Немно́го о языке́ 1.5 Где? Здесь и́ли там?́

Род: Gender of nouns

Denis and Josh looking in the fridge
— А где чай?
— Вот он.
— Где ко́ла?
— Вот она.
— А где пи́во?
— Вот оно.

In English noun gender is related to animacy, meaning that people are grouped separately from things. In English an inanimate noun (an object, place or idea) is an “it.” "She" and "he" are used for people, while “they” can be for either people (animate beings) or inanimate nouns.

In Russian noun gender functions differently. All nouns in Russian belong to one of three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. For nouns that refer to things, the gender of a noun has nothing to do with the meaning of the word. Gender for inanimate nouns is only a grammatical category; it is related to how the word ends in its basic (or “dictionary”) form. Figuring out the gender of most nouns will not be difficult; the table below shows how. When you replace a noun referring to an inanimate object with a pronoun, you will need to use the pronoun (он, она́, оно́) that corresponds to the noun’s grammatical gender.

Generally, when the dictionary form of the noun ends in: then the noun is… and is replaced by the pronoun…

“zero-ending” -- a consonant (including -й)
Masculine он
-а   /  -я Feminine она́
 / /   Neuter оно́

Names of people and nouns referring to people will have gender in Russian, just as other nouns do. Names (like Дени́с or Ната́лья) will have the gender of the person they name: Дени́с = он; Ната́лья = она́.

Since 2015 there's been a lot of discussion in the United States about people and their choice of pronouns. The use of a singular "they/their/theirs" in English when referring to non-binary or gender-non-conforming people has grown considerably. Among non-binary Russian-speakers and queer activists there are also discussions and explorations about what pronouns to use, but no pattern of usage seems to have formed yet. You should work out with your teacher what pronouns will work best for you. Here are a few sites that can provide additional resources about usage:

Упражне́ние 1.

Indicate the gender of each noun by selecting the corresponding pronoun. Refer to the table above if you need a reminder about endings.

«Слова́рная фо́рма» Noticing “dictionary forms”

So far in the story of our students’ arrival in Russia you have encountered most nouns in their dictionary form. Not all new words you see will be in the dictionary form (for example, in the story you may wind up seeing a word in the plural before you see the singular). When you learn new words, it will be important that you know how to “get back to” the dictionary form for any word you know. We will include activities to draw your attention to these different forms.

Use good learning strategies!

Notice how the pronouns match the basic gender endings of nouns: он +ø is masculine, он +а is feminine, он +о is neuter.

Gender and nouns referring to people

Names of people and nouns referring to people will have gender in Russian, just as other nouns do. Names (like Дени́с or Ната́лья) will have the gender of the person they name: Дени́с = он; Ната́лья = она́.

What about the gender of a word like па́па? It ends in an -а, but the fact that it refers to a male determines its gender. Thus there could seem to be a «mismatch» between the noun ending (and what the table suggests might be its gender) and the actual sex of the person the noun refers to. For nouns like папа and a number of nicknames for men and boys (Ва́ня, Ми́ша, Ди́ма, То́ля, Са́ша) that end in -а, you will need to remember that names that refer to men are masculine, and names that refer to women are feminine; it will take you some time before you get to know the names well, so be ready to check if you are not sure.

For some words referring to people, there are both male and female forms of the words. So far you have encountered the following:

For males For females
студе́нт студе́нтка
аспира́нт аспира́нтка
америка́нец америка́нка
спортсме́н спортсме́нка
ру́сский ру́сская

A number of nouns referring to people and their professions, however, exist in only one form:

Он – профе́ссор. Она́ – то́же профе́ссор.

You will work later on professions and nationalities.

Мя́гкие и твёрдые согла́сные

Consider the differences in the sounds made by the letters b, p and n in the following pairs of English words.

beauty book
pew pool
onion nickel

The underlined b, p, n of the words in the first column are all pronounced with the tongue forward and raised toward the hard palate. This makes their pronunciation “palatalized.” In contrast the words in the second column are pronounced with the tongue lower and away from the hard palate.

While English has palatalization, Russian not only has it, but also uses the distinction between palatalized or soft (мя́гкий) consonants and unpalatalized or hard (твёрдый) consonants extensively, and there is greater contrast and movement between the tongue’s position when pronouncing soft and hard consonants.

Listen to the following pairs and compare the difference between these similar-sounding English and Russian words. All of the soft consonants in the Russian words are underlined.

English words ру́сские слова́
net нет (no)
tiger тигр
diploma дипло́м
seat си́то (strainer)
bell бе́лый (white)
pill пил (he drank)
vine вино́ (wine)
fend фен (blow-dryer)
meal ми́ло (kindly)
leak лик (visage)

If you learn Russian as a foreign language, how do you know when to pronounce a consonant hard or soft?  With most consonants the writing system will help you. Look at the vowel immediately after the consonant, which will indicate whether the consonant should be pronounced hard or soft. When a soft consonant has no vowel following it, softness is indicated by writing the soft sign -ь.

Vowels Sign
previous cons. = hard а э о у ы
previous cons. = soft я е ё ю и ь

It is important to make a clear distinction between hard and soft consonants when you pronounce Russian words, since the difference between them is sometimes all that distinguishes one word from another.  Practice the contrast between hard and soft consonants in the following pairs of words.  If you are making the proper distinction by moving your tongue up and forward for the soft consonants and back and lower for the hard consonants, your tongue muscles may feel tired by the end of this exercise. You can check your pronunciation using the recording.

твёрдый Как э́то по-англи́йски? мя́гкий Как э́то по-англи́йски?
был he was бил he hit
да-да yes-yes дя́дя uncle
тот that one тёть auntie!
стал he became сталь steel
лук onion люк manhole
мат checkmate мать mother
мат checkmate мят crumpled
сэр sir сер grey

Now try pronouncing the combination: consonant + ь + vowel.  When you encounter these combinations, pronounce the consonant soft, then a full y glide, and then the vowel sound.

Listen and compare the pronunciation of these pairs of names.

То́ля Ната́лья
Ми́тя Татья́на
мо́ря (of the sea) Ма́рья

There are six consonants in Russian that cannot be paired as hard and soft.  Three of these are always pronounced as hard, and three are always pronounced as soft. They remain hard or soft no matter what letters come after them.

Always hard Always soft
ж щ
ш ч
ц й


Hearing the difference between hard and soft consonants can be challenging, but keep practicing.  You will be more successful if you try to imitate the pronunciation that you hear in the recordings as best you can.

Pick a small chunk of the dialog and copy it into a word processing document. Highlight all the letters that will be pronounced soft.  Then listen to the recording, noticing how the speaker pronounces them.  Then repeat, making sure to push your tongue as far forward and up as you can on those letters.

When practicing pronunciation, just pick a few soft sounds to concentrate on at a time.  Learning to soften т and д and л will go a long way to improving your accent in Russian.