Here, in the final part of this mini series we’ll examine some components of the Russian language and their functions, learn what questions not to ask (unless you really must) and attempt a conclusion. It may not be what you expect. It certainly wasn’t what I imagined from the outset. I’m still learning, incidentally and these are just my discoveries so far.
The most pointless question that leads (almost) invariably to nowhere is: “Why…?”. Eventually I simply stopped asking it. “Why do I have to learn so many variations of the same words -when one or two will do?”. “Why does Russian incorporate English words, yet completely change their meanings?”, “Why do I have to remember a gender for every object that exists?”. “Why are there ‘rules’ when there are so many exceptions to those rules?”. So it goes, on and on.
Sometimes though, there is an interesting story behind a particular “Why?”. You’ll hear responses such as: “because when Russia opened up to Europe in the 17th Century, many English, French and German words were adopted and familial connections to the German and English Royal families were established. That’s fine.
In many cases though, the answer may be lost to time or require dedicated scholarly research to uncover. If you get a “don’t know” or even (ultimately) a response that makes sense; the fact remains that you will still have to learn how to use and remember that awkward word, phrase or modifier that is causing the problem whether you know its origins or not. so ‘why’ not just get on with that in the first place?
Russian nouns are modified according to a system of 6 “Cases”. Each case lends the noun extra context and meaning. The appropriate case is used according to the nature of the information that needs to be conveyed. Yes, the case system still drives me mad when I stare blankly into it and will drive you mad too.
The Nominative case identifies the subject in question: (who or what).
The Genitive case illustrates ownership, i.e someone’s something.
The Accusative case highlights an object on which an action is being performed.
The Instrumental case is used when referring to a tool/person etc (yes, an ‘instrument’) used to achieve/create something.
The Prepositional case indicates that the ‘thing’ in question is the subject of thought or speech.
All clear, now? Well to spice things up further, the modified nouns are also subject to further ‘declensions’ according to feminine or masculine gender, other masculine, neutral words, and finally: other feminine words.
There are in fact three genders to accommodate in Russian: male, female, and neutral; each requiring their own modifiers, naturally. Whilst such modifications follow a pattern (often changing the last letter of a word for instance), inevitable exceptions suddenly appear to confound our progress! And frankly, you’ll just have to learn them (no point in asking “why?”, remember?).
Then there’s the conjugation of verbs according to past, present, and future tenses (with further modifiers according to whether the tense is simple, perfect, compound etc. I haven’t even touched upon pronouns and formal/informal speech!
Frankly, with the range of mental gymnastics required to output a coherent sentence from an initial idea, it seems a miracle that Russians say anything at all.
What to do? A conclusion
It swiftly became apparent to me that an academic approach to the minutiae of the Russian language would undeniably end in madness. If it works for you that’s great of course, if not then why not consider other approaches? I’ve mentioned it previously; that starting with stock phrases that work and then modifying them to build outwards, seems to engender progress (in my mind at least). If that works then the same approach can be adapted for less common and more specific language: the hard stuff.
Also, any tricks to get words to stick, mentally, are a boon. Singing them, making associations, rhymes, sound-alikes, and more, can be useful according to personal taste. Sometimes the more absurd and ridiculous the better: whatever it takes to make deep impressions in the brain.
It seems, ultimately that the single most desirable characteristic to any success with the Russian language is a sheer, unrelenting, bull-like stubbornness – seemingly beyond all reason. That’s progress – for me at least.