Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gender of Nouns vs Gender of Adjectives

One of the first things students learn about the Russian grammar is that Russian nouns have a gender. This means that each noun can be one of three genders — masculine, feminine or neutral (or “middle gender”, as we say in Russian). Though one may find it pretty awkward to call things “she” or “he” instead of “it”, the idea of noun genders is quite simple. In English, people call ships and cars “she”, however, it is pretty obvious that neither ships nor cars have any feminine characteristic by nature. Russians went further by placing gender labels onto all nouns. Nouns “possess” genders and can not change them. The word “душá” (soul) is always feminine, while the word “дух” (spirit) is always masculine (some language philosophers see here the resemblance with Yin and Yang).

One of the easiest (though not reliable) way to determine the noun's gender is to take a look at its ending. Most (however, not all) masculine nouns end with a consonant. By the way, in some way, this is true for English too. Look at some masculine names like Nick, Rick or David and you'll see what I'm talking about. Most feminine nouns end with “a” or “я” (again, like Lisa or Julia in English). Most neutral nouns end with “о” or “е”. This is not a rule, though. The word “папа” (dad) and “мама” (mom) have the same ending, though for obvious reasons, the first one is masculine and the second one is feminine. The large group of nouns ending with the soft sign (-ь) can be masculine or feminine, so it's necessary to check every word in the dictionary.

Unlike nouns, adjectives can change their gender; they “borrow” genders from the relative nouns. What do adjectives do in language? Adjectives describe nouns. Adjectives are not “independent”, as they always “belong” to nouns, they inherit a host's gender. In order to add an adjective to the noun, the adjective should use the same gender as the noun: “белый кот” (a white male cat), but “белая кошка” (white female cat), and “белое молоко” (white milk, where milk is neutral).

Picture by Vasya Lozhkin

Adjective endings are much more predictable than those for nouns. Thus, in the nominative case, adjectives in the masculine form end with -ый/ий or -ой; adjectives in feminine end with -ая/-яя; adjectives in neutral end with -oe/-ee. When you see a pair “adjective + noun”, in most cases, you can guess what gender of the noun is by the ending of the accompanying adjective.

  1. Nouns “own” genders, while adjectives “borrows” them from nouns.
  2. Adjectives are always of the same gender with their respective nouns.
  3. Masculine adjective endings (Nominative case): -ой or ый/ий
  4. Feminine adjective endings (Nominative case): -ая/-яя
  5. Neutral adjective endings (Nominative case): -ое/-ее