«Свой человек»: Unraveling a Possessive Pronoun Posted by josefina on May 21, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners, Soviet Union
«Свой» [one’s; his; her; their] is a «притяжательноеместоимение» [possessive pronoun] just like «мой» [my], «твой» [your (singular)], «наш» [our], «ваш» [your (plural)], «его» [his], «её» [her] and «их» [their]. Not all languages have this possessive pronoun – shout out to all you proud native speakers of English! – and that’s why it is not always clear when to use «свой» and when to use one of the others. Sometimes you might even wonder why Russian language would even need this possessive pronoun, when it has all the ones that English has and English seems to do just fine without «свой». Well, that’s a whole other conversation and for now I advice us all just to make peace with the fact that it exists and try to learn how to use it correctly. The key is to remember the following rule: «свой» is used when the possessor is the SUBJECT of the sentence. «Свой» changes according to the six cases of Russian languages very much like any other usual adjective ending on «-ой». Let’s have a look at a couple of examples of how to properly use «свой»:
«Яберусвоюсумку» [I take my bag].
«Тыберёшьсвоюсумку» [You take your bag].
«Онаберётсвоюсумку» [She takes her bag].
«Онберётсвоюсумку» [He takes his bag].
«Мызнаемсвоёдело» [We know our thing].
«Вызнаетесвоёдело» [You know your thing].
«Онизнаютсвоёдело» [They know their thing].
«Возьмисвойчек!» [Take (singular) your receipt!]
«Возьмитесвойчек!» [Take (plural) your receipt!]
I know what you’re all wondering now: What happens to the sentence «онаберётсвоюсумку» if we replace «свою» with «её» [her]? To the untrained eye these two possessive pronouns both mean one and the same thing (especially when seen in translation): HER. Russian language is not that easy for the sentence «онаберётеёсумку» [she takes her bag] will come to mean that she takes someone else’s bag, a bag belonging to another woman. «Свой» can thus save this poor unnamed woman from being suspected of the theft connected with using «её» in the last sentence (maybe she’s actually just trying to be helpful). Compare also the two following sentences:
«Он позвонил своему брату» [He called his (own) brother].
«Онпозвонилегобрату» [He called his (somebody else’s) brother].
But when to use «мой» instead of «свой» when speaking about oneself? That’s even trickier because the rule about always using «свой» when the possessor is also the SUBJECT of the sentence is not always followed by Russians themselves in colloquial speech. Russians often use «мой» when the possessor and subject of the sentence is «я» and «твой» when the possessor and subject is «ты». See for yourselves:
This is correct: «Япозвонилсвоейсестре» [I called my sister].
This is common: «Япозвонилмоейсестре» [I called my sister].
This is correct: «Ты закончил свою работу?» [Have you finished your work?]
This is common: «Ты закончил твою работу?» [Have you finished your work?]
And then there’s the trickiest part of all: in Russian possessive pronouns are not used when speaking about family members and relatives. That’s why the first two sentences are not correct at all – well, they’re alright grammatically and can be easily understood, but after all they have the word ‘sister’ in them, so you should just go ahead and skip any pronoun whatsoever: «Япозвонилсестре» [I called my sister]. The same goes for family words like «брат» [brother], «отец» [father], «мать» [mother], «дочь» [daughter], «сын» [son], «муж» [husband] and «жена» [wife]. Sometimes the leaving out of possessive pronouns will make a simple foreigner confused. Read this sentence for example:
«Вчераотецсходилвкиноссестрой» [Yesterday my father went to the movies with (his or my?) sister].
In such cases as that one all you can truly hope for is that the context around the sentence will bring some clarity into whether the speaker’s father went to the movies with the speaker’s sister or with his own sister. Or ask them to use a possessive pronoun in which case you’ll hear one of the following two:
«Вчераотецсходилвкинососвоейсестрой» [Yesterday my father went to the movies with his sister].
«Вчераотецсходилвкиносмоейсестрой» [Yesterday my father went to the movies with my sister].
Because father is both the subject and the possessor in the first sentence, you have to use «свой». But in the second sentence father is only the subject, whereas the person speaking is the ‘possessor’ of the sister. Got it?
«Свой» is also used in Russian with the meaning of ‘one’s own’, when paired together with the subject of the sentence. This is not that hard. Think of how Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” is translated into Russian as «Своякомната» [lit.: “A Room of One’s Own”]. Sometimes it is also translated as «Собственнаякомната» – but the difference between these two titles is so small that it is really only a matter of taste which one you personally prefer. Have a look at a couple of examples:
«Уменясвоямашина» [I have a car of my own].
«Унассвойдом» [We have a house of our own].
«Увсякогосвойвкус» [Everybody has their own taste].
And now for a question to the attentive reader – or just a reader not so attentive but keen on expressing «своёмнение» [one’s; his; her; their opinion] – what is more positive: when Russians call you: a) «свойчеловек»; or b) «нашчеловек»? Or are both of them equally positive?
P.S. I don’t know the right answer – that’s why I’m asking! I’ve been called mostly «наша» in Russia as a compliment, rarely «своя»… But somehow they both sound equally good to my ears.
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