (literary) old man; elder
царь царю tsar, king
князь княже prince
человек человече human being, person

The handful of surviving vocative forms are still very common in both literary and spoken Russian.

Врачу, исцелися сам!

Physician, heal thyself

Отче наш, иже еси на небесе́х!
Да святится имя Твое…

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Не лепо ли ны бяшет, братие, начяти старыми словесы трудных повестий о полку Игореве, Игоря Святославлича?

Might it not become us, brothers, to begin in the diction of yore the stern tale of the campaign of Igor, Igor son of Svyatoslav?

«Чего тебе надобно, старче

“What do you need, old man?”

Ой, как худо жить Марусе
В городе Тарусе!
Петухи одни да гуси.
Господи Исусе!

Oh what trial is Tarusa
For the girl Marusya —
Nothing but the hens and geese,
What a living, Holy Geez!

Он говорит в ответ:
— Мёртвый или живой,
Pазницы, жено, нет.
Сын или Бог, я твой.

He, in turn, explained:
— Dead or alive, this time,
Woman, it’s all the same.
Son or God, I’m thine.

In Ukrainian, vocative (кличний відмінок) is alive and kicking. In Russian literature, it is widely used to give a Ukraininan feel to dialogue (while leaving the rest 100% Russian):

— Не смейся, не смейся, батьку!

— Не слушай, сынку, матери: она баба, она ничего не знает.

Н. В. Гоголь
«Тарас Бульба»

“Don’t laugh, don’t laugh, father!”

“Don’t listen to your mother, my son; she’s a woman, she doesn’t know anything.”

Nikolai Gogol
Taras Bulba

— Вы не медик, панычу? Медики, те привыкают сразу.

М. А. Булгаков
«Белая гвардия»

“Not a medical man, are you, sir? Medical gentlemen soon get used to it.”

Mikhail Bulgakov
The White Guard

In modern Russian, a number of nouns of the first declension and some (typically, diminutive forms of) given names which end with or could drop the ending to form a “neo-vocative” («современный звательный» or even «новозвательный падеж»). For instance, (nominative) Зинаида → (diminutive nominative) Зина → (diminutive neo-vocative) Зин.

Full Nominative Diminutive Nominative Diminutive Neo-vocative
Александр (m), Александра (f) Саня Сань
Саша Саш
Шура Шур
Анна (f) Аня Ань
Ася Ась
Нюра Нюр
Алла (f) Алка Алк
Андрей (m) Андрюша Андрюш
Владимир (m) Вова Вов
Вовка Вовк
Володя Володь
Елена (f) Лена Лен
Зинаида (f) Зина Зин
Иван (m) Ваня Вань
Мария (f) Маня Мань
Маша Маш
Михаил (m) Миша Миш
Надежда (f) Надя Надь
Николай (m) Коля Коль
Ольга (f) Оля Оль
Тамара (f) Тома Том
Томка Томк
Татьяна (f) Таня Тань
Танюша Танюш

These short forms can make for almost untranslatable wordplay:

Как-то раз в коридорах Центрального телевидения встретились диктор ЦТ Ангелина Вовк и канцлер ФРГ Хельмут Коль. Произошёл любопытный разговор:
— Как дела, Вовк?
— Да ничего, Коль!

Андрей Кнышев, «Тоже книга»

Normally full Russian names do not form neo-vocative, so we don’t say “Алл”, “Анн”, “Елен”, “Надежд”, “Ольг” etc. Of course, there are exceptions, for example Вера → Вер, Зоя → Зой and Тамара → Тамар. A small number of “family” nouns, viz. мама (mum), папа (dad), тётя (auntie), дядя (uncle), баба (granny), wonderfully combine with proper names to form binary constructions which take neo-vocative as in “дядя Ваня” → “дядь Вань” or “баба Шура” → “баб Шур”.

чихать никому не возбраняется

So you are not afraid of Russian nouns anymore. Even less should you be scared of Russian verbs. There are only three tenses: past, present, and future. None of this imperfect or pluperfect nonsense. Easy!

Nevertheless, there are complications. To quote Wikipedia,

Most verbs come in pairs, one with imperfective (несоверше́нный вид) or continuous, the other with perfective (соверше́нный вид) or completed aspect, usually formed with a (prepositional) prefix, but occasionally using a different root.

But why “pairs”? I wrote before about Russian verb formation using prefixes. In that post, I used three imprefective verbs: бежать (“to run”), делать “to do, to make” and резать “to cut”, and their numerous (prefixed) perfective derivatives. That means, one imprefective verb gives rise to many perfective verbs, so we should really talk about a tree or a graph rather than a pair.

Another way of “perfecting” is a root modification. Cf. чихать (imperfective) and чихнуть (perfective). Both verbs mean “to sneeze”, but чихать refers to the process in general and чихнуть to the completed action (to sneeze once or a definite number of times):

Апчхи!!! Чихнул, как видите. Чихать никому и нигде не возбраняется. Чихают и мужики, и полицеймейстеры, и иногда даже и тайные советники. Все чихают.

“Aptchee!!” he sneezed as you perceive. It is not reprehensible for anyone to sneeze anywhere. Peasants sneeze and so do police superintendents, and sometimes even privy councillors. All men sneeze.

Likewise, махать and махнуть (to wave, flap, swing, brandish), толкать and толкнуть (to push), кидать and кинуть (to throw), бросать and бросить (to throw, to abandon, to give up), шагать and шагнуть (to step) and so on — here we can indeed say that imperfective and perfective verbs come in pairs.

Quite often, both ways of verb formation combine, as could be seen with aforementioned махать and махнуть.

imperfective perfective
махать махнуть
махаться махнуться
взмахивать взмахнуть
вымахивать вымахать
замахиваться замахнуться
отмахивать отмахать
отмахиваться отмахнуться
перемахивать перемахнуть
помахивать помахать
промахиваться промахнуться
размахиваться размахнуться
смахивать смахнуть

Back to my old example of резать and its perfective children. Well, it turns out that many of these perfective verbs could be changed to imprefective just by shifting the stress to the last syllable: вре́затьвреза́ть, вы́резатьвыреза́ть, наре́затьнареза́ть, отре́затьотреза́ть, перере́затьперереза́ть and so on. Many, but not all: one can say заре́зать but not зареза́ть, поре́зать but not пореза́ть.

Am I splitting hairs here? Is it important to know the difference? Imperfective verbs have three tenses: past, present and compound future. This latter is formed with simple future form of the verb быть (to be) and the infinitive of the imperfective verb. Perfective verbs have only two tenses: past and simple future, but no present! Let’s see how it works with sneezing — for simplicity (and hygiene), only in first-person singular:

imperfective perfective
infinitive чихать чихнуть to sneeze
past я чихал я чихнул I sneezed
present (я) чихаю I sneeze
future (я) буду чихать (я) чихну I will sneeze

Do I hear you telling me “Будь здоров”?


  1. In the 1886 version of this story, instead of чихать, Chekhov used its more colourful demotic form чхать:
  2. Чхнулъ, какъ видите. Чхать никому и нигдѣ не возбраняется. Чхаютъ и мужики, и полицеймейстеры, и иногда даже и тайные совѣтники. Всѣ чхаютъ.

  3. Tamara drew my attention to the fact that the simple future forms of prefixed perfective verbs (which do not have present) look exactly like the corresponding present forms of their “parent” imperfective verbs, minus the prefix of course. Cf. imperfective бегу “I am running” (present) and perfective побегу “I will run” (future), делаешь “you are making” vs perfective сделаешь “you will make” and so on. I don’t remember my Russian teachers ever mentioning this.

я так люблю крабы

И потом, ты же салат уже приготовила из крабов, а я так люблю крабы!

And then, you already made a crab salad, and I so love crabs!

To the Russian ear, this well-known quote from the The Irony of Fate always sounded funny. But why? What is wrong here? Why “Я люблю грибы” (I like mushrooms) is fine but “Я люблю крабы” (I like crabs) is not? To understand what’s going on here, we need to look at a certain feature called animacy (одушевлённость). All nouns in Russian could be divided into animate (одушевлённые), for example, humans and animals, or inanimate (неодушевлённые), such as plants and minerals. Also, as was mentioned before, modern Russian has six grammatical cases. So the nouns change their endings not only according to number and case but also depending on their animacy. That’s why the Russian declension tables always have two questions, corresponding to animate and inanimate nouns.

Let’s have a look at two nouns, the inanimate гриб (mushroom) and animate лесоруб (lumberjack)*. Just like краб, they are masculine nouns of the second declension. This is how they change in all six cases:

animate inanimate
case singular plural singular plural
Nominative (кто? что?) лесоруб лесорубы гриб грибы
Genitive (кого? чего?) лесоруба лесорубов гриба грибов
Dative (кому? чему?) лесорубу лесорубам грибу грибам
Accusative (кого? что?) лесоруба лесорубов гриб грибы
Instrumental (кем? чем?) лесорубом лесорубами грибом грибами
Prepositional (о ком? о чём?) лесорубе лесорубах грибе грибах

If you study this table carefully, you’ll notice that the accusative forms of лесоруб are the same as its genitive, while for гриб the accusative forms are the same as its nominative. Otherwise they follow the same declension pattern. It is as if Russian accusative did not have its own forms and borrowed them from either genitive (for animate nouns) or nominative (for inanimate nouns). Thus, grammatical differences between animate and inanimate nouns only show up in accusative. Moreover, apart from the masculine nouns of the second declension, these differences are only seen in plural accusative. Cf. the neuter nouns of the second declension существо (creature, being) and вещество (substance, matter):

animate inanimate
case singular plural singular plural
Nominative (кто? что?) существо существа вещество вещества
Genitive (кого? чего?) существа существ вещества веществ
Dative (кому? чему?) существу существам веществу веществам
Accusative (кого? что?) существо существ вещество вещества
Instrumental (кем? чем?) существом существами веществом веществами
Prepositional (о ком? о чём?) существе существах веществе веществах

The same story with feminine nouns of the third declension such as дочь (daughter) and ночь (night):

animate inanimate
case singular plural singular plural
Nominative (кто? что?) дочь дочери ночь ночи
Genitive (кого? чего?) дочери дочерей ночи ночей
Dative (кому? чему?) дочери дочерям ночи ночам
Accusative (кого? что?) дочь дочерей ночь ночи
Instrumental (кем? чем?) дочерью дочерями ночью ночами
Prepositional (о ком? о чём?) дочери дочерях ночи ночах

Same with nouns of the first declension, e.g. утка (duck) and шутка (joke), except that here the singular accusative has got its own form:

animate inanimate
case singular plural singular plural
Nominative (кто? что?) утка утки шутка шутки
Genitive (кого? чего?) утки уток шутки шуток
Dative (кому? чему?) утке уткам шутке шуткам
Accusative (кого? что?) утку уток шутку шутки
Instrumental (кем? чем?) уткой утками шуткой шутками
Prepositional (о ком? о чём?) утке утках шутке шутках

The phrase “я люблю”, meaning “I love” or “I like”, requires to put its direct object in accusative. One can love or like many things, for example a person or a pet (clearly animate), jewellery (definitely inanimate) or food. In this latter case, as you have guessed by now, things get complicated.

On top of that, it is not always clear whether one should use singular or plural for foodstuff(s). “Я люблю кроликов” (I like rabbits) — here, most likely, I talk about bunnies in general; “я люблю кролика” (I like rabbit) — here, I may mean that I like rabbit either as food or as a pet. On the contrary, “я люблю мидий” (I love mussels) means that I like to eat them, while if I said “я люблю мидию” (I love a mussel), you’d think I were mad. In the case of true fish (not shellfish), only singular is used, thus “я люблю осетра” (I like sturgeon) but never “я люблю осетров” (I like sturgeons).

According to Russian Wikipedia, the animacy of edible invertebrates could vary:

устрицы/устриц, мидии/мидий, креветки/креветок, крабы/крабов, трепанги/трепангов, омары/омаров, кальмары/кальмаров, улитки/улиток.

However, one can only say “я люблю раков” (I love crayfish) but not “я люблю раки”, placing crayfish firmly in the animate camp. I’ll do the same with the rest of the above list, as did the Strugatsky brothers:

Я стал размышлять, почему я до сих пор ни разу не пробовал омаров. Или, скажем, устриц. У Диккенса все едят устриц, орудуют складными ножами, отрезают толстые ломти хлеба, намазывают маслом… Я стал нервно разглаживать скатерть. На скатерти виднелись неотмытые пятна. На ней много и вкусно ели. Ели омаров и мозги с горошком. Ели маленькие бифштексы с соусом пикан. Большие и средние бифштексы тоже ели.

Аркадий и Борис Стругацкие, Понедельник начинается в субботу


* Alternative animate nouns I was considering for this example include прораб (acronym of производитель работ, foreman), хлебороб (grain grower), or even шкраб (acronym of школьный работник, i.e. teacher), all of them were parts of Soviet lexicon and sound dated now.

some peculiarities of Russian

This post is based on a presentation prepared by Tamara for her Spanish class.

Many people believe that Russian is a difficult language to learn. While it isn’t difficult for me, and shouldn’t be that difficult for speakers of any Indo-European language anyway, there are several important differences the Spanish (as well as English) speakers should be aware of. She also used some examples from Finnish, just to put things into perspective.

а. Alphabet

Modern Russian uses a variant of Cyrillic alphabet with thirty-three letters. These include ten vowels, twenty one consonants, hard sign ъ and soft sign ь. It looks like this:

Even though it may appear a bit frightening, I recommend to learn the Cyrillic alphabet as soon as you start learning Russian. Reading Russian in transliteration will only confuse you. For example, the character y is often used instead of two rather different letters (and sounds): the vowel ы and the consonant й. It is also used to indicate the “softening” of consonants (see below). As a result, the words you pronounce won’t sound anything like Russian.

б. Sounds

Some sounds in Russian present a difficulty for Spanish and/or English speakers.


  • Е: after a consonant, pronounced as /e/ or /ɛ/; in all other cases (at the beginning of a word, after a vowel, after the hard and soft signs) pronounced as /je/ or // in Spanish yerba /ˈjeɾ.βa/ or English yes /jɛs/.
  • Ё: after a consonant, pronounced as /ö/, like in German mögen; in all other cases pronounced as /jo/, as in Spanish cuyo /ˈku.jo/ or English yolk /joʊk/.
  • Ы /ɨ/. There’s nothing like this sound in either Spanish or English. Just listen: 🔊. A commonly suggested trick to reproduce the sound of ы is to bite a (clean) pencil or pen so to spread the corners of your mouth while saying //, as in cheese /tʃiːz/.
  • Э: /ɛ/ like in English pen /pɛn/.
  • Ю: after a consonant, pronounced /ü/; in all other cases pronounced /ju/ as in Spanish yuca /ˈju.ka/ or in English yoo-hoo /ˈjuːˌhuː/.
  • Я: after a consonant, pronounced /æ/; in all other cases pronounced /ja/, as in Spanish cuya /ˈku.ja/ or English yard /jɑːd/.
  • Spanish has only five vowels, /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/, which always sound the same, stressed or not. There are more vowels in Finnish but they also always pronounced the same way, irrespectively of stress. As for English, they do not even know how many vowels there are, let alone which ones to use. The only thing everybody seems to agree is that most unstressed vowels in English are reduced to schwa /ə/. Vowel-wise, Russian is somewhere in between these two extremes. The stressed vowels always sound as expected. Unstressed а and о are usually pronounced as something between /a/ and /o/; unstressed е, и, э and я, between /e/ and /i/; unstressed у and ю, between /o/ and /u/. The good news is that even if you pronounce all vowels Spanish (or Finnish) way, you still will be understood.


  • Б and В: /b/ and /v/, respectively. Unlike Spanish, there is always a clear distinction between these two sounds.
  • Г: normal /ɡ/ as in Spanish guerra or /ˈɡera/ or in English get /ɡɛt/; in Southern Russian dialects, often pronounced /ɣ/ as in Spanish lago /ˈla.ɣo/.
  • Ж /ʐ/, similar to /ʒ/ in Portuguese janeiro /ʒaˈnejru/, French jour /ʒuʀ/ or English measure /ˈmɛʒə(r)/.
  • З /z/, same as /z/ in English zoo /zuː/ but not Spanish zurdo.
  • Р /r/ (rolled r), same as /r/ in Spanish perro /ˈpero/.
  • Х /x/, same as /x/ in Spanish ojo /ˈoxo/ or in Scottish loch /lɔx/.
  • Ц /t͡s/, as /ts/ in English nuts /nʌts/ or in Italian pizza /ˈpit.tsa/. This sound is not normally found in Spanish.
  • Ш /ʂ/, similar to /ʃ/ in Portuguese caixa /ˈkajʃa/, French chic /ʃik/ or English sheep /ʃiːp/.
  • Щ /ɕɕ/, which is not a combination of š and č in spite of being often transcribed as shch. It is similar to /ʃˈʃ/ in Italian uscita /uʃˈʃita/.

з shouldn’t be a problem for English speakers, ditto р and х for Spanish speakers.

  • Most Russian consonants come in two variants, “hard” and “soft”. The “softening” of Russian consonants before vowels е, ё, ю, я is often transliterated in English with letters y or i, which makes learners to pronounce, say, a phrase “Юля, я тебя люблю” (“Julia, I love you”) as /ˈjulja ja tiˈbja ljubˈlju/ instead of /ˈjulæ ja tiˈbæ lübˈlü/. The “softening” achieved with the soft sign ь alone is practically impossible to transliterate. You just have to listen and speak!
  • The consonants ж, ц and ш are always hard (even if followed by soft sign), й, ч and щ are always soft.

On the other hand, Russian does not have /ð/ and /θ/ sounds so common in English and in Peninsular Spanish, as in Madrid /maˈðɾi(θ)/. And there is no /w/ sound, so when transliterating English names, one has to decide whether to use в or у. For example, “Watson” could be transliterated as either Ва́тсон or Уо́тсон.

в. Declension

  • Modern Russian has six grammatical cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional. This sounds like a lot, as neither Spanish nor English have cases. But this is only two more cases compared with German (with which Russian shares four cases) and same number as Latin. Compare that with Finnish (15 cases), Hungarian (18) or Tsez (64) and stop complaining. Here’s how the word дом (house) will change in all six cases:

    case singular plural
    Nominative дом дома́
    Genitive до́ма домо́в
    Dative до́му дома́м
    Accusative дом дома́
    Instrumental до́мом дома́ми
    Prepositional до́ме дома́х

    And here’s what Finnish can do with their house (I didn’t bother with the case names):

    talo house
    talon of (a) house
    talona as a house
    taloa house (as an object)
    taloksi to a house
    talossa in (a) house
    talosta from (a) house
    taloon into (a) house
    talolla at (a) house
    talolta from (a) house
    talolle to (a) house
    talotta without (a) house
    taloineni with my house(s)
    taloin with (a) house
  • Russian has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Cf. Spanish (masculine and feminine), and English (traces of).
  • Russian nouns, pronouns, adjectives, present and past participles, and numerals are subject to declension: they change their endings to indicate number, gender and case.
  • In Russian, there are three noun declensions conveniently named “first”, “second” and “third”.
  • Adjectives, present and past participles, and ordinal numerals have to agree (in number, gender and case) with nouns and pronouns.
  • Russian cardinal numerals два (two), три (three) and четыре (four) make the count noun to change differently compared to plural, as if they were “not quite” plural:

    singular один дом one house
    “few” два до́ма two houses
    “few” три до́ма three houses
    “few” четы́ре до́ма four houses
    plural пять домо́в five houses

г. Verbs

  • In Russian, there are only three tenses: past, present and future. (Some linguists go even further and say that Russian has only two grammatical tenses: present-future and past).
  • In the present and future tenses (or present-future), there are two conjugations; like in Spanish, each has six different forms: 1st singular, 2nd singular, 3rd singular, 1st plural, 2nd plural, 3rd plural.
  • In the past tense, there is no difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd, but the verbs are number- and gender-specific.
  • There are no such things as perfect, imperfect or pluperfect tense. Instead, most verbs come in two flavours, imperfective (несовершенный вид) and perfective (совершенный вид).
  • There is only one type of verb “to be”: быть (unlike Spanish ser and estar). This verb is hardly ever used in present tense, so some apparently complete sentences do not contain a verb, for example «Я — русский», “I (am) Russian”.

д. Articles

  • That’s easy: Russian does not use articles. (Nor does Finnish.)