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4 Ways to Refer to Living Things in Russian Posted by on Jul 3, 2018 in Nature and the outdoors

Do you know what to call that cute fuzzy creature in the woods? Read on to learn four ways you can talk about living creatures and what distinguishes each of these ways.


Image via Pixabay

1. Животное

Живо́тное is related to жить, to live. This word is a general word for “animal.” You can hear it in speech or read it in a book or an academic article. Дома́шнее живо́тное usually refers to a pet.

Э́ти живо́тные спосо́бны лишь различа́ть све́тлое и тёмное.
These animals can only distinguish light and darkness.
[Александр Зайцев. Загадки эволюции: Краткая история глаза // «Знание — сила», 2003]

2. Зверь

Зверь can also mean “animal,” but it is also used to say “beast.” This word is more likely to appear in casual speech, children’s tales or shows, or as a metaphor for a formidable, unstoppable, or irate person or thing.

Бу́рый медве́дь бы́стрый, ло́вкий и о́чень си́льный зверь.
The brown bear is a quick, agile, and very strong animal.
[Геннадий Снегирев. Медведь // «Мурзилка», 2003]

Note that Beauty and the Beast is “Красавица и чудовище” (literally, “Beauty and the Monster”).


Image via Pixabay

3. Существо

Существо́ (creature) is related to the verb существова́ть (to exist). This refers to any living thing—probably not microorganisms but something you can see. Существо sounds somewhat impersonal and indefinite, so we can’t really tell what kind of creature is being described.

Пе́рвое препя́тствие на пути́ тепловидения живы́х суще́ств ― отсу́тствие в приро́де доста́точно прозра́чных для тепловы́х луче́й материа́лов.
The first obstacle preventing living things from having heat vision is that nature lacks materials that would be sufficiently transparent for heat rays.
[Б. Сергеев. Печь и холодильник // «Юный натуралист», 1975]


Image via Pixabay

4. Тварь

Finally, the word тварь (“creature,” feminine) is related to the words твори́ть (to create) and тво́рческий (creative). In its primary meaning, it refers to any living creature as God’s creation, as it were. This word is likely to appear in such collocations as бо́жья тварь (God’s creation) or жива́я тварь (living thing) and is a bit dated.

И у́мная э́то тварь, ло́шадь.
(And the horse is a clever creature.)
[Д. Н. Мамин-Сибиряк. Клад (1889)]

The word has also taken on an additional meaning as a derogatory way or referring to a vile or despised person.

Сержа́нт в пе́рвый день тебе́ объясня́ет, что ты ― бы́дло, ты ― тварь.
The sergeant lets you know on the first day that you’re rabble and that you’re worthless.
[Светлана Алексиевич. Время second-hand // «Дружба народов», 2013]

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.