The importance of the case system in Russian (and its relative unimportance in the English language!)

What is declension?

Declension describes the inflection of nouns, pronouns, adjectives, determiners, participles, prepositions, numerals and articles, in addition to their modifiers in languages, inflection meaning a change in form . However, declension does not result in a change to the lexical category of a word – that is, the part of speech it is defined as, such as a noun, or adjective. Although the form of a word may change when declined, generally-speaking it will not differ drastically from the basic form of the word and the meaning of the word will be predictable even if you know just one of a multitude of declensions of that basic form.

The purpose of declension is to mark properties of a word, whether they are ‘relational’ (such as grammatical case, which highlights grammatical relationships between words in sentence), or pertain to a characteristic of a word (such as: number – how many?; person – which grammatical subject is speaking?; gender – what is the ‘natural’ or biological gender of a word, grammatical gender assigned to a word?; or animacy – does the word refer to a living thing from either a factual or grammatical perspective?).

The declension of nouns was a feature of Old English, but was largely lost in modern English, which has only three cases now: the nominative case, which marks the subject of a sentence (e.g. he); the accusative case, which marks the object of a sentence (e.g. him); and the genitive case, which indicates possession or a relationship between two words (e.g. his, or John’s book).

However, unlike many languages for which the case system is a significant feature affecting multiple parts of speech, only the pronouns change form in English. Moreover, English pronouns may possess the same (or a similar) form in another case.

For example:

The nominative case pronoun ‘you’ remains unchanged, whether it is used as a nominative case subject or an accusative case object of a sentence.

‘Your’ (similar to the nominative case pronoun ‘you’) is the genitive case pronoun indicating possession or a relationship.

The genitive case pronoun ‘her’ possesses the same form as the accusative case pronoun.

Genitive case: ‘This is her car.

Accusative case: ‘I spoke to her.’

The limited function of the case system in the English language is part of what makes wrapping one’s head around the Russian case system so challenging for native speakers of English; the terminology simply doesn’t feature prominently in the academic systems of anglophone nations unless English grammar is encountered at degree level.

How should I approach the Russian case system?

There are many ways to develop a solid understanding of the Russian case system that will permit you to progress to the next level and avoid being misunderstood by native speakers of Russian.

1. The linking method

Connect the cases to their primary function. Note that cases may be used in a variety of circumstances beyond their primary function. However, it is much easier to remember the grammatical case required when you create an association between that case and a word which clearly describes its function, rather than use an obscure Latin term.

For example:

Nominative case – the subject

Genitive case – possession or relationship

Dative case – the indirect object

Accusative case – the direct object

Instrumental case – the object by which something is done

Prepositional case – used with certain prepositions

For an even stronger ability to recall the distinction between each case, try creating one example sentence for each case in English.

2. The building blocks method

Commit to learning the functions of a single case (whether that is the nominative , genitive , dative , accusative , instrumental or prepositional case). In the guides I created on this website, the functions of each case are neatly divided by bullet points and I would recommend that you gradually work your way through each of the functions associated with a certain case, refraining from progressing to the next bullet point until you are comfortable that you have a solid grasp of each concept to which you are introduced and you reach the point where you know what changes need to be made to a word in both your written and spoken speech. Once you’ve gotten to grips with the specific endings used to decline words (you’ll find amazing cheat sheets at the end of each guide, or in the Language Study Crib Sheets section here ), you can start to use online resources to test yourself and really commit the knowledge to your long-term memory. For a list of some of the best resources you can use to practise case declension in Russian, check out this article .

2. The language in context method

Leonid Mechik’s Youtube channel is an excellent resource, with videos that take you through a number of sentences and analyse each case used. Try the videoshere,here and here. Unfortunately, the text is in cursive, so you will have to learn that first in order to make sense of what has been written. Read more about Russian cursive here . Another great channel for training yourself to identify Russian cases, or test your knowledge of the Russian case system, is College Russian . You’ll be presented with a dialogue with the corresponding translation in the description of the video and each case is highlighted in a different colour, which makes them easy to pinpoint and brings the text to life. You can find College Russian’s analysis of the cases used in the dialogue they present you withhere and here. The Be Fluent in Russian channel also has a series of videos dedicated to analysing Russian cases in context, which you can find here . There are a few others like this on Youtube from less popular channels, such as this one and this one. Though not based around passages, or dialogues, Anna Cher’s videos take you through many examples to help you wrap your brain around Russian’s case system. Check them out here .

3. The prepositional trigger method

Prepositions are challenging because these tiny words convey a wide range of meanings which are rarely translated literally from one language to another. Each of the guides on this website will clarify precisely which prepositions trigger the use of the case in question and you should pay careful attention to them in order to identify cases when conducting reading exercises. Psst. That means memorising them and understanding when they should be followed by a particular case. You’ll find swathes of Russian prepositions with English translations in my colourful crib sheets, which are located in the Language Study Crib Sheets section here .

If you try out one of the techniques above, let me know how you get on by leaving a message in the comment section below!

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