Once upon a time I bought a Russian grammar book.
Wow, this will change everything!
I’ll learn it by heart!
It’ll be great!
[sound of crickets]
Months later the book is still sitting there on the shelf, untouched by human hands for half a year (has this ever happened to you?), and I’m starting to feel pretty guilty about it.
So here we go- in the follow-up to Chapter 1: Sounds– may I bring to you…
Chapter 2: Nouns!
Nouns are good. You can get pretty far in a language with just nouns. But then come Russian nouns.
The Easy Part
Page one, third paragraph: taking a look at how Russian nouns break down. Something like-
prefix + root + suffix / со+бутиль+ник / co-bottle-er (drinking buddy)
Okay, so far so good.
Then, a few things to remember:
- There are a couple of neuter nouns that end in –мя: имя, время, пламя, etc.
- The word шимпанзе looks cool.
- Купе, which I always assumed translated to second-class-but–the-best-way-to-take-the-overnight-train-to-Crimea, actually means compartment
Next, some gender issues.
- The months of the year are all… masculine. What?
- Words like умница, коллега, сирота, пьяница, and бродяга (tramp!) don’t change for male / female.
- Она ужасная пьяница, She’s a big drinker.
- Он ужасный пьяница, He’s a big drinker.
3. This mind-blowing rule: professions that can refer to a male or female take a masculine adjective. Uh, my brain just refuses to do this. All this time I’ve been saying она хорошая инженер! But nope, it’s-
- Мой муж – известный космонавт, My husband is a famous astronaut.
- Моя жена – известный космонавт, My wife is a famous astronaut.
- And even Ирина – умный человек. Ой.
Then a few pages of pesky “to-remembers”, like one жена but five жёны and виноград, grapes, but виноградина, a grape. And finally the real work starts: 31 pages(!) on the nominative / accusative / genitive / prepositional / dative / instrumental cases.
The Nominative Case
This is my much-loved, go-to case in Russian.
Once I met a guy who was (not really) learning Spanish. He lived in Nicaragua and loved to talk to anyone he could in the language. He’d decided, though, that verb tenses were too much for him. When he spoke, he’d say things like “Yo ir a Rivas mañana” (“I to go to Rivas tomorrow”) or “¿Tu tener hijos?” (Do you to have kids?). You might think this would be a communication handicap, but no! People thought he was hilarious and putting aside (the admittedly important) issue of tenses meant nothing dampened his enthusiasm for Spanish. He just went for it.
I thought about his “method” and decided it would work under two conditions:
- You don’t need to do something important like use the language for work, translate for a diplomat, conduct business, etc.
- You have no shame when it comes to sounding like an idiot.
And that’s how I decided long ago to not freak out about cases and just always use the nominative unless some other version magically pops into my head. In other words, I highly recommend this chapter 😉
The Accusative Case
This case- the я тебя люблю, I love you case- isn’t so bad.
I didn’t know that we use this case with prices. Did you?
- Стоит тысячу долларов, it costs $1000.
- Это стоит пятьдесят рублей, this costs 50 rubles.
The Genitive Case
If you talk about who it belongs to, that’s a job for the genitive case. A few strange new words showed up here:
- кухонь, of the kitchens
- лучшие идеи дизайна кухонь
- Фотографии красивых кухонь
- писем, of the letters
- перевод писем
- and the very funny балалаек, of the balalaikas
- привет из параллельной реальности или страна матрешек и балалаек
- секстет балалаек
One of the things I struggle with the most in Russian is genitive + numbers/amounts. Ugggghhhhhhh. Is it 8 машин or 8 машини? (It’s машин… but I’ll forget that by tomorrow.) Right now, though, I’m trying to get down the amounts. Like these:
- давай посидим, выпьем чаю, let’s sit down and drink some tea
- давай посидим, выпьем чая, let’s sit down and drink tea
- (Not to mention the diminutive давай посидим, выпьем чайку!)
This is called the partitive genitive– “just a little bit, please”. It’s probably not crucial in the long run but it’s nice to know if someone’s asking you to pass them хлеб, bread, or хлеба, some bread.
This chapter also covered negated transitive verbs, comparative constructions, and long /short form adjectives. I read the material and feel confident that I’ll be ready to tackle these things in about 50 years.
The Prepositional Case
Ah, the good old о/об versus в /на showdown 🙂
There’s not any further explanation or practice for this case; the textbook goes right on to dative…. probably because the next chapter will be 34 solid pages on prepositions, haha.
The Dative Case
Aka, the chapter in which I did lots of underlining!
Sending a letter to а friend? No problem- you’re sending it подруге. Explaining a grammar rule to students? You’re doing it студентам. Calling your brother? Then its брату (or actually твоему брату).
All that stuff is okay. I think my Russian 101 class even covered the basics of it.
But then it gets trickier. Мuch trickier. You should also be using the dative:
- when talking about a person’s age, like матери 68 лет, Mom is 68. (I knew it was мне Х лет and сколько тебе лет? but never made the connection to a non-pronoun. It’s always been an incorrect брат 30 лет [correct: брату].)
- with permission, like with children aren’t allowed to, детям нельзя–
- and with impersonal verbs: Сергею не хочется есть, Sergiy doesn’t feel like eating.
The Instrumental Case
This case took up 7 pages and almost everything was new material for me. I knew about instrumental “time” phrases: утром in the morning, летом in the summer, зимой in the winter, and “transportation” phrases: автобусом by bus, самолётом by plane, трамваем by tram. And… that’s it.
Turns out you can also use the instrumental case with professions, adjectives, passive constructions, linking verbs, transitive verbs, and a billion other things. I’m going to have to come back and review this again, maybe even after an English grammar lesson or two (what’s a deverbal?).
How I Studied This Chapter
In past Russian classes, teachers would always urge us students to “memorize the declension charts“. How did that work for you? For me, it didn’t. Associating a random ending to a certain gender of noun just [[brain grinds to a halt]]. What I’ve done instead is memorize sentences. If I’m getting really fancy, there might even be a grammar note:
Usually it’s just a sentence though. Sentence after sentence after sentence. Part of the reason it took so long to go through Chapter 2 was because I highlighted interesting sentences on the first pass, then ANKIed those sentences on the second pass.
I think the cumulative effect of exposure works eventually. My grammar is still weaker than friends who have straight out memorized the charts but words are slowly starting to “feel” right. How do you deal with declensions?
Coming eventually- Chapter 3: Prepositions!!! 😀