After a tortured start, things seem to be easing up.
Reading Cyrillic has become almost second nature.
You have learned a few snazzy phrases, tried a few apps and can even make small talk to charm the locals.
It’s like you have the ingredients for the Russian language, even if you haven’t really started blending them together yet.
But now you have decided you want to get serious.
And so you come up against the cases, or declension of Russian nouns.
You look through the rules for the endings and do a quick calculation. 6 cases, 3 genders.
But wait! There is singular and plural, too.
That makes 36 possibilities that need to be evaluated each time a noun appears in a sentence.
And you wonder… how in the world will you be able to do this while trying to speak spontaneously?
And that’s not even to mention interpreting and understanding while listening to a Russian speaker.
It seems beguiling that a language needs cases at all. English seems to do just fine without them, right?
What could impel Russians to such a confounding proclivity?!
In this post, we will examine the reasoning behind why Russian cases exist in the first place.
Then, we will break down Russian cases into their most essential parts, raw and stripped-down, and look at how you can gradually cook up your understanding of them to perfection.
Why Russian Has Cases for Differing Usages of Nouns
With the Russian declension of nouns, each word in every sentence serves a specific function. This confers mobility to the words and allows word order to be an indication of the focus or stressed information within a sentence.
To put it another way, because the role of each word is pre-determined, words can be readily rearranged to produce significant changes in meaning or to highlight specific information within a sentence.
By contrast, word order is a grammatical norm in English that follows the sequence Subject-Verb-Object. This reduces the flexibility for emphasis unless more complex or less common structuring is used.
To put it simply, Russian noun cases allow for a greater range of meaning in simpler sentences.
So Are Noun Cases Especially Hard for English Speakers?
In a word… Yes. They are.
Although Old English and Latin use inflection of nouns, Modern English retains a very minimal aspect of this practice.
Those who are linguistically oriented may be interested to know that contemporary English actually has three declensions which we can relate to the Russian ones we will presently see.
Nominative: Subject of the sentence.
Genitive: Indicating possession or relation (“his,” “her,” “their,” “school’s courtyard,” “player’s boots”).
Accusative: Object of the sentence.
But even for these three, with the exception of “s” to show possession, it is only the pronouns that are fundamentally changed. Pronouns are also sometimes repeated over different cases.
“You” occurs as both subject and object. (Ex: “You see” and “I see you.”)
“Your” (which is similar in sound to “you”) occurs in the genitive.
“Her” occurs in the genitive and as object. (Ex: “This is her money” and “I see her.”)
These are just examples, but they are here to demonstrate that while there are sometimes changes based on the role of a word in the sentence in English, these changes tend to be minor and limited.
The effect of this is that English speakers are left relatively unprepared to handle the six noun cases found in Russian.
We can add a list of other circumstantial factors to soothe our egos even further:
- Russian is often taught by native Russian speakers who have learned English. Yes, all the naturally empathetic English speakers who have mastered adequate Russian are busy reinterpreting Pushkin, talking to beautiful Russian women or reveling in vodka and banya at dachas. (You’ll get there, don’t worry!)
- The linguistic terminology is hard! All of a sudden you have to get acquainted with genitive, dative, accusative, etc. and everyone seems to expect you to know what they refer to. All this Latinized nomenclature takes getting used to.
- Gender and plurality complicate things further. These factors seem to not multiply the complexity of the exercise (using and identifying cases correctly) so much as exponentially increase it. Personally, identifying gender for inanimate objects beyond application of the most basic rules (consonant = masculine; а,я = feminine; о,е = neuter) is a task I have long consigned to slow cumulative absorption over many future years.
You could add more excuses to this list, I suppose. But what are we going to do about it? Let’s start with the following…
How to Simplify the Learning Process for Russian Cases
- To think and talk about cases, use identifiers and designations you are comfortable with. “Subject,” “direct object,” “indirect object” will do just fine. If you don’t feel comfortable with these, either, try to remember one example sentence in English of each form.
- Learn one noun case at a time. After you learn the appropriate modifications for each case, practice them for a few days. Try to create different sentences with them. Say them aloud whenever you can. Move on to the next only after the current one starts to feel natural in your thought and speech.
- Remember that, across languages, prepositions do not have word-for-word, absolute translations. While learning the Russian cases in the section below, use the examples to gain intuition about how prepositions and cases operate together. Use the prepositions as identifiers for the cases.
- Ignore plurals and pronouns to start with. But do learn them at the end of each case that you finish. This is simply to regulate the amount of new information that you are dealing with at a time. However, by doing both the pronouns and the plural forms at the end of the case that you have just learned, you learn to associate each with the case structure.
- Forget about gender and concentrate on the endings of nouns. By and large, the declension of nouns is determined more by how a word ends than by its gender. The notable exception is when nouns end with the letter ь. In this case, knowledge of the gender is necessary to make the correct changes. Stick to a few examples and simple words such as площадь (square, feminine), дочь (daughter, feminine), словарь (dictionary, masculine) and учитель (teacher, masculine) until you are ready to expand your vocabulary.
- Practice recognizing and using cases naturally with FluentU videos.
The interactive captions on each video give you important information about each word, including its case, which makes it super easy to learn cases in context.
- The last trick here is going to involve a bit of fudging. You may have noted the similarity between some Russian vowel sounds, such as: ы and и; а and я; у and ю; э and е; о and ё. Declension uses these pairs that have similar sounds. If you neglect the distinction between these pairs for now, you have far fewer rules to learn but a listener will still be able to identify the case you are using.
Now, with no further ado…
The Undercooked, Overly Simplified Guide to Russian Cases
Ready to take a crack at it? Let’s dive right in.
Below is a very basic simplified model for understanding the cases. For now, we are going to stay clear of pronouns and plurals. However, at the end of this overview, we will provide some resources you can use to explore all of the cases in more detail.
Case #1: Nominative (subject of the sentence)
Книга на столе.
(The book is on the table.)
Nothing much to do here! When a noun is the subject of the sentence, it is in its basic form; the one that you will find in the dictionary.
Case #2: Prepositional (location indicated by a preposition)
Книга на столе.
(The book is on the table.)
The word столе here is a noun in the prepositional case. Russian nouns in this case are preceded by prepositions, such as в (in), на (on) and о/об (about).
The noun and preposition together answer the questions о чём? (about what?), о ком? (about whom?) and где? (where?).
For masculine nouns ending with a consonant or ь: Add е to the consonant and replace ь with е.
стол → столе (table), словарь → словаре (dictionary)
For feminine nouns ending with ь: Change ь to и.
площадь → площади (square)
For nouns ending with а or я: Change а/я to е.
книга → книге (book), семья → семье (family)
For nouns ending with о or е: Change о to е; е remains е.
окно → окне (window), море → море (sea)
The only other time when the change is to и rather than е is when a word ends with ия or ие. In this case, the ending will become ии.
здание → здании (building)
Case # 3: Accusative (direct object)
Майк любит Веру. Майк любит суп.
(Mike loves Vera. Mike loves soup.)
Vera and soup are the objects of Mike’s love and nouns here in the accusative case.
These nouns answer the questions что? (what?)—as in, “What does Mike love?”—and кого? (who?).
In Russian, accusative nouns can also answer the question куда? (to where?).
Куда ты идёшь? (Where are you going?)
Я иду в офис. (I am going to the office.)
The word офис is the object, or exists in the accusative state in Russian. Note the implication of moving somewhere in куда? (to where?) as opposed to the static positional aspect of где? (where is/are?).
For feminine nouns ending in ь and inanimate nouns (things) ending with consonants: These remain the same.
площадь → площадь (square), стол → стол (table)
For masculine animate nouns (people, animals) ending in a consonant: Add а or я to the ending.
друг → друга (friend)
For nouns ending in а or я: Change а to у and я to ю.
книга → книгу (book), семья → семью (family)
For nouns ending in о or е: They remain the same.
окно → окно (window), море → море (sea)
Case #4: Genitive (noun indicating possession or relationship)
офис компании, сестра ребенка, его команда
(company’s office, child’s sister, his team)
These examples provide an understanding of how this case can be encountered in both English and Russian.
In Russian, however, the genitive case includes a range of prepositional phrases that imply both a relationship and the lack of one.
Some of these are:
- без — without
- после — after
- около — near
- до — until/ till
- нет — not (lack of)
- от — from
- для — for
- у (есть) — to have (indicating possession)
У can also be negated to indicate a lack of possession.
With all the above prepositions, the word following the preposition is regarded as the possessor and its ending has to be changed to reflect the case.
A relationship can also be expressed without a preposition. This has an equivalent in English phrases with the word “of”:
бутылка вина (bottle of wine)
время урока (time of the lesson)
This case is also used to answer the question откуда? (from where?) using the preposition из (from, with reference to a location from which some movement began).
Though this case appears difficult, it is relatively easy to identify while reading a sentence. Using it may take a little practice but you will gain the satisfaction of building more complex sentences that pack in a larger amount of information.
Masculine nouns ending in consonants or ь: Add а to the consonant and change ь to я.
стол → стола (table), словарь → словаря (dictionary)
Feminine nouns ending with а or я or ь: Replace а with ы or и and replace я and ь with и.
книга → книги (book), семья → семьи (family), площадь → площади (square)
Nouns ending with о or е: Replace о with а; replace е with я.
окно → окна (window), море → моря (sea)
Case #5: Instrumental (implement or agent we use)
Я пишу ручкой.
(I write with a pen.)
The pen in this sentence is a tool used to perform an action and hence it is in the instrumental case.
However, Russian does not stop there.
All uses of “with” in Russian, including those that actually take the preposition с (below) are regarded as being in the instrumental case, including when they refer to people.
Curiously, some positional prepositions are indicators that the following word is in the instrumental case. But by now, you are used to such incongruities and this is another one to just roll your eyes at and accept philosophically.
Prepositions that call for the instrumental case are:
- с — with
- над — above
- под — below
- за — behind
- между — between
- перед — in front of
For nouns ending in a consonant: Add ом to the ending.
стол → столом (table)
For masculine nouns ending in ь: Change ь to ём.
словарь → словарём (dictionary)
For nouns ending in а or я: Change а to ой and я to ёй.
книга → книгой (book), семья → семьёй (family)
For feminine nouns ending in ь: Change ь to ью.
площадь → площадью (square)
For nouns ending in о or е: Change о to ом and е to ем.
окно → окном (window), море → морем (sea)
Case #6: Dative (indirect object)
Я заказал цветы подруге.
(I ordered flowers for my girlfriend.)
Flowers is the direct object in this sentence while girlfriend is the indirect object. Noun cases of this type answer the questions чему? (for what?) and кому? (for whom?).
It also answers the question куда? (to where?) using the preposition к (to or towards) in a subtle distinction from what was mentioned earlier in the case for direct objects.
Note that в and the direct object case (the accusative, #3) are used when an area can be occupied due to the movement. к and the indirect object indicate movement that is merely towards or in the direction of someone or something.
For nouns ending in consonants: Add у to the ending.
стол → столу (table)
For nouns ending in ь: Change ь to ю for masculine nouns and ь to и for feminine nouns.
словарь → словарю (dictionary), площадь → площади (square)
For nouns ending in а or я: Change а/я to е.
книга → книге (book), семья → семье (family)
For nouns ending о or е: Change о to у and е to ю.
окно → окну (window), море → морю (sea)
Great! What’s Next? I’m Raring to Go…
Relax! Take a break!
Watch some Russian cartoons or music videos.
Test yourself and check your understanding.
Try speaking to some Russian speakers; stumble over the sentences and garble the endings of words.
What’s important is to start thinking in Russian using the grammar and syntax you have just learned.
When you are ready to go further, check out the book “Russian in an Easy Way” by Gulnara Useinova to deepen your understanding of cases.
For more information and focused practice, Pa-Russki has a section on cases that includes practice exercises.
Something that may strike you sooner or later, with enough exposure to Russian speakers, is that though complete mastery of these noun cases may be hard, there is an intuitive quality to them that eventually makes the right declension appear at your lips without you having to wrack your brains.
In his book “Impossible Languages,” Andrea Moro identifies fallacies to linear sequencing in syntax as essential to any human language. Noun cases are grammatical structures that encrypt this feature in Russian.
Indeed, it is possible that whatever linguistic organ we possess can be easily persuaded to accept this grammatical element, providing richness and variability of expression!
Vikram John works as an English Teacher in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He aspires to master Russian and disseminate the English copula among Russian speakers.
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