Russian Grammar: A Basic Overview

russian grammarRussian is an excellent language to study as it is the largest native language spoken in Europe, is the most widely spoken Slavic language, seventh most spoken language by number of speakers, and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. Whether you are an entrepreneur looking to do business in Russia or with Russian speakers or you simply have a passion for learning languages, learning the basics of the language starts with understanding its grammar. Both beginners and those who already have some Russian language skills under their belt can benefit from Udemy courses that can help you to learn the modern Russian language.

One thing to keep in mind about Russian is that there is a bit of a difference between the spoken language and the written language. This is in part because there are so many different dialects of Russian – around fifteen, to be precise. If learning to speak Russian well is important to you, consider an Udemy course that can focus in on the basics of conversational aspects of the language. It will help you to get a better handle on spoken Russian, even if you are still working on improving the reading and writing skills in your possession.

The Cyrillic Alphabet

The most important place to begin with Russian is learning its alphabet, which is different from that used with English. The modern Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters.

А–A, Б–Be, В–Ve, Г–Ge, Д–De, Е–Ye, Ё–Yo, Ж–Zhe, З–Ze, И–Ee, Й–Ee (short i), К–Ka, Л–El, М–Em, Н–En, О–O, П–Pe, Р–Er, С–Es, Т–Te, У–Oo, Ф–Ef, Х–Kha, Ц–Tse, Ч–Che, Ш–Sha, Щ–Shcha, Ъ–Tviordiy znak (no sound), Ы–ih, Ь–Myagkiy znak (soft sign), Э–E, Ю–Yoo, Я–Ya

For more information about the Russian alphabet, consider checking out Udemy’s Russian Alphabet Mastery course, or this Udemy blog post detailing the basics of the Russian alphabet.

The Fundamentals of Russian Grammar

At its core, Russian is a language of high inflection morphology. That may sound complex, but in layman’s terms just means that Russian words change frequently to correspond to things such as their subject’s number, gender, tense and sometimes other categories. Essentially, its alteration of words to express different grammatical categories — such as whether a word is of the past, present, or future tense — is higher in comparison to a language such as English.

For example, to say, “I walk,” “You walk,” or “We walk” in English requires no change in the word “walk” regardless of the way it is being used. Russian words, on the other hand, are changed by the addition of a prefix, suffix, or infix. In Russian, there are many such changes that may be made depending on the necessary grammatical category.

Understanding Nouns within Russian

To further explore Russian grammar, let’s have a look at the different forms, or inflections, of nouns and pronouns within the Russian language.

First, the different inflections are known as declensions, and they indicate the number as well as the gender for that specific noun. In Russian, there are roughly six grammatical cases that are the basis for forming specific declensions. They are as follows:

  • Nominative case ––subject for a verb; i.e. the noun that is doing something; ex: “The boy ran”
  • Genitive case ––a noun possessing another noun; ex: “Jane’s toy”
  • Dative case ––indication of a noun to which something is given; ex: “Charles gave James a gift”
  • Accusative case ––the direct object of a transitive verb; ex: “The woman sees the girl”
  • Instrumental case ––indication of a noun that is the means with which a subject accomplishes an action; ex: “I painted the picture with a brush”
  • Prepositional case ––the object of a preposition; ex: “in the car”

These six different cases combined with both the numerical value of the noun and its gender create roughly ten different inflections for nouns in Russian. However, keep in mind that they are all incomplete, meaning that they either do not apply to all nouns, or that the declensions will appear identical to one of the grammatical cases.

There are an additional three cases that are used to describe nouns. They are:

  • Locative case ––indication of location; similar to the English “in,” “on,” “at,” or “by”
  • Partitive case ––indication of “partialness,” “without result,” or  “without specific identity”; also used to describe a smaller group within a larger group or simply with numbers; “There is some juice in the cup”
  • Vocative case ––used for a noun to identity a person being addressed; “I don’t know, Susan”

One thing to note is that there are no definite or indefinite articles in Russian, such as the English “a,” “an,” and “the.”Instead, the context is what defines the noun’s definite or indefinite presence. As well, animacy ––or the concept of how “alive” the thing a noun that is being referred to is ––will alter the declensions of the noun.

Keeping all of this in mind, the declensions for nouns within the Russian language can be broken up into three main categories.

  • First declension ––feminine nouns ending with а/-я, and some are masculine whose form is similar to feminine words; Russian ex: па́па – papa or дя́дя – uncle
  • Second declension ––this is broken up into two subcategories of
  • Masculine nouns
  • Neuter nouns
  • Third declension ––feminine nouns ending with ь

There are also some irregular plural forms of Russian nouns, but most of these irregularities come from old Russian forms of declension which have since been lost and are now obsolete. Also there are undeclined nouns in Russian, which are nouns usually borrowed from other languages. Undeclined nouns are not modified when changed by number or case, and they do not belong to a specific declension.

As with other languages of such high morphology, there are always exceptions to these declensions. Only by studying the Russian language thoroughly and in-depth will someone begin to develop a full understanding of when exceptions can be made. Taking a beginners course in Russian is the first step.

Pronouns in Russian

The grammar of pronouns in the Russian language is very similar to the grammar of nouns. As with nouns, pronouns in Russian are broken up into several categories. These include:

  • Personal pronouns ––similar to English “I,”“you,”“he/she,”“we,”and “they”
  • Demonstrative pronouns ––similar to English “this”and “that”
  • Possessive adjectives and pronouns ––similar to English “mine,”“his/hers,”“theirs,”etc; however, unlike in English, in Russian the form for a possessing adjective and pronoun remains the same
  • Interrogative pronouns ––similar to English “who”and “what”

Additionally, Russian pronouns are subject to the sociolinguistic T-V distinction. This means that variations of pronouns can be used to indicate things such as social distance, family, decorum, propriety, familiarity, age, and insult towards the addressee.

Examples of the Russian pronoun “he/she/it” include:

  • Singular
  • Masculine ––ему́
  • Feminine ––ей
  • Neutral ––ему́
  • Plural (they) ––им

Russian Adjectives

In regard to sentence structure, the adjective is placed first before the noun, similar to English, and must agree in gender, number, and case. In contrast to nouns, adjectives in Russian are subject to fewer declensions, and there are only three main categories in which they are divided. They are:

  • Qualitative ––quality of the subject; degrees of comparison are usually apparent
  • Relational ––describes any sort of relationship
  • Possessive ––marks belonging, or possession, to a subject

Examples of the English word “blue”in the nominative case:

  • Singular
  • Masculine ––си́ний
  • Feminine ––си́няя
  • Neutral ––си́нее
  • Plural ––си́ние

Russian Syntax

Syntax, according to the great linguist Noam Chomsky, is “the study of principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages. “Within the Russian language, the basic syntax, or word order, is subject-verb-object for transitive clauses. This is, of course, similar to the English language, which also uses the SVO format. An English example of this would be, “Andrew ran home.”

The Russian language is also a null-subject language; that is, its grammar allows independent clauses to be formed without an explicit subject. As with most null-subject sentences, expressions of a person, number, and/or gender agreement of a verb render the subject redundant, leaving its function futile. As such, the sentence can be formed without the subject when such parameters are in place due to the inflections of the verb.

Negations in Russian

In regards to negation (that is, the use of a negative word to deny the truth of a clause or sentence), the Russian language not only allows multiple negatives, but makes the usage of multiple negatives obligatory.

As such, adverbial answers are commonplace within Russian. In grammar, adverbial refers to a word, such as an adverb, or group of words (a phrase or clause) that is used as a modifier for the sentence or verb. In this case, in the presence of multiple negatives, adverbial answers are used as a means of propriety to avoid insulting one another. Most often, such answers should be used to avoid ambiguity.

One example of Russian negation is the sentence, “никтоникогданикомуничегонепрощает”which literally translates as, “No one never to no-one nothing does not forgive.”The inherent meaning of the phrase is, “No-one ever forgives anyone for anything.”

In Russian, sentence coordination, that is compound sentences, are usually described as either:

  • Conjoining – formed by conjunctions; ex: “and,”“but,”“or”
  • Oppositional – formed by opposing conjunctions denoting relations of either opposition, comparison, incompatibility, restriction, or compensation;
  • Separative – formed by separative conjunctions expressing either alternation or incompatibility of subjects within the contextual sentences

A Brief Overview of Verbs in Russian

In Russian, verbs and their respective conjugations are the most varied of all the grammatical inflections ranging from the infinitive, present-future tense, moods, verbs of motion, adjectival and adverbial participles, and lastly irregular verbs.

Their conjugation is dependent upon three persons, two numbers, and two tenses (present and future are combined into one tense). Most verbs also come in pairs, the imperfective and the perfective. In spite of this, modern Russian verbs are viewed as simpler than their predecessors of Old Russian.

For further information on Russian verbs, or the Russian language in its entirety, Udemy offers several introductory courses that can help you learn more. Continuous study and practice will help one not only speak the language, but can ensure that you are able to grasp the fundamentals of Russian grammar required for any more in-depth study of the language.