Beginner Russian: Making Sense Of 'To Be'

avatarMille Larsen
5 mins read

I'm going to try out something new, here. I've really only been working on this web site for a few weeks and I'm still finding out what is the best way to go about it. After looking over my web stats, so far, I noticed a trend in which my visits Monday through Friday are much higher than my visits on weekends, and my first thought was to just take a break and only write on weekdays. But instead, I think I will use the weekends to take a break from my target language (this year, Italian) and instead write about something I've already learned.

Today, that means continuing the discussion of "to be" into Russian. This is a very exciting topic for me, because learning Russian meant learning a completely new way to think. You see, the English language uses the verb "to be" for almost everything, but the Russian language almost doesn't use it at all. In fact, the present tense of the verb "to be" is so unused that it completely disappeared from the language over a century ago!

So you're probably wondering how you can say things without using words like am, is, and are — at first, I was too! — but it turns out that it's not really that hard.

Not to be?

First, take responsibility. In the Russian language, nouns are far more directly responsible for their actions. (By contrast, English is weak and passive!) So when we would say "the game is over", Russians would say "the game ended", or «закончилась игра». And if you ask a Russian how to say "I am thirsty", they will tell you «мне хочется пить», or "I want to drink". (Note, a word for "thirsty" does exist in Russian. It just goes unused!)

Along the same lines, stop using that passive progressive tense with the gerund. This is more comfortable to people who have already learned another language, but it's definitely important in Russian. Where we say "the water is boiling", Russians say «кипит вода», "the water boils." And instead of saying "he is walking", they say "he walks", or «он идёт.»

Next, understand and use the predicative form of adjectives, and use them appropriately where they belong. The predicative form of an adjective always implies the verb "to be". So if the word голодный means "hungry", using it in the predicative form means "is hungry": «он голоден», or "he is hungry."

Recognizing where there are no verbs at all usually implies the verb "to be". For instance, in saying «он — честный человек», we see the subject form "he" followed by the description "honest person". That dash replaces "to be" in writing, but you can't see a dash when being spoken to, and besides, it won't always be there: «он в комнате», or "he is in the room".

Likewise, a bare adjective without a subject implies "it is". For example, "it is cold" can be stated simply as «холодно», or if you want to say "I am cold" you would say «мне холодно». If something "is difficult to say", you just say «трудно сказать». Now you're not only leaving out "to be", but you're also leaving out "it"!

And then, there are some things that are simply said differently. For instance, you describe where something is located by using the reflexive verb находиться, which more-or-less means "is found", so asking «где находится банк?» is really asking "where does one find the bank?"

Or to be

There are still a few times where it is appropriate to use a verb for "to be". In particular, anywhere that "to be" was implied above, its past and future forms must be explicitly stated. If it's boring in the present, you say «мне скучно», but if it was boring yesterday, you need to say «мне скучно было».

There is also the verb бывать, which means "to be" in a frequent or habitual sense. For instance, you could say «так бывает» to mean "it's like that sometimes".

And then there it that word являться, meaning "to appear", or "to present oneself". This word tends to sound a bit "official", and would probably come off as pompous in casual conversation, but you could say «она является красавецей» to say "she is a beautiful woman."

I'd like to thank jismyname for his comments on yesterday's post, pointing me to a really fascinating artice about E Prime. Today, I also found this page about zero copula, where I learned that Russian is not alone in this phenomenon!