Russian Word of the Day: гнездо [gnezdo]

A couple Fridays ago, while having a nice relaxing afternoon, I realized I hadn’t done much intensive study of Russian grammar recently. Now, I read in Russian every day and listen to podcasts regularly, but I hadn’t done any of the focused that I used to do. I immediately had to rectify the situation, so I looked up the declension of a noun that I was unsure of. (Longtime readers may recall this post in which I explain what exactly makes Russian nouns so… frightening to English speakers.) The noun in question is гнездо [gnezdo], which means nest in English. So let’s study some Russian together. First, here’s the declension. I always found declension tables useful while learning Russian, so I’ve put one together here. (As an aside, why are tables so difficult to make in HTML? To me, they’re just not intuitive. It’s like someone invented them in 1990 in a completely illogical fashion and the code hasn’t changed since then.)

падеж [Case] ед. ч. [Singular] мн. ч. [Plural]
Им. [Nominative] гнездо [gnezdó] гнёзда [gnyozda]
Р. [Genitive] гнезда [gnezdá] гнёзд [gnyozd]
Д. [Dative] гнезду [gnezdú] гнёздам [gnyozdam]
В. [Accusative] гнездо [gnezdó] гнёзда [gnyozda]
Тв. [Instrumental] гнездом [gnezdóm] гнёздами [gnyozdami]
Пр. [Prepositional] гнезде [gnezdé] гнёздах [gnyozdakh]

The stresses in Russian are marked with bold letters because I couldn’t figure out how to get those nice accents over the letters the way I did with the transliterations. I’ve put transliterations in Latin characters in case you can’t read Cyrillic. (Though if you can’t read Cyrillic, I definitely think you should learn!) Before doing this exercise, I also hadn’t realized that гнездо was irregular in the plural with that stress shift. As an avid bird lover, nests are a pretty important thing for me to talk about, so I’m glad I found that out.

Now, for the fun part: some related words.

There’s a verb form гнездиться [gnezditsa] that means to build a nest or to live in a nest. It conjugates as follows:

  • Я гнежусь [Ya gnezhdus]
  • Ты гнездишься [Ty gnezdishsa]
  • Они гнездятся [Oni gnezdyatsa]

(I am too lazy to code another table with the full conjugation. Those three forms should be enough to show the verb’s conjugation. 🙂 )

Have you ever heard of the Swallow’s Nest castle in Crimea? Crimea was a favorite vacation spot of the Russian imperial family and other nobles and this crazy castle belonged to a Baltic German noble at one point. In Russian, it’s called Ласточкино гнездо [Lastochkino gnezdo]. Here’s a picture of it. It’s amazing and absurd-looking!

Source. Click to see larger.
Source. Click to see larger.

See how much you can learn when you dive into reading about just a single Russian word? I’ve barely even scratched the surface here. There’s a lot more to this word than I’ve talked about here. There are adjectival forms, different verb forms I don’t fully understand, and (probably) a lot more nuances to the word. Now you understand why I had to spend hours and hours studying Russian in college. Imagine going through this declension exercise on a whole group of nouns for homework.

If that didn’t scare you off… stick around for more Russian-related posts. And if you enjoyed that, consider studying Russian! The whole language is complicated like this! 😉

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Read My Guest Post At Language Base Camp!

I have a fabulous guest post up at a new language learning blog called Language Base Camp. When Adam, the founder, approached me about writing for the blog, I knew I had to say yes. So if you want to learn how to get started learning Russian, head over and take a look!

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!

Not a Moment to Myself

This past week has been crazy. It all started last Tuesday, when I expressed an interest to have the professor who teaches my thesis seminar look over a bit of my thesis. I had one week to write a semi-presentable chapter, which meant I spent almost every waking moment doing some kind of reading, either for the thesis or my other classes. Plus, I had a psychology exam on Monday, so I had to study for that as well. All in all, this all means I had to neglect my blog, which is sad since I have a lovely story to report.

For months, I felt like my level of Russian had stagnated. I was not getting worse, but I did not feel as I was improving, either. This changed after the academic year started. I’m taking fourth-year Russian (I skipped third year) and I understand everything my Russian professor says. I can usually express my ideas relatively well (I sometimes make mistakes or do not know words). And that’s really nice because I feel like everything is finally coming together. I have spent a lot of time learning Russian and seeing this kind of progress makes me very happy.

I have had two real conversations with my professor in Russian (class does not count as a proper conversation, in my opinion). My professor is a well-educated native speaker, so his Russian is impeccable. On Friday, I was talking to him after class and we talked about cell phones. Today, he asked me about the Russian class I took when I studied abroad. I spoke and listened and understood, just like a proper conversation in English.

In other news, it is very nice being back at my US university. I have spent the past weeks reuniting with all my friends and professors who I missed during my year abroad. I’ve gotten involved with the study abroad office in assisting students in choosing study abroad programs.

Now if only I had a bit of spare time to read some Russian literature, everything would really be perfect…

Want to Learn Russian Grammar?

If so, then go read this post about the instrumental case over on Transparent Language’s Russian blog. (Disclaimer: I wrote it.)

Shameless Promotion

If you’re learning Russian and want to learn more about the instrumental case, go read this. I wrote it.