Saturday, April 29, 2006

Grammatical gender

I have always been a little lazy about memorizing noun genders in foreign languages. In French I could sort of get away with it, since there are only two genders and I learned the language slowly enough that I picked a lot up without having to resort to formal memorization. (The horror!) By the time I got to my fourth semester of German, the refusal to memorize was seriously catching up to me -- I knew my noun and adjective endings fairly well, but with only a 1 in 3 chance of guessing the correct gender, I often did poorly on tests.

Fast forward to my first semester of Russian, by which time I had finally figured out that if I just added a wee bit of daily memorization time to my language study, thing would go much better in the long run. I had my 101 textbook and was browsing through the vocabulary list at the end of the chapter, when I noticed that the gender of the nouns was not indicated in any way. Knowing full well that Russian nouns have three grammatical genders, plus plural, I mentally cursed the ineptness of the textbook writers in omitting this crucial piece of information in the vocabularly lists. Assuming that this problem was rectified in the index, I flipped to end of the book. Again, no gender.

Now more confused than anything, I carefully perused the first chapter of the book, wondering what the authors could say to justify their decision to ignore a crucial piece of grammatical data. I finally found a short paragraph on noun gender, and I read it through, then carefully read it again, half relieved and half annoyed. ("What is this, Esperanto?") The writers of this particular textbook had elected not to mark noun gender, because determining noun gender in Russian is insanely easy.

For the benefit of Optimistic:

1. If a noun ends in a consonant (including й), it's masculine.

2. If a noun ends in -а or -я, it's feminine.

3. If a noun ends in -е, -о or -ё, it's neuter.

4. If a noun ends in -ь, it can be either masculine or feminine. (These ones you just have to memorize.)

There are a few exceptions, but these 4 rules will cover 99% of the cases that you'll ever run into. Exceptions include some nicknames and diminuitives which look feminine (and decline like feminine nouns) but are considered masculine (and take masculine adjectives, past participles, pronouns, etc.). Also, there's a weird class of nouns which end in -мя, but are actually neuter. (And they have funky declensions.) Most of the time, though, Russian noun genders are the easiest thing I've seen in I-E (besides English).

Today's word:
авангард - avant-garde

Russian borrows a lot of words from French, more so than from any other language, save English. (And sometimes it's hard to say exactly where the word came from, since English has also borrowed heavily from French.) If you know French, it can be a bit confusing that the Russian cognate may have a different gender from the original French word. (Avant-garde is feminine in French, but авангард is masculine in Russian, as it ends in a consonant.)


Post a Comment

<< Home