The Noun Case System
The case system in Russian does two things. First, it marks the grammatical functions of nouns which are indicated by word order in English, that is, the subject, object and indirect object of the sentence. (This means that these nouns are free to be ordered almost anywhere in the sentence since their function is clearly indicated by their form.) Second, cases mark certain adverbial functions such as the time, manner, and means of carrying our an action, which are marked by prepositions in English, e.g. by hand, on Friday, with enthusiasm This function leads to the case system being associated with prepositions. Remember: in Russian all prepositions are associated with a case which is attached to their objects. Since only nouns can express case, this means that only nouns may be objects of prepositions.
The Case Functions
Every noun in Russian must be selected for one of six categories when they are used in a sentence. To indicate which category has been selected by the speaker, the endings of the noun are changed. This means that each (declinable) noun has up to six different forms, differing only in the final letter or two on the end. The six categories and their functions are listed in Table 1:
Table 1: Cases and Case Functions Case Function Nominative Subject of the sentence Accusative Direct object Genitive The 'of' case: Possession, Quantity & Negation Dative The 'to/for' case: Indirect object, Recipient Prepositional The 'at' case: Location Instrumental The 'by/with' case: Means of doing something
So the case form of a noun indicates its function in sentence or phrase. Here is how it works. First, the Nominative Case indicates that the noun is the subject of the sentence while the accusative indicates that it is the direct object. In the following examples, the subject is in white boldface type and the direct object is in black boldface type. In Russian the subject is in its nominative case form while the object is in its accusative case form.
Иван видит стол. 'Ivan sees the table. Иван закрывает окно. 'Ivan closes the window.
In this particular instance, the Accusative Case of стол and окно are coincidentally identical to the nominative; usually, these two case forms are distinct, as we will see further on.
The Accusative Case serves primarily to indicate the direct object of the verb, the noun to which something is done.
Иван видит стол. 'Ivan sees the table. Иван закрывает книгу. 'Ivan closes the book.
The direct object normally is placed after the verb in Russian. However, since it is the case ending and not its position in the sentence which determines the direct object, word order is not critical in Russian. The following sentences are equally grammatical in Russian.
Иван стол видит . 'Ivan sees the table. Книгу Маша закрывает . 'Masha closes the book.
The actual positioning of the subject and direct object depends upon the context: the topic of conversation, emphasis, and the like.
The accusative case is also used to indicate time, particularly non-punctual time, repeated times and continual time.
Саша работает каждый день. 'Sasha works every day. Маша работала всю ночь. 'Masha worked all night (long).
In the first sentence the work is repeated every day; in the second, it continued over a long period.
The Dative Case marks the indirect object or recipient of something. It appears in red in the following examples.
Иван дал стол Валерию. 'Ivan gave the table to Valery. Иван написал письмо другу. 'Ivan wrote a letter to (his) friend.
The dative is also prominent as the subject in impersonal constructions, too.
Ивану холодно. Ivan is cold. Маше убрать комнату. It's Masha's turn to clean up the room.
The dative is generally used when the subject is the goal of the action, so Иван холоден would imply that Ivan is the source, not the recipient of the coldness. Маше убрать комнату implies that the clean-up is up to or assigned to Masha.
The Instrumental Case of a noun indicates that its reference is the means by which an action is carried out. In the following example, the instrumental noun is blue.
Иван написал письмо другу ручкой. 'Ivan wrote a letter to (his) friend with a pen.'
In English this function is marked by the prepositions 'by' and 'with', e.g. He wrote the letter with a pencil or He found the letter by chance. In both instances the prepositional phrase tells us how the action indicated by the verb was carried out.
The Genitive Case is the 'of' case in that it translates English prepositional phrases beginning with 'of'. In the following example the genitive expression appears in yellow.
Иван написал письмо другу Бориса ручкой. 'Ivan wrote a letter to a friend of Boris with a pen.'
The genitive is the case of possession, so it will also replace English possessives like 'Boris's friend'; however, take note that Russians always say друг Бориса 'friend of Boris' and keep the nouns in that order. Possession is also expressed with the genitive and the preposition у, as in рука у меня 'my arm', брат у меня 'my brother'. This expression is often combined with place expressions to produce phrases like Он сейчас у себя в комнате 'Right now he is in his room'.
One final major use of the genitive is in marking quantification. The objects of words indicating quantity are always placed in the genitive in Russian. In English some words require 'of' (several of his friends) while others do not (many
offriends). All Russian words indicating quantity, including all numbers, require the genitive.
много молока 'much [of] milk' пять килограммов five [of] kilograms несколько килограммов a few [of] kilograms
The Prepositional Case is so called because it is the only case which is used exclusively with prepositions and it is used with only three prepositions:
в + Prep 'in, at' на + Prep 'on, at' o + Prep 'about'
This case was formerly called the 'locative' case because it is used primarily to indicate the location of objects:
Книгана столе 'The book is on the table Книгав ящике 'The book is in the drawer'
These are the basics of Russian case functions. We also have a quick review of the case functions here. The cases are also required with all prepositions. Once you understand how cases work, you need to know the endings on the nouns (and adjectives) which mark these cases. First, keep in mind that the ending signifying a given case depends upon the declension class of the noun. In other words, each declension class has its own set of case endings, generally distinct from those of other cases. There are instances of overlap which we will take advantage of in order to simplify learning the Russian case system.
The Case Declensions
We have discovered what a declension class is and how adjectives and verbs agree with nouns according to their declension class and form (spelling). The next question is: What is a declension? This section takes up that question.
Declension I. Every declinable Russian noun has up to six slightly varying forms which are referred to as its declension. Russian nouns decline according to their declension class which means that a noun's set of forms depends upon its declension class. The set of endings for a first declension noun is illustrated in Table 1 (стол = 'table', окно = 'window'):
Declension I Case Masculine Neuter Case Ending Nominative стол окн-о Nothing or -o/e Accusative стол окн-о = Nom or Gen Genitive стол-а окн-а -a/я (or -y) Dative стол-у окн-у -у/ю Prepositional стол-е окн-е -e (or -y) Instrumental стол-ом окн-ом -ом/ем
Looks complicated, huh? Well, here are a few particulars which will help you remember the endings.
- The accusative and nominative endings for Declension I nouns are identical unless the noun refers to an animate being, a human or an animal. In that case, the accusative endings are the same as the genitive endings.
- The prepositional case ending is -e for all Declension I nouns, regardless of the hardness or softness of the final consonant. It gets even better: the same ending is also the prepositional case ending for Declension II nouns! Isn't that great? Things get simpler and simpler.
Declension II. The second declension contains nouns that agree both in the feminine and masculine; however, it is more closely identified with feminine than with masculine nouns. It differs from Declension I in that it has an accusative ending, -y, and so does not have to rely on the nominative and genitive endings. It does share the same prepositional case ending with the first declension, though. (In the table below, сестра means 'sister' and дядя means 'uncle'.)
Nominative сестр-а дяд-я -а/я Accusative сестр-у дяд-ю -у/ю Genitive сестр-ы дяд-и -ы/и Dative сестр-е дяд-е -е Prepositional сестр-е дяд-е -e Instrumental сестр-ой дяд-ей -ой/ей
Like most aspects of Russian grammar, the second declension is pretty simple and straightforward, requiring no commentary.
Declension III. Declension III contains nouns with feminine and neuter agreement. The feminine nouns all end on a soft sign while the neuter ones all end on the combination -мя in the nominative. This is by far the simplest (and most boring) of the declensions--most of the endings are the same, -и. The only complication that adds interest is the fact that the я in the nominative-accusative of the neuter nouns is a replacement for the suffix -ен which appears elsewhere in the declension, as the following table shows (дверь = 'door' and имя = 'name').
Declension III Case Feminine Neuter Case Ending Nominative дверь им-я -ь/я Accusative дверь им-я = Nom. Genitive двер-и имен-и -и Dative двер-и имен-и -и Prepositional двер-и имен-и -и Instrumental дверь-ю имен-ем -ью/ем
This declension is the simplest of all the declensions for not only are its nominative and accusative endings identical, all other endings are also identical except for the instrumental. The neuter instrumental ending is the same as the neuter Declension I ending, -Ом, leaving only the feminine instrumental ending unique. That's the only one you'll have to remember
Declension IV. The fourth declension, of course, is the declension of plural nouns. Not only do a large number of nouns without singular forms inherently belong it, e.g. ворота 'gate', очки '(eye)glasses', чернила 'ink', but many (though by far not all) singular nouns may be pluralized by simply shifting them from their original declension class to Declension IV.
Declension IV (Plural)
Nominative стол-ы дяд-и имен-а -ы/и, -а/я, -e Accusative стол-ы дяд-ей имен-а = Nom or Gen Genitive стол-ов дяд-ей имён -ов/ей/Nothing Dative стол-ам дяд-ям имен-ам -ам/ям Prepositional стол-ах дяд-ях имен-ах -ах/ях Instrumental стол-ами дяд-ями имен-ами -ами/-ями
The major problem in Declension IV is in determining the nominative ending for singular nouns which have been transformed into plural. By and large, nouns ending on consonants or -а/я receive -ы/и in the plural while those ending on -o/e receive -а/я. However, the endings are occasionally reversed to that the masculine nouns receive -а/я and the neuter ones, -ы/и. This is just to add color to a language whose pristine simplicity could otherwise lead to boredom.
All Nouns Have an Accent
Like the verbs and adjectives, nouns have specific accent patterns throughout their declensional paradigm. Like verbs and adjectives, nouns may have fixed or movable accent and the fixed accent may be fixed on the stem or endings. 'Fixed' means that it falls on the same syllable regardless of the case that the noun is in. The noun книга 'book', for example, has fixed stem accents while сестра 'sister' has fixed end accent.
Fixed Noun Accent
Nominative книга сестра Accusative книгу сестру Genitive книги сестры Dative книге сестре Prepositional книге сестре Instrumental книгой сестрой
The movable accent pattern among nouns varies according to declension class. There are no movable patterns in the first and third declensions except among those nouns with the prepositional 2 endings, which are always accented. This means that if the stem is regularly accented, accent will move on the prepositional 2 endings.
Declensions II and IV do have movable patterns, however, as illustrated in the following diagram.
Movable Noun Accent
Nominative гора горы Accusative гору горы Genitive горы гор Dative горе горам Prepositional горе горах Instrumental горой горами
The movable accent pattern in Declension III is for accent to fall on the ending except in the accusative. The pattern in Declension IV is for the accent to fall on the stem in the nominative-accusative and on the ending in the remaining four cases.
Exceptions to the Regular Case System
This is an introduction to the regular case system of Russian. There are, unfortuntately, a few exceptions to the regularties. The exceptions are listed on a separate page.
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© 1996 Robert Beard