Russian Verb Conjugations: Learning the Basics

russian verb conjugations; booA deep, poetically beautiful language, Russian continues to be one of the world’s most widely spoken languages. However, beautiful as it may be, it is a formidable language to learn for any individual, whether they have cultural or familial ties to Russia or they are looking to learn Russian for business purposes. Thankfully, Udemy offers online courses than can help anyone beginning to study the language, regardless of their reasons for doing so.

Basic Grammatical Terms

As this article will discuss different linguistic, grammatical elements, we will first define some of the basic grammatical terms that will be used to explain the use of verbs within the Russian language. Some of these terms may not have English language examples, as they are exclusive to languages such as Russian.

  • Grammatical aspect – how an action, event, or state of a verb relates to the flow of time
  • Grammatical case – reflects the value of the function performed by a noun or pronoun within a phrase, clause, or sentence
  • Conjugation – the modification of a verb from its basic form
  • Inflection – the modification of a word to describe different grammatical categories such as mood, tense, voice, aspect, gender, number, etc.
  • Declension – the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, and articles to indicate number, case, and gender
  • Perfective – grammatical aspect used to describe a situation as a whole; a unit without internal structure; ex: “Jake was eating when I left,”left being the perfective aspect
  • Imperfective – describes a situation with an internal structure that could be habitual, ongoing, or repeated despite whether this situation is past, present, or future; ex: “I used to ski”

The Cyrillic Alphabet

Before learning any of the basics of Russian, it’s important to be able to understand its alphabet. The Russian alphabet does not translate directly into that used by English, and in fact makes use of 33 distinct letters rather than the 26 used in other languages. As you begin learning Russian, be sure that you have this alphabet on hand so you are able to quickly and easily translate it.

uА–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, Udemy offers an introductory course specializing in the Russian alphabet as well as a full course on the basics of Russian alphabet pronunciation. Both can help you improve your chances of success with learning the language.

An Introduction to Russian Verbs

In linguistics, when a verb is conjugated, that denotes that it is changed to grammatically fit into the sentence. In Russian, verbs and their respective conjugations are the most varied of all the language’s grammatical inflections (or changes). Their conjugation is dependent upon:

  • Three persons ––masculine, feminine, or neutral;
  • Two numbers ––singular or plural;
  • Two tenses ––past and present/future; (present and future are combined into one tense).

Additionally, the conjugations are additionally influenced by other factors not listed above, but are explained in-depth later on.

Verbs and their participle counterparts also have the ability to be reflexive; that is, the subject and the object of the sentence are the same. Additionally, most verbs also come in pairs – the imperfective and the perfective.

To further explore verbs in the Russian language, Udemy offers both a beginners course in Russian or, for those who are more experienced, a course on the basics of conversational Russian. Either of these courses can be great tools in mastering the basics of verb conjugation, in addition to the changes that may be made to other components of the Russian language in either spoken or written form.

Understanding Verb Tenses

In Russian, the tense is the basis for the conjugation of verbs in many cases. Unlike other languages, Russian uses the same form for both present and future tenses, while the past tense has its own form.

For present/future verbs, there are two primary forms of conjugation. Both are used for the present tense of imperfective verbs, and the future tense of perfect verbs. The first conjugation is used when a verb ends with a specific consonant preceding a sibilant (a consonant sounded with a hissing effect, such as the English “sh”). The second conjugation is used a verb ends without a consonant preceding a sibilant. They are:

  • -у/-ю, -ешь, -ет, -ем, -ете, -ут/-ют
  • -у/-ю, -ишь, -ит, -им, -ите, -ат/ят

Within these two conjugations are other, more specific variants as well.

For past verbs, the form is gender specific and applies to all persons. They are as follows:

  • лfor a singular, masculine subject
  • лаfor a singular, feminine subject
  • лоfor a singular, neutral subject
  • лиfor plural subjects

An example of the second conjugation form, verbs ending with -бить, -вить, -пить, -мить, can be seen in the English verb “to love.”In Russian it conjugates as:

  • ялюблю́ – I love
  • тылю́бишь – you love
  • он́/она́/оно́лю́бит – he/she/it loves
  • мылю́бим – we love
  • вылю́бите – you (plural) love
  • они́лю́бят – they love

Russian Verbs and their Moods

While verbs in Russian can have three moods ––imperative, indicative, and conditional ––they are more distinctly broken up into two categories of imperative and subjunctive mood, both of which have their own forms of conjugates.

The imperative mood is used for the communication of commands in the second person, and includes prohibition, permission, and exhortation. It is formed through the addition of the Russian letters и,ь, or й for sentences with a singular subject being in second person in the present/future tense. An example of this is the verb “do.”

Infinitive де́лать > stem де́ла- > де́лай

The subjunctive mood is used to convey emotion and express unreality such as in a wish, possibility, judgement, or opinion that has not yet occurred. This mood is created by adding the Russian suffix бы, denoting the subject exists in the past tense. Therefore, if a female subject were to say, “I would like to sleep,”it would become яспалáбы in Russian.

Verbs of Motion

Verbs of motion within the Russian language have their own class, and are some of the most difficult aspects of the language to learn for non-native speakers. This is because the information associated with them is so extensive.

They are divided into three main groups ––unprefixed, prefixed, and idiomatic ––and further divided into directional functions. Unlike other languages, Russian verbs are multidirectional in that the conjugation of the motion verb will describe not only the direction which the motion is going (left, right, up, down), but also where spatially, in and out of space.

Their categorization is as follows:

  • Unprefixed – verbs of motion lacking a specific prefix
  • Directionality
  • Multidirectional – general motion, movement in various directions, repeating motion, or completed motion
  • Unidirectional
  • Progressive motion in one direction
  • The addition of a prefix (по) makes the verb perfective describing the beginning of movement and that the moving subject has not yet returned; English ex: He went to a movie
  • Going vs. taking – within these unprefixed verbs exist three different pairs of motion verbs which are used to describe a manner of motion as well as an object of transportation; English ex: taking, leading, carrying, etc.
  • Prefixed – these verbs of motion are given a prefix which forms new pairs of verbs, thus loosing their distinct directionality, but giving them a spatial meaning. Additionally, in Russian the prepositional phrase gives further directional meaning, and thus context must be considered when examining sentences and their verbs of motion.
  • Idiomatic – directional distinction is somewhat insignificant whenever verbs are used in a metaphorical or idiomatic sense. This is due to the fact that such phrases require one or the other verb.

An example of common verbs and their conjugates denoting motion are:

  • To run ––бежа́ть (unidirectional) and бе́гать (multidirectional)
  • To go, walk ––идти́ (uni) and ходи́ть (multi)
  • To carry ––нести́ (uni) and носи́ть (multi)

Note the continuation of the suffix ть for multidirectional motion verbs, as this is an example of an unprefixed verb.

Understanding Verb Voices

Voice is used to describe the relationship the verb has with the correlating noun; its action and how it the subject, object, etc of a sentence participate. While most verbs can possess both a passive or active voice, in Russian those of a passive voice are more common, and are broken into two different categories:

  • Analytical type
  • This verb voice is formed by a noun or pronoun that is doing something and a short-form adjective
  • The verb “to be,”бытьin Russian, is also used to indicate the tense of the phrase
  • Future ex: Ябу́дууби́т (I will be killed)
  • Inflectional type
  • This verb voice is formed by either a noun or pronoun (его́or меня́) possessing another noun and a third-person verb
  • Future ex: Меня́бу́дутубива́ть (literally, I will be being killed)

Understanding Participles 

Participles are verbs which are used to modify a noun or phrase, and therefore play a role similar to that of an adverb or adjective. Russian is one of the languages that employs its own specific form for each, – that is, an adjectival and adverbial participle.

Shockingly enough, adjectival participles within Russian have several forms, being either passive or active in voice, and perfective or imperfective in mood. In regards to tense, only imperfective verbs can possess an active present participle. Other than that exception, the combinations are endless.

Like adverbs, adverbial participles state the forms of nouns, pronouns, or adjective correlating to grammatical cases, number, and gender. They instead inherit the grammatical aspect of their verb; imperfective verbs are only present, while perfective verbs can only be past. Most often, they possess an active voice, but with the right conjugations can take on a passive voice.

In standard Russian, adverbial participles are seen as bookish, and a somewhat archaic form of speech that can easily be replaced by a single adjectival participle or a different construction of verbs instead. However, some dialects do use both adverbial and adjectival to create perfect forms not found in literary form language. This is something you will need to explore more in depth depending on your reasons for learning the Russian language and the dialect that you will be learning.

To continue learning about Russian verbs with more in-depth descriptions of their conjugations and the grammatical foundations, one must begin with the basics. If foreign language learning is something that you find difficult, check out Udemy’s Teach Yourself a Foreign Language course, which can give you the tools you need to begin your path toward mastery of the Russian language.