Russian Language Blog

The Russian Emotion: to like or not to like Posted by on Mar 5, 2008 in language

Everybody knows how to say I love you. «Я люблю тебя» is as much a given as vodka and borsch – and just as much of a cliché. But what about saying “I like you” instead? Not as romantic perhaps, and perhaps not as thrilling, either. Perhaps I find Russians expressions of liking and disliking rather meager only because I was brought up in a country that was afraid to hail its own flag whereas Russians tend to wear white, red and blue whenever the occasion doesn’t forbid them. The new learner will know how to express boundless love for everything from his motherland and his parents to coffee and soccer long before even thinking about emotions a little less heated. The verb to love, «любить», is a wonderful verb not only because of its simplicity and clarity, but also for how it interacts with those dreaded six cases. It has the logical subject in nominative and the logical object in accusative, and to illustrate this I present to you a translation of what the beginner above could express after Russian 101: «Я люблю свою родину, я люблю своих родителей, я люблю кофе и я люблю футбол».

How about this sentence: «Я люблю демократию, но мне не нравятся выборные кампании» [I love democracy, but I don’t like the election campaigns].

In Swedish, my native language, there are two different verbs used to articulate liking something and a third verb to articulate disliking something. If you’re thinking that this has everything to do with the fact that chilly and modest Scandinavians are afraid of speaking about their feelings in a too emotional way – you’re thinking absolutely right. Russians do not share our problem with love. Love is everywhere – literally – in Russian language and Russian life. And this is to blame for the strange construction you have to use when you want to say that you wouldn’t go to GULAG for something but you’re not completely indifferent toward it either. The verb «нравиться» is one of those annoying but just as juicy for it little verbs that put our knowledge of Russian grammar to the test. It takes the logical object in the dative – yes, you heard me – and the logical subject in nominative. In the sentence «Я ему нравлюсь» I am not the one who likes him; it is actually he who likes me. The same goes for «Нам нравится Юра» [we like Yura] and «Юре нравимся мы» [Yura likes us].

This kind of twisted thinking can be tough on anyone in the beginning, but the trick is to try to think of this verb as the equal to the English “to please”. When I say «я ему нравлюсь» what I’m really saying is I please him. And that, dear comrades, is far more flattering both to me and the Russian language.

And for those of you who were wondering: the perfect tense is «понравиться», and if, God forbid, he’s maybe not just that into you what you say is «ему не нравлюсь я». Do please note that in this case you put «ему» first, and not «я» as you would’ve if you were pleasing him. This is of course to underline the fact that you, never mind being in the nominative, has nothing to do with the situation. And, with the right intonation and facial expression, couldn’t care less.

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  1. Svetlana Novitskaia:

    Hello, there. I am a Russian woman and a Russian language instructor at one of the community colleges. I might sound boring or old fasion, but in my younger years (I’m 50) we never used the strong word ‘love’ for coffee or democracy. It is sad to see it used in vain these days. So, when you comment on something like this, try to go back a little. The word ‘love’like the word ‘God’ should be used with respect and care. Thank you very much for reading my note. Svetlana

  2. Peter:

    Your Back!! and again writing something interesting about the Russian Language. I read with interest your writings.
    Peter (Australia)

  3. Sandra de Groen:

    Я люблю vse russkie bloga

  4. Rich Haller:

    What a enjoyable and clearly written article! Thank you, Josefina!


  5. Али:

    Привет, дорогой друг
    Спасибо за то, что ты мне проинформировал о различных темах, в частности, как говорить о любви в русском языке.
    Продалжай писать о новых темах.
    Можешь мне объяснять о том, как ты приехал в Россию
    дело в том, что учусь в Тегеранском университете, в Иране, русский язык и имею в виду чтобы продалжай свою учёбу там.
    буть здоровь

  6. Arks:

    Hmm… One note…
    “«ему не нравлюсь я». Do please note that in this case you put «ему» first, and not «я» as you would’ve if you were pleasing him.”
    Actually it doesn’t matter:
    “ему не нравлюсь я”
    “я ему не нравлюсь”
    “ему я не нравлюсь”
    All those phrases means the same: “He doesn’t like (pleasing) me”.

  7. mIRC:

    Huh… Your blog is nice in general, but this very post… It is brilliant!!! It can be never better.

  8. Stas:

    I have to add that even all these phrases:
    “ему не нравлюсь я”
    “я ему не нравлюсь”
    “ему я не нравлюсь”
    and “не нравлюсь я ему” as well as “не нравлюсь ему я” are all grammatically correct and mean technically the same, however there is a subtle difference. The contextual stress is falling on the first word in a sentense. Thus, for example, in the first sentense the teller is disappointed by the fact HE does’t like you. And so on…