Did you know that October 17th, 2018, was declared the first International Pronouns Day?
Granted, this probably has little to do with grammatical accuracy and much to do with gender identity.
But it did get me thinking about gender neutral pronouns in Russian.
Naturally, I thought of Оно, a gender neutral form of third-person pronouns. You could say that it should be translated as it.
I decided to ask my Russian-speaking friends about the propriety of using this class of pronouns for people.
The shocked silence was followed by both nervous gulps and chortles of laughter.
Dire warnings followed soon after… Apparently, this is an insult beyond the pale to some.
Be warned! Your choice of Russian pronouns is no ordinary faux pas.
Granted, there are so many Russian pronouns, and they often sound so similar! How are you supposed to wrap your head around them all?
I’m here to help you get started.
The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Russian Pronouns
Up Close and Personal: Russian Personal Pronouns
First, let’s take a look at personal pronouns.
I’m going over the basics, but if you want a more in-depth explanation of personal and reflexive Russian pronouns, I recommend Dr. Beard’s page for an engaging explanation complete with interactive exercises.To get you started, here’s a short description of each type:
- Personal pronouns: Pronouns such as я (I), меня (me), он (he) and его (him) are the references we use for people and things. Depending on their location and aspect, they perform different functions in a sentence (similar to the nouns they replace) and therefore, in Russian, they have to be declined according to their case.
- Reflexive pronouns: Себя in Russian, reflexive pronouns in English are the words that include the suffix self (or selves). These’re used when the object of the sentence is the same as the subject. This is necessary in sentences where someone or something performs an action on itself.
- Demonstrative pronouns: Этот and тот are equivalent to “this” and “that” in English. And similar to their usage in English, they indicate something that has been previously mentioned, is known or can be pointed out.
- Possessive pronouns: Мой, твой, его, её indicate mine, yours, his, hers. These determine possession and do away with the distinction between adjective and pronoun, as in my and mine, your and yours, that is present in English. The word свой is used as the adjective when the possessor is already mentioned in the same sentence.
- Interrogative pronouns: Question words such as кто (who) and что (what) are used in a manner similar to their usage in English, in questions and sentences that refer to an unknown entity.
- Indefinite pronouns: Though these are often described with separate classifications in Russian, the English equivalents of все (all) and никто (nobody) fall into one category.
All pronouns have to be declined by case, gender and number.
Now that we can tell this from that, we can focus on ourselves.
The Transcendental Self: Russian Reflexive Pronouns
Could there be a self within myself or yourself that relates to all other selves?
The Russian word for self, себя, refers to each, every and all selves.
If we were to talk about people seeing themselves, we would say:
Я вижу себя. (I see myself.)
Она видит себя. (She sees herself.)
Они видят себя. (They see themselves.)
Wow, that’s easy! You may be thinking that this is just too easy… and you’d be right. Remember that it has to be declined for each case. Luckily, we’re spared the nominative case because Себя can never be the subject of a sentence.
- Nominative (subject of the sentence): None
- Accusative (direct object): себя
- Dative (indirect object): себе
- Genitive (showing possession or relationship): себя
- Instrumental (as an instrument or tool): собой
- Prepositional (about himself or herself): (o) себе
In “Case” We Have to Get Personal: How to Use Russian Pronouns
While most sites prefer to categorize the pronouns according to the person and list them by case, I prefer to accumulate all the pronouns within a case. This produces an intuitive order and correlates each case pronoun to its base form.
Here are a few things to look out for before we dive into each case:
The accusative and genitive cases are similar for all pronouns.
But for the nominative case, where we have оно for the neuter gender and он for masculine, the neuter gender uses the same pronouns as the male gender.
When third-person pronouns are used along with prepositions, add the letter н to the pronoun. For example: у него (genitive case) and про неё (accusative case).
Nominative Case (Subject)
This is the basic form from which pronouns and nouns are introduced before any inflections for case are made.
Examples: Я люблю шоколад (I like chocolate). Они сегодня идут гулять (They are going out today).
Genitive Case (Indicating Relationship)
It may seem surprising that relationship is established by so many different prepositions. In English, relationship is mostly established by using the preposition of or adding ‘s to the end of a noun.
But in other languages, such as Latin and Sanskrit, the genitive is used with a range of prepositions. The best way to identify the genitive case in Russian is by noting the prepositions that mark it. These are: без (without), после (after), около (near), до (until, before), из, от (from), для (for) and у (to have).
The most intuitive use of the genitive may be to indicate possession (for example, “my book”), but in Russian, this is done with the possessive pronouns (thus the translation of “my book” is моя книга).
Because the possessive pronouns coincide with the genitive personal pronouns only in the third person, it’s important to take note of this distinction. This difference between possessive and genitive may be a little difficult to grapple with in English, let alone Russian, which is why it’s a frequently asked question among second language learners.
Examples: У тебя будет встреча? (Do you have a meeting?). Возьмите для меня одно пиво. (Ask for a beer for me.)
|Nominative case||Genitive case||Translation|
Accusative Case (Direct Object)
A quick glance at the pronouns and their translations will tell you that they’re the same as in the genitive case. Examine this in terms of the definitions of each case and it may seem inexplicable, but when you look at examples, the commonality seems more natural. For instance, the genitive case would be “It came from me.” The accusative would be “He sent me.”
Examples: Держи её крепко. (Hold her tightly.) Учитель спрашивал вас. (The teacher asked you.)
|Nominative case||Accusative case||Translation|
Dative Case (Indirect Object)
Recall that the dative case is used in a number of common utterances, such as надо (need), нравится (like) and queries about age.
Examples: Дай ему яблоко. (Give him an apple or Give an apple to him.) Нам не нравится такая музыка. (We do not like this type of music.)
|Nominative case||Dative case||Translation|
Instrumental Case (as the Means or Instrument)
This is another case whose usage is hard to correlate with a definition in English. Once again, the prepositions that adjoin it are the best indicators of when it should be used. These are с (with), над (above), под (below), перед (in front of), за (behind) and между (between).
Examples: Пойдем со мной. (Come with me.) Перед нами остановилась машина. (A car stopped in front of us.)
|Nominative case||Instrumental case||Translation|
Prepositional Case (Nouns Used with Other Prepositions)
Though this case and its name relates to several prepositions, when used for people, it’s most commonly used with о and its variants об and обо (about).
Examples: Иван давно забыл о ней. (Ivan forgot about her a long time ago.) Давай поговорим о тебе. (Let’s talk about you.)
|Nominative case||Prepositional case||Translation|
Давай, пропой мне всё это! (Come on, sing all this for me!)
It may be a while before you can use these pronouns intuitively, but you’re well on your way.
Want to enjoy some wit and bask in the glow of your recently acquired pronoun knowledge? Check out the poem “Моя грамматика” by М. Раскатов.
And if you want to hear Russian pronouns used in real-life conversations for context, watch videos with FluentU!
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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