Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Q&A: Russian Case System

I find myself struggling with the cases. Could you please tell me some tips or something? Thank you
Hi! You are not alone! My students often ask me to explain the Russian case system and it is one of the most frequent questions here on this blog.

The concept


Cases in Russian show the relationships between words. In English, you can see who did what by the word order. In Russian, you can tell the subject from the object by different endings.

Example: Bob sees Masha. We know that Bob is a subject, it is he who sees. We don’t know if Masha sees Bob, but we know that Masha is a direct object here, she is being seen. We can assume who sees whom because of the word order. Bob goes first, he is the subject. In Russian, it is not that simple.

Боб видит Машу. - similar to English.
Also correct:
Машу видит Боб.
Боб Машу видит.
Видит Машу Боб.
Машу Боб видит.
Видит Боб Машу.

Each sentence above adds something to the basic sentence: we can emphasize that Bob sees Masha, not someone else, that Bob can see Masha, but can’t hear her, that it is Bob who sees Masha, not anyone else etc. Russian does it with the different word order. We still can tell who sees whom - because of the endings. Боб is in the Nominative case (like in a dictionary) -> Subject. Masha is in the Accusative case in all the sentences -> Direct object.

Each case may have more than one meaning, but here are the most common ones:
  • Nominative- for subjects,
  • Genitive - for possession, or parts of, or negations,
  • Dative - for directions “toward”,
  • Accusative - for direct objects,
  • Instrumental - for means or comparisons,
  • Prepositional - for indirect objects, topics.

Russian cases basically do the job of the English prepositions - they help to build a sentence and to show how things relate to each other within one phrase.

The only way to memorize when to use which case is to practice. I would suggest writing short essays and posting them on lang-8 for Russian native speakers to correct them for free. It’s a great language learning start-up. I wholeheartedly recommend it to all my students. It is free and it has that wonderful cooperative atmosphere than makes language learning pleasant (at least, my experience with this website has been very positive so far).

Memorizing the endings


In Russian, there are three groups of nouns called declensions.

First: mostly Feminine nouns ending with -a/-я, also some masculine proper names and some masculine terms for relatives.

Second: masculine nouns ending with a consonant sounds or the soft sign (ь), + all neuter nouns.

Third: Feminine nouns ending with the soft sign (ь).

Many teachers prefer to group nouns by their gender - feminine(=1), masculine (=2), neuter (=2) and special soft-feminine nouns (=3). If it is more convenient for you, you can use this system.

Each group of nouns has its own set of endings for different cases. For example, Genitive for a feminine noun would be -ы/и, while Genitive for a masculine noun would be -а/я:

У меня нет сестры. У меня нет брата.

I would suggest having a grammar table with endings somewhere near your desk or at any place where you can easily check it. Here you can find a noun declension grammar table I developed for my students. Here are some more details for each declension type. You can also buy a grammar table bookmark set from my shop on Etsy and have all the tables handy.

Good luck!


Photo by Steven Mueller