Was Yoda Russian? (Sentence Structure in Russian. Part I) Posted by bota on Oct 5, 2020 in grammar, language, Russian word order
“Do or do not. There is no try.” While Yoda’s OSV (object-subject-verb) word order may seem a bit unusual, the Russian translation of the quote doesn’t sound all that strange or other-worldly, all because the Russian sentence structure is flexible.
So, please do try, because learning about the nuances of word order variations in Russian will enrich and elevate your speech and writing, as well as give you a two-fold appreciation for Russian poetry and prose. Who is ready to be “на ты” with this tricky topic?
Note: «на ты» means to address the other person informally instead of the formal pronoun “вы”; often asked as «мо́жно на ты?» = «can we speak on informal terms?».
There are two main classifications of the word order in Russian: прямо́й и обра́тный поря́док сло́в (direct and inverse).
The word order can be dictated by the speaker’s desire for guiding the listener’s attention from what is known to what is unknown. A sentence begins with something familiar and culminates in a piece of new important information.
Compare the following two sentences:
– В пери́од с 1863 по 1866, бы́ли опублико́ваны пе́рвые четырёхто́мные изда́ния словаря́ Даля. (The date range “1863-1866” is known, and the part about Dahl’s dictionaries being published for the first time is emphasized).
– Пе́рвое четырёхто́мное изда́ние словаря́ Даля вы́шло в пери́од с 1863 по 1866 год. (The emphasis is reversed here, and the stress falls on the date of the event rather than what happened).
This is only the tip of the iceberg. And I’m a bit apprehensive about labeling anything in this blog in the strict sense of it being a “rule”, so here are a few helpful guidelines to follow in terms of word order. Keep in mind that taken out of context, these sentences can have a number of variations on the sentence structure in both written and oral form. But, it’s the contextual confines that determine what will be stressed in a given sentence.
Nouns and Verbs
- Nouns (generally) precede verbs. The familiar English SVO order (Subject – Verb- Object) is the default word order in Russian as well. The subject comes before the verb especially when it’s established that all parties know what or who the subject in question is. Маши́на прие́хала (we know which car is mentioned). – Прие́хала маши́на (it hasn’t been established which car is mentioned or perhaps the speaker wants to put the stress on the car and intrigue the listener on whose car it is).
- Imperative sentences also employ both direct and indirect word order. If the subject of the sentence is a pronoun that precedes the verb, the tone of the order, advice, or suggestion is stricter and more adamant than if the verb comes first. Compare the following sentences:
А ты не смей пререка́ться с отцо́м! (Don’t you dare talk back to your father!)
Не забыва́й меня́, мой ми́лый друг. (Do not forget me, my dearest friend.)
- The inverse word order is common in works of literature, especially in the following cases:
- In sentences focusing on time and seasons: Прошло́ се́мь лет (Seven years went by); Была́ ти́хая безве́тренная ночь (It was a quiet windless night).
- Descriptions of nature: Све́тит со́лнце, пою́т пти́цы, и просыпа́ются полевы́е цветы́ (The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the field flowers are waking up).
Nouns and Adjectives
- Adjectives usually precede nouns, and such sentence structure will be considered direct: интере́сный фильм (interesting film), популя́рные ко́миксы (popular comic books) мой дива́н (my couch).
- The opposite is considered an inversion and also widely used in prose and literary works: Куда́ ни посмотри́, то́лько степь бескра́йняя (Whichever way you look, only the endless steppe).
- It is not uncommon to witness and even further emphasis on the inversion if the noun is repeated twice, the second time being the part with the “noun then adjective” word order: Её глаза́, глаза́ и́скренние и не́жные, не могли́ никого́ оста́вить равноду́шными. (Her eyes, sincere and soft eyes, couldn’t leave anyone indifferent).
Fascinating stuff, right? What if I tell you that although not as strictly as in English, but the order of Russian adjectives also follows a discernible patter? Stay tuned for Part II.