What Does It Mean That Russian Is An ‘Inflected Language’?

Obligatory picture of Red Square.
Obligatory picture of Red Square.

Before I started learning Russian, a lot of the sources I read said it was hard. Not only does it have a completely different alphabet, they warned, but it’s an inflected language. A quick search of this term—inflected language—revealed that Russian nouns change depending on where they are in a sentence. That is, nouns have different cases. Changing the case is called declining. The names of the cases used in Russian are nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, prepositional, and instrumental. This post will deal with nominative (used for the subject of a sentence), accusative (used for direct objects), and dative (used for indirect objects) in more detail.

To understand case in general, take these sentences in English: The cats eat and I love cats. In the first sentence, cats is the subject, while in the second, it is the direct object. It’s the same word, though. It may function differently in the sentence, but it doesn’t change spelling or acquire an ending or anything like that.

Russian is different. Those sentences in Russian would be: Кошки едят [Koshki yedyat] and Я люблю кошек [Ya lyublyu koshek]. I’ve made the word for cats bold in both the Cyrillic and the transliteration so you can see that it differs slightly. In the first word, it’s in what we call the nominative case. In the second, it’s in the accusative case.

As it turns out, every noun in Russian has different forms like this. A few foreign words don’t change (this is called being undeclinable or indeclinable—I’m not sure what the correct English term is) but for the most part, every Russian noun has six endings for the singular form and six for the plural. These follow a pattern, so it’s not quite as hard as it sounds at first (though it does take a bit of practice to get used to lopping off endings and adding new ones while speaking out loud in conversation). Some words change irregularly, though, and these must be memorized.

What this means is you can do all kinds of things with Russian sentences that simply wouldn’t be possible in English. You can change the word order a bit and even leave verbs that give a noun its case when these verbs would be understood. Take the following example that I found on a patriotic Russian’s Twitter bio. I liked it so much I had to save it. Unfortunately, I cannot find the person who had this, so maybe he changed his bio since then.

Душу-Богу. Жизнь-России. Честь-никому.

The transliteration would read: Dushu-Bogu. Zhizn-Rossii. Chest-nikomu. It means “I give my soul to God, my life to Russia, and my honor to no one.” But technically, there are no verbs present in the bit I quoted above. The verb “I give” (Я даю [Ya dayu] or even just Даю [Dayu]) is implicitly understood, and the inflection of the Russian language helps us see this.

In the first part, душу [dushu], which means soul, is in the accusative case because it is the direct object of the implicitly understood “I give.” The nominative case of this word is душа [dusha]—note how the ending differs! The next word, Богу [Bogu], is the dative case of Бог [Bog], which means God. Dative is used for indirect objects, i.e. the recipient of something given. So you can see that the cases of the words in the first part show that the subject is giving his soul to God.

The second and third parts work in much the same way. Жизнь [Zhizn] means life. It’s also in the accusative case. In this instance, the nominative and the accusative look exactly the same due to a grammatical rule in the Russian language that I don’t want to go off topic to explain here. России [Rossii], the second word, is the dative case of Россия [Rossiya], which means Russia—hence the meaning of this second part: “I give my life to Russia.”

In the third part, we have another word in the accusative case, as you probably guessed: Честь [Chest], which means honor. Like the word жизнь [zhizn], it is the same in the nominative and the accusative case as well due to that grammatical rule.* The next word, никому [nikomu], is the dative of никто [nikto], which means no one. So it means “I give my honor to no one.”

Of course, when I translated this bit above I took a bit of license with the source text. I cut out the repetition and phrased it in a way that flows in English: “I give my soul to God, my life to Russia, and my honor to no one.” This is not the only accurate translation—it’s just the one I personally like the best. If you wanted, I suppose you could split the sentence into three separate sentences. It’s up to you.

If you’ve ever wondered if Russian is difficult to learn or not… well, you’ve probably got your answer now. I don’t like it when people lie and say a language is easy when it’s actually quite complicated. So I won’t lie: Russian is hard. You won’t be learning it in three months. (Sorry!) You probably won’t be learning it in a year, either. (Though I suppose in theory if you did nothing else and were able to spend some time in a Russian-speaking country, you could pick up quite a lot.) There’s so much good stuff to read in it that all the effort is worth it.

Plus, all that grammar is just fun, isn’t it? I’m not even joking here. I could talk about Russian declensions all day long. If you’re confused by any of my explanations, feel free to ask questions in the comments. Please don’t ask me to explain English grammar terms, though. That stuff ought to be taught in school—and if you haven’t learned it, you should go learn it on the Internet because a little bit of grammar study never hurt anybody. 🙂

*Note: Fine, I’ll explain the grammatical rule briefly because I’ve probably made you curious. Certain nouns called third-declension feminine nouns have the same form in the nominative as they do in the accusative. And all masculine inanimate nouns also have this feature. Confused yet? 😉 This is why I spent so much time studying in undergrad—it takes time to learn this stuff well!


8 thoughts on “What Does It Mean That Russian Is An ‘Inflected Language’?

  1. I had nightmares about Latin whilst reading your post, for Latin has exactly the same issue with declinations and so on and so forth. It made my eyes bleed when I had to study it… Luckily no neo-Latin language inherited this, as far as I’m aware. It’s surprising that Russian did, does Greek have such declinations? (I’m thinking Russian derives from Greek, or at least the alphabet does… or perhaps not, it’s 4:31 AM and I shouldn’t be thinking as much this early!).


    1. Russian is a Slavic language, so not related to Greek at all! 🙂 Nearly every Slavic language has declensions, except for Bulgarian and Macedonian. Romanian has case, too, I think.


  2. Thanks Natalie; that was really helpful! I’ve been doing mostly passive listening and online learning (LingQ, Busuu, Livemocha), where there are a lot of nouns and phrases but not much explanation of grammar. I had noticed the nouns changing but wondered about the rhyme or reason. What would you recommend for learning the different forms? Similar to verb conjugations – learn the endings and then just practice until you get the hang of it? I don’t have a “language notebook” yet but I was thinking I should start one and it sounds like this should go in it.

    Oh and yeah – I totally fooled myself about how difficult Russian would be (I learned Spanish, so I can learn Russian, right? Ha!). But sometimes your blog gives me a little extra motivation to hang in there. 🙂


    1. Hey Lisa, I would HIGHLY recommend learning noun declensions in Russian. There is a pattern to it, so learn which cases are used when and which endings they take in masculine, feminine, and plural. It sounds overwhelming, but it will get easier with time, I promise. Same goes for verbs. Personally, I find them easier than nouns in Russian, but maybe that’s just me. 🙂

      Just keep listening and practicing and studying and you’ll get it sooner or later. Actually, Russian is one of those languages that it will probably be later rather than sooner… but it will happen. Let me know if you want to practice or anything like that.


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