Menu
Search

Wanted Dead Or Alive: Noun Animacy in Russian Posted by on Dec 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

You might have learned at some point that all nouns in Russian are either animate (одушевле́нные) or inanimate (неодушевле́нные). Roughly speaking, living things are animate and/or sentient: студе́нт, ко́шка, де́ти; and non-living things are inanimate: стена́, телефо́н, письмо́. This subject has been covered on this blog before.

As it turns out, determining whether a noun is animate is not always as straightforward as it may sound. This article in Moskovskie Novosti lists some of the difficult cases, which we will discuss further in this post. The Gramota site answers some of the difficult questions, too.

Different Declensions

This is all very interesting, you may say, but why should I care? The reason is that animate and inanimate nouns diverge in their declension, specifically, in the accusative case. Plural animate nouns are identical in accusative and genitive, while plural inanimate nouns are identical in accusative and nominative. For masculine nouns, both singular and plural declensions are affected:

Animate Inanimate
Nom. Это слон. Это слоны. Это стол. Это столы́.
Acc. Вижу слона́. Вижу слоно́в. Вижу стол. Вижу столы́.
Gen. У меня нет слона́. У меня нет слоно́в. У меня нет стола́. У меня нет столо́в.

The animate-inanimate distinction also applies to plural feminine and neuter nouns. Luckily, singular forms are not affected. Compare the plural declension of да́ма (a lady) and ла́мпа (a lamp).

Animate Inanimate
Nom. Это да́мы. Это ла́мпы.
Acc. Вижу дам. Вижу лампы.
Gen. Здесь нет дам. У меня нет ламп.

Here is a neuter plural example. This is a bit of a spoiler — it tells you that the word чудо́вище (monster) is declined as an animate noun, while окно́ (window), as expected, is declined as an inanimate noun.

Animate Inanimate
Nom. Это чудо́вища. Это о́кна.
Acc. Вижу чудо́вищ. Вижу о́кна.
Gen. Здесь нет чудо́вищ. У меня нет о́кон.

The Living Dead

The first surprise is that Russian is inconsistent in talking about dead people. For instance, поко́йник and мертве́ц (deadman) are animate, while труп ([dead] body) is inanimate.

‘Тя́тя! тя́тя! на́ши се́ти

Притащи́ли мертвеца́’.

(Literally, “Daddy, daddy, our nets have caught a deadman,” from the Pushkin poem “The Drowned Man“)

В подва́ле до́ма нашли́ труп. (A body was found in the building basement.)

All The Small Things

Microscopic or small organisms may be declined as either animate or inanimate. Examples include микро́б (microbe), личи́нка (maggot), бакте́рия (bacterium), заро́дыш (f/o/etus), эмбрио́н (embryo) — depending on the source you consult.

Био́лог изуча́л бакте́рии OR Био́лог изуча́л бакте́рий. (The biologist was studying bacteria).

All Fun And Games

Many playthings are also animate. For example, ку́клы (dolls), cards, and chess pieces are all declined as animate nouns.

Музе́й коллекциони́рует стари́нных ку́кол (The museum collects antique dolls).

Uncanny Valley

Non-human or imaginary creatures that are perceived as sentient will also fall in the animate category. Examples include ро́бот (robot) and чудо́вище (monster).

“Сон ра́зума рожда́ет чудо́вищ” (Francisco Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters)

The World’s Your Oyster

When we talk about eating у́стрицы (oysters) or креве́тки (shrimp), they may be animate or inanimate depending on whether they are seen as food or animals. However, when we talk about them being hunted by other animals in the wild, we can only use the animate declension.

Мы еди́м креве́тки/креве́ток (We eat shrimp).

Э́та ры́ба ест креве́ток (This fish eats shrimp).

These are just a few of borderline cases that I find unexpected or interesting. Are there any that surprised you? What other animate/inanimate nouns do you think are important to know?

Tags: ,
Keep learning Russian with us!

Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.

Try it Free Find it at your Library
Share this:
Pin it

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 in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


Comments:

  1. David Roberts:

    Very good post! Another “borderline” situation – in children’s stories inanimate things are sometimes treated as animate, e.g. Thomas the tank engine, a railway locomotive who holds conversations with other locomotives, with tractors, buses etc (I don’t know if these stories are known in USA, they are almost a British institution). If you were to tell these stories in Russina, would locomotives, tractors etc be treated as animate?

  2. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    Good blog. I just have one comment and it is this sentence: “Animate nouns are identical in accusative and genitive, while inanimate nouns are identical in accusative and nominative.”

    I think it would be clearer and more correct to insert the word “Masculine” at the beginning of the sentence. When I first read this I had to read it several times to see if I read what I thought I read. Feminine nouns in the singular, of course, do not follow this rule. It is corrected later in the blog but it could cause some confusion for beginners. The other solution is to clarify that this statement is true of both masculine and feminine nouns in the plural but only to masculine nouns in the singular. Other than that . . . good blog.

    I remember when I first started studying Russian I used the word for finger as animate because I thought it was “part of a living person.” I learned that lesson early!

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Good point, Moonyeen. I have changed the description to say it applied to plural accusative forms across the board, and only affected masculine nouns in the singular.
      Right, this is not straightforward at all, although it is fascinating to learn what the language “sees” as living.

  3. Richard:

    Okay, suppose a robotic shrimp is chasing an oyster from outer space which is swallowed by a dead body which in turn is controlled by a hyper-intelligent embryo which needs the oyster partly as food and partly as an animal in a scientific experiment?

    I’m sorry, it’s the eggnog talking! 8*)

    С Рождеством!!!

    • Maria:

      @Richard Haha, that was a good one. Luckily, with the shrimp, you have options. 🙂
      С Рождеством и наступающим Новым годом!

  4. Peter:

    Thanks Maria for a great blog.

    It’s probably obvious to many but fruit, vegetables and flowers are living but not sentient, so I presume they are treated as inanimate? However, a researcher has found that plants have memory, so that may change!

    And what about inanimate things that are commonly given the attributes of animate things, such as how sailors refer to their ships?

    Peter.

  5. Peter:

    Oh … I’ve now looked at the Moskovskie Novosti article you cited. I guess they are animate, like billiard players talk about their balls (no double-entendre intended ;-).

    • Maria:

      @Peter You’re welcome, Peter! People certainly often see inanimate objects as animate, so you can see inanimate objects talking and walking, for example, in fiction or fairy tales. However, grammatically, most of these nouns will still decline as inanimate. The шар example sounds like professional jargon for pool players. I have looked for “корабль” (ship) in the Russian National Corpus, and only got корабль and корабли in the accusative (as opposed to корабля and кораблей), so it appears that it is still declined as an inanimate object.

  6. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    Ooops! If the correction now says that it applies to accusative plurals across the board doesn’t that have to be clarified as plural accusative ANIMATE across the board. Sorry if I get so nit-picky. It’s still a good blog and has obviously created a lot of interest. Proof you have a good, responsive reading audience. С Новым годом!