Russian Pronouns Can Also be Negative
As mentioned at the end of the previous section, Russian allows multiple negatives such as Я никогда ничего нигда не вижу "I don't never see nothing nowhere" or, grammatically, "I don't ever see anything anywhere'". In fact, Russian requires that if the verb is negated, all the indefinite pronouns be negative. Here is the rule to remember:
The Multiple Negation Rule If the verb is negated in a clause, all the simple indefinite pronouns in the same phrase must also be negated.
Notice that this rule does not apply to the 'nonexistence' negative pronouns below but there are no exceptions in applying it to the simple negative pronouns.
Two Ways Russian Pronouns are Negative
The set of negative pronouns correspond all but perfectly with the set of indefinite pronouns and, like them, derive from the interrogative pronouns. However, unlike English, which has only one set of negative pronouns, Russian has two paradigms of negative pronouns, both based on the interrogative pronouns. The first is the simple 'negative' pronouns which mean "no one", "nothing", "nowhere", "never", etc. The second is a paradigm of the ever so existent 'nonexistence' pronouns which mean "there is no one", "there is nothing", "there is nowhere", etc.
In the following table, the forms of the simple negative pronouns is on the left; the forms of the 'nonexistence' negative pronouns are on the right. Notice that the accent always falls on the final syllable of the simple negative pronouns. The accent always falls on the initial syllable of the 'nonexistence' pronouns.
Russian Negative Pronouns Simple Gloss 'nonexistence' Gloss ничто (ничего) nothing нечего there's nothing никто anyone/body некто there's no one никакой no kinda, any kinda . . . there's no kinda никак no way, any way . . . there's no way нигде nowhere, anywhere негде there's nowhere никуда to nowhere, anywhere некуда there's nowhere ниоткуда from nowhere, anywhere неоткуда there's nowhere никогда never, ever некогда there's no time нисколько none, not any несколько some, a few
What seem to be prefixes on these pronouns, ни- and не-, are in fact clitics, prefixes which are added to phrases rather than to words. What this means is that if these forms occur in prepositional phrases, they are attached to the beginning of the phrase rather than staying put on the pronoun. For example, to express, "I don't see anybody", you say: я никого не вижу, but if you wanted to say "I'm not thinking about anybody", that's я ни о ком не думаю. The same principle applies to the 'nonexistence' pronouns:Мне не о чём думать means "There is nothing for me to think about". More later.
What to do with Negative Pronouns
The simple negative pronouns on the left are regular ones that behave pretty much the same as the corresponding pronounsin English. The 'nonexistence' pronouns on the right is a Russian invention and, as you can see, serve the purpose of simplifying the language. They originally were a combination of нет "there is no" plus the pronoun but those simplifying Russians saw a way to pare their language down even more to lighten the load of language learning, so they did it.
The 'nonexistence' pronouns are used only in infinitive constructions, that is, in phrases containing an infinitive. If я ничего не вижу, with the finite (conjugated) form of the verb виде- means "I don't see anything", then нечего видеть means "There is nothing to see". Here are some more examples. First, the simple negative pronouns.
Никто не приходил. no one came. Я никого не ударял. I didn't hit anyone. Валя никуда не ходил вчера. Valya didn't go anywhere yesterday. Саша никогда не курит. Sasha never smokes. Она ни с кем не играла. She wasn't playing with anybody. Он ни с какой жабой не играл. He didn't play with any kind of toad. Он ниоткуда появился. He appeared out of nowhere. Он меня нисколько не знает. He doesn't know me at all.
Now here are a few examples containing the ever so existent 'nonexistence' pronouns.
Мне нечего делать. There's nothing for me to to. Здесь некому помочь. There's no one here to help. Некуда ходить в этом городке. There's nowhere to go in this burg. Саше некогда курить. Sasha doesn't have time to smoke. Нам не о чем думать. There's nothing for us to think about. Мне не с какой жабой играть. There's no toad for me to play with. Это взять неоткуда. There is nowhere to get that (from). Через несколько минут она ушла. In a few minutes she left.
Notice that the quantity negative pronoun, несколько, has a different meaning, 'several, a few', which is much more prevalent than its quatificational meaning.
Think you know what's going on? Let's try a few examples on our own and find out.
Let's Be Negative!
In the following exercises be careful to identify the infinitive phrases for those may require 'nonexistence' pronouns rather than a simple negative pronoun. Again, fill in the blank with the correct form of the correct pronoun, then check your answer by pushing the button on the right.
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© 1996 Robert Beard