Monday, July 21, 2014

Nouns And Adjectives In Russian

Maybe you like learning languages but hate linguistic slang. It is not always necessary to know theory to succeed in practice. Many world famous musicians don't know musical notation, likewise you can succeed in learning languages without diving deep into their grammar. However, since adult learners rely mostly on understanding rather than on memorizing, it can be useful to learn some grammar basics, even if you believe that during your school years you developed an allergy to the words like "noun" or "adjective".

While in English, parts of speech are normally identified by their function in a sentence, in Russian, parts of speech look differently and can be identified with confidence by the set of grammatical categories they have, not by their functions.

In English, you can say:
  • Google is the most popular search engine in the North America (Google is a noun here)
  • Google before you ask! (here Google is a verb)
  • I work on a Google advertisement partnership program (and here Google is an adjective)
In Russian, you can't leave “Google” unchanged, you have to form different words from Google. Below are the very same three sentences in Russian:
  • Гугл – это самый популярный поисковый механизм в Северной Америке.
  • Погугли, а потом спрашивай! (Ok, this is not standard Russian)
  • Я работаю над гугловской программой рекламного партнёрства.
So, in Russian, it is not enough to put a word into a different position to make it a different part of speech. We add different affixes and endings, so usually, we can easily distinguish nouns from adjectives or verbs even if they stand alone, while in English it is much harder to do.

Grammar books – both in English and Russian — try to list what nouns mean, but they actually can mean anything – a thing, an abstract concept, a quality, an action and so on. You should never rely on meanings when trying to indicate a part of speech. Nouns describe everything as a substance. A house (дом), Eugenia (Евгения), youth (молодёжь), confidence (уверенность), width (ширина), yellowness (желтизна) – in our minds all these words represent pieces of reality as separate subjects or entities. A thing can be alone or in a company of other similar things – thus, we have a grammatical category of number (singular, plural). A thing can be in a relationship with other things, and to show these relationships we use different cases. For some reasons, we still have an atavistic grammatical category of gender in Russian, which in fact indicates nothing but a set of endings. So, in Russian, nouns are words that represent a piece of reality as a substance/subject and have gender, number and case.

Things have attributes – short, yellow, noisy, stale, wet, etc. Those attributes constitute adjectives. Adjectives represent everything as qualities or attributes. In English grammar books I often read that adjectives modify nouns, which is very different from how adjectives are described in Russian. In Russian, adjectives “belong” to nouns. Indeed, in a pair of words such as “stupid government” (глупое правительство), “government”, a noun, can exit independently, while "stupid" is its attribute and can't exist on its own, it needs something on which to be labeled. Thus, in Russian, adjectives agree with nouns in gender, number and case, or, better to say, they 'inherit' those grammatical categories. Adjectives have typical affixes, such as -ск-, -н(н), -ов- and others, and endings where all the grammatical information is coded. In my example, the adjective гугловской has the suffix -овск-, which means belonging or relating to Google, and the ending -ой showing that the adjective is feminine, singular, instrumental case.

Why care about parts of speech? Mostly because if you understand the difference, it may help you to build grammatically correct sentences and memorize words easier.

1973 первый урок
Photo by Vladimir Varfolomeev