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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Joy of Being Indefinite

Кое-, -нибудь, -либо, -то: Prefix and suffixes added to adverbs and pronouns to convey levels of indefiniteness in ways that are universal but highly idiosyncratic, making it almost impossible to categorize them in a meaningful way.

The mind is a wonderful thing. Once you start to master a particular usage in a foreign language, you can’t remember why you had trouble in the first place. It just “sounds right.” But you also can’t remember the rule behind the usage, and you discover that what sounds right to one Russian speaker doesn’t always sound right to the person next to him.

The suffixes -нибудь, -либо and -то are cases in point. The usage rules in grammar books are clear, but hard to apply at first. You add -то to adverbs like как (how), куда (where), почему (why) and pronouns like какой (which) when you are referring to something you don’t know but that is objectively definite or known by someone. Classic examples are statements like: Книга лежит где-то в шкафу (The book is somewhere in the bookcase). That is, I don’t know exactly where it is, but it’s definitely there. Or: Он почему-то опаздывает (For some reason, he’s late). That is, I may not know why he’s late, but he does.

You add -нибудь and -либо when you are speaking of something indefinite and unknown to everyone, or when what’s unknown is of no particular interest to you. Положи книгу куда-нибудь (Put the book anywhere). That is, I don’t give a hoot where you put the darned thing. Я как-нибудь справлюсь (Somehow I’ll manage). That is, no one knows how I’ll get through this, but somehow I will.

At first, I’d have to grimace in concentration to figure out which variety of indefiniteness I wanted to express. Then it got easy. But now I’ve begun to notice that everyday usage is more varied and idiosyncratic than the grammar books would have it. For example, it’s proper to say: Если он почему-нибудь опаздывает, то мы не будем ждать (If for any reason he’s late, we won’t wait). But in my set, no one says that: they’d use почему-то. Or take this: Я что-нибудь принесу (I’ll think of something to bring, but right now I don’t know what). How does that differ from Я что-то принесу? Russians disagree on the meaning of this phrase. Some say it means, “I know what I’ll bring, but I’m not saying.” Others say that here что-то is a colloquialism. A third group thinks, “It just doesn’t sound right.” And a fourth maintains the opposite: “It just sounds right.”

I’ve come to the conclusion that -то is the default indefinite suffix. Like the little black dress, it might not be perfect, but it’s nearly always serviceable.

Кое-как can mean “somehow or other, any old way” and кое-где can mean “here and there, in various places.” But the prefix кое- can also have the neat connotation of “I know, but I’m not telling.” For example: Я кое-что принесу (I’ll bring something, but I’m not saying what). It can indicate the importance of something: Я хочу кое-что тебе сказать (I have something interesting to tell you). Or it can add a bit of intrigue or a frisson of suspense: Кое-кто спросил о тебе (A certain someone asked about you — wink, wink).

The only thing that is definitely clear is that expressing indefiniteness in Russian is definitely an art.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.