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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Truly Animated Language

Существительное одушевлённое: animate noun

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The other evening I was listening to a moving but grim radio show about the war years and noticed a grammatically curious thing. A survivor of the Leningrad blockade said: Я видела все эти трупы на улицах ... (I saw all those corpses on the street) and then continued: ... но покойников мы хоронить не могли (but we couldn't bury the deceased). That is, труп (corpse) is an inanimate object, but покойник (the deceased) is animate. So what in Russian is considered grammatically animate (одушевлённый) and inanimate (неодушевлённый)?

It turns out that it is not a simple matter. In fact, one source states, Деление существительных на одушевлённые и неодушевлённые не имеет последовательного логического объяснения (The division of nouns into animate and inanimate does not have a consistent logical explanation). It's not a distinction between things that are alive and things that are not, since plants, trees and flowers are biologically alive but grammatically inanimate. Nor is it a distinction between things that think or move on their own and those that don't; dolls and chess pieces are usually grammatically animate, even though they don't reason or move about -- except in nightmares or fairy tales, that is.

What's definitely animate: people, animals, fish, birds and insects. In the accusative case (when they are direct objects), they are declined as if they were in the genitive: Я видела писателей, коров, журавля, карпов и мух (I saw writers, cows, a crane, carp and flies). Words denoting the deceased are also treated as animate nouns. Я видел утопленника, мертвеца и покойника (I saw a person who drowned, a dead man and the deceased). The exception to this is труп (corpse). Presumably because it is not the person or animal itself, it is declined as if it were inanimate: По дороге я видела труп. Водитель сбил пешехода. (I passed a corpse on the road -- a driver had hit a pedestrian.) Note that пешеход (pedestrian) is animate, despite his sadly inanimate state.

Then there is a category of "humanlike things," which usually get declined as if they were animate objects. This group includes dolls, robots, mythological or magical creatures, court cards, gods and chess pieces. Девочка кормила кукол (The little girl fed her dolls). Я вынул червонного туза и бросил на стол (I took out the ace of hearts and threw it on the table). Однажды в лесу мой дед увидел лешего (Once my grandfather saw a wood goblin in the forest). Он отдал своего ферзя (He sacrificed his queen [in chess]).

Finally, there are things that are animate or inanimate, depending on the speaker. For example, one cookbook tells you, Кальмары нужно резать мелко (Dice the squid), while another tells you, Кальмаров нужно отварить в солёной воде (Boil the squid in salted water). Other prickly and squirmy things from the ocean, like омары (lobsters) and устрицы (oysters), are likewise declined at the cook or diner's discretion.

Вирус (virus), бактерия (bacteria), микроб (microbe), зародыш (fetus) and эмбрион (embryo) would seem to be animate; they certainly are alive and move on their own. Some people decline them like animate objects accordingly, but if you want to decline them as inanimate, no one will correct you.

On the other hand, words that describe a group of people or living things are grammatically inanimate. So народ (people, nation), толпа (crowd), стая (flock, school, pack) and стадо (herd) are declined like other nonliving objects.

Go figure. In Russian, grammar and biology are birds of a different feather.

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