The importance of noun declension in practice

Discussion in 'Русский (Russian)' started by Erick404, Aug 6, 2014.

  1. Erick404 Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro
    Portuguese - Brazil
    When we first learn about the concept of case inflections, it is usually said that they allow free word order and fewer prepositions. But sometimes it sounds as misleading advertisement :D

    I'm still learning basic Russian, so my perception of the language is certainly limited. Still, I'm not sure if the word order in Russian is much freer than in romance languages, which don't have case inflections at all. As for the prepositions, while genitive and dative are worth one each (and perhaps so is instrumental), you have to know which preposition takes which case (or cases, and with which meaning!). This makes learning prepositions harder. There is also the matter of have irregular declensions, like мост/мосту, or sometimes unpredictable syllable stress shift, like вода/воду.

    For comparison, when I learned Latin, the case system seemed more useful, because the word order actually seemed pretty loose (but granted, we have no idea how it was with colloquial spoken Latin). Latin prepositions could take the accusative or ablative, which is an extra difficulty, but much less so than the 5 oblique cases in Russian.

    And some more practical arguments:

    I'm a bit surprised about the relatively large number of undeclinable nouns in Russian. Do they cause any confusion in practice, or is the context always enough to disambiguate? I suppose they aren't a problem most of the time, or else people would decline/adapt them.

    I've also seen people here in these forums say that when they read/hear words not declined correctly, usually they can still understand the meaning.

    That being said, how important is nominal declension in practice?
     
  2. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    (1) The case system is not something developed to provide the free word order: in contrast, its existence has made possible the less constrained sentence structure.

    (2) The word order is pretty free in the speech.

    (3) The case (and gender) agreement makes possible longer and more complex sentences than in languages like English: the entire modern chopped scientific style is a direct result of the lack of flexibility in this aspect of the English syntax.

    (4) The number of indeclinable nouns to me seems to be pretty limited: the vast majority of them (except maybe кофе, радио etc.) are rare in the real life. They existence is of course the mistake of the language codifiers in the 18–19th centuries, who were too shy to modify the final elements of the French borrowings.

    (5) Of course, the nominal declnsion is the core of the Russian grammar: you will absolutely be unable to communicate without it.

    I suggest you to ask on the parallel Slavic forum the opinion of Bulgarian and Macedonian speakers: their languages have lost the declension and they may experience similar troubles when dealing with other Slavic languages: the words for them may sound similar, but they experience strange modifications of doubtful usefulness.
     
  3. Словеса Senior Member

    Русский
    No, they are not, but still some "undeclinable" words are often enough declined by people, mostly in lower social contexts. That is a natural tendency to consistency; it is betrayed when other kinds of consistency are achieved – for example, all surnames on -енко are not declined in contemporary Russian (declining them sounds as something Ukrainian to me, though I may very well be mistaken on this account).
    Mistakes happen only as the result of the editing process: I edited one word, but forgot to edit another word. Since we do some "editing" to spoken words as well (while we think them out), it may happen both in writing and in speech. These mistakes sound very weird, you need to avoid them at all costs, sorry. It is no better than using a wrong preposition in a language like Portuguese.
     
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
  4. Maroseika Moderator

    Moscow
    Russian
    You touched upon the broad and almost bottomless theme, so I'd suggest to confine ourselves in this thread to the importance (necessity) of nound eclension (according to the thread title), and other themes, like undeclined and "irrgualar" nouns can be discussed in the separate threads.

    Of course, declension is very important in practice, and to the great extent - because of the free order of words in Russian. By the way, free order doesn't presume that sense doesn't change with order. In most cases word order defines very thin sense nuances, and free word order is just a useful instrument for that.

    As for the understanding texts with the nouns left in Nominal, this is really possible in some (even many) cases, especially when the word order is "neutral", i.e. SVO (subject-verb-object). But if we change it to OVS, it's not so evident:
    Мама мыла раму. = Раму мыла мама.
    The first sentence is neutral (SVO), in the second one semantic stress is on рама.
    But what can mean Рама мыла мама? How you can guess what is the object and what is the subject? In the languages with the fixed word order we know this just from the place of the word. But in Russian it's different.
     
  5. Словеса Senior Member

    Русский
    Well, in phrases like "«Запорожец» обогнал «Мерседес»" we usually can know the meaning from the context. It is enough for our purposes.
     
  6. Maroseika Moderator

    Moscow
    Russian
    Sure, and exactly like in "Рама мыла мама", because we know who can wash who. But in <"Динамо" обыграло "Торпедо"> our only support is presumption of SVO, otherwise misunderstanding is quite possible.
     
  7. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    This example clearly shows the difficulties that arise when the case distinctions don't work.
     
  8. Словеса Senior Member

    Русский
    Well, it is the same: if we know from the following text that Torpedo fans celebrated the success, then we know the winner. Also, when spoken, the tone of the voice may tell the winner (jokes aside: I mean that intonation may tell the subject of the sentence).
     
  9. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    It can't: the intonation is only able to emphasize which word is the message, leaving you to decide yourself, whether the subject or the object was meant.
     
  10. Maroseika Moderator

    Moscow
    Russian
    Sure, context and intination help a lot. But when the nouns are declined perception becomes lighter. And if you are not a professional finansist, what would you say who is who in:
    В современном финансовом обороте репо потеснило депо.
     
  11. layman_linguist Junior Member

    Russian
    The word order in written texts is much more rigid than in spoken speech. Written phrases are supposed to follow the default word order (basis - comment) and to be pronounced with the default intonation (nucleus on the last stressed syllable in the comment part). Real-life phrases needn't be like that and often are not like that.
    The number of indeclinable nouns is on the increase, I admit, but their percentage in any text remains low. More often than not the context unambiguously determines the grammatical case of the nouns. If not, there ways to disambiguate (for example, declining the indeclinable: the resulting word form sounds funny but is readily understood).
    If you do not decline your nouns speaking Russian
    - Russian speakers will still understand you, at least most of the time,
    - some will try not to laugh at the things 'the funny foreigner' utters, others will not.
     
  12. Словеса Senior Member

    Русский
    Right, it cannot tell the subject from the object in general (I was wrong). But it can do it in a particular situation, helped with other details, provided by the context. In many ways, as it is very variative.
    This argument is said often, but it depends on the hidden assumption that word order must follow a number of rules that never change what they depend on. This is not true: you can well use one fixed order in case of an ambiguity, but another order otherwise. This topic is broader than just Russian, though.
    I think that even if they were declined, I would not understand the sense. I am not contradicting that declination helps, just it is not inherently necessary.
     
  13. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    The more grammatically autonomous the words are, the more flexible combinations of them are possible. Look at what is called the English poetry in comparison with the poetries in synthetic languages. «Я тебя в твоей не знала славе».
     
  14. Drink Senior Member

    New England
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    People tend not to like indeclinable nouns, and actually many of the of the common "indeclinable" nouns are often declined anyway in colloquial speech:

    - to play the piano: играть на пианино (correct undeclined form), играть на пианине (colloquial declined form)

    or at least receive a declinable diminutive suffix:

    - to pour some coffee: налить кофе (undeclined form), налить кофейку (declined diminutive suffix; the nominative case would be "кофеёк", but it is much more rarely used)
     
  15. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Germany
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    Stress is really difficult to predict and there have been numerous cases of stress shift. Here I agree with you.
    However, мост/ на мосту (Prepositive case) isn't really irregular - it's like the Latin locative form "Romae", only that locative endings are (at least as far all I know) somewhat more frequent in Russian than in Latin. They usually concern one-syllable words of masculine gender (and consonantic endings) and used as particular Prepositive case ending with the prepositions на & в. There are also some Partitive case endings (subdivision of the Genitive case) that also concern words of masculine gender with consonantic endings in the Nominative, and some isolated Vocative forms (usually in liturgic context).

    Yes, some prepositions take different cases depending on the meaning, but that's not really an extra difficulty - Latin and Russian are both rather consistent in this. After all, classical Latin also had 5 oblique cases and remnants of Locative.
    I think you are confused only because it's all new to you and because Portuguese and Russian aren't related as closely as Portuguese and Latin.

    How important? Well, it's as important as verbal conjugation in old Portuguese - mind you, not the somewhat arbitrary conjugation of some contemporary Brazilian dialects, but the hard old six-forms paradigm for every tense and mood (except imperative, of course).
     
  16. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Germany
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    In this case, you have to assume that one form is the accusative of either Рам or мам.:D
     
  17. Erick404 Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro
    Portuguese - Brazil
    Thank you for everyone, the answers were very clarifying.

    This is very interesting, I hadn't thought from this point of view. So, in research papers written in Russian, is it common to find longer, more complex sentences that still feel precise?

    I agree, the case system makes things clearer. But I feel there are some "gaps": for example, what about 3rd declension nouns, which have the same singular form for nominative and accusative? And another shared by genitive, dative and prepositional?
     
  18. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    Oh, yes, when translating into English virtually any Russian scientific text one always has to split and repackage the Russian sentences. Plus, Russian puts no limits on the amount of consequent Genitives, which in English produce ugly sequences of ofs. Plus, the scientific Russian uses the Passive constructions when the English doesn't and vice versa.

    These are tragic consequences of phonetic developments. Two millennia ago the Nominative and Accusative were different in all non-neuter nouns. The Genitive, Dative and Prepositional merged around 1000 years ago: in the Old East Slavic their -i caused different pitch accent and different position of it in different cases (preserved in the distinction ночи — в ночи). On an earlier stage, these case forms were completely different, e. g. the reconstructed earlier Proto-Slavic declension of ночь: Nom. Sg. naktiṣ, Gen. Sg. nakteiṣ, Dat. Sg. naktei, Acc. Sg. naktin, Instr. Sg. naktijān, Loc. Sg. naktēi, Voc. Sg. naktei; Nom. Pl. naktejes, Gen. Pl. naktijan, Dat. Pl. naktimuṣ, Acc. Pl. naktins, Instr. Pl. naktimīṣ, Loc. Pl. naktiṣu; Nom. Du. naktī, Gen. Du. naktijau, Dat. Du. naktimō.
     
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
  19. Maroseika Moderator

    Moscow
    Russian
    The more is the signal redundancy, the less are the losses of information. Even with coincidence of some forms declention facilitates perception. But in some cases speakers and writers really have to resort to paraphrasing to avoid ambiguity.
     
  20. Erick404 Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro
    Portuguese - Brazil
    Good point, I have thought about that before posting. Even being a speaker of some contemporary Brazilian dialect :rolleyes:, I feel that we are much more used to certain verbal inflections than we actually need them.

    We don't drop our subjects as often as we could, so person agreement is usually redundant. Differing perfect from imperfect seems useful at first, but after talking with foreigners who chose the wrong tense, I realized that most of the time context makes the intended meaning clear anyway. Same goes for the distinction between indicative and subjunctive.

    Of course, there are times when the wrong tense makes a sentence irrefutably ambiguous or very hard to understand, but they are a minority. I thought that perhaps the same happened with Russian cases.

    In other words: I don't question if you could speak Russian without declensions. I'm sure you can't. I'm rather asking if not declining nouns would be a impediment most of the time or just on occasion.
     
  21. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    This is a paper I translated into English for a colleague a couple of years ago (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B_7IkEzr9hyJMjJfZFhURzRmRFU/edit?usp=sharing) and I can assure the sentences here are twice or thrice shorter than in the original Russian text.
     
  22. Drink Senior Member

    New England
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    As an example of what Russian would be like if it lost its case system you could look at Bulgarian. Bulgarian is also a Slavic language, but it has mostly lost its case system, and it is still a fully functioning language (much like Portuguese, I guess). But as a result, it is much easier for a Russian speaker to learn Bulgarian than it is for a Bulgarian speaker to learn Russian.
     
  23. FairOaks Junior Member

    Sofia
    Bulgarian
    I sometimes doubt that.


    My observations are somewhat different to yours (if we may call something that's come right out of your a… awareness "observations").
     
  24. mean machine New Member

    Russian
    "That being said, how important is nominal declension in practice?"

    As others have already mentioned here, you'll be understood by native speakers if you don't use declension.

    But there's a 'but' – avoiding declension or using wrong inflections will definitely have the people you're talking to make extra effort understanding you, even though they will be successful at that most of the time. Perhaps this is a bit similar to speaking English with a thick accent – yes, people will be able to understand you, but, sadly, they won't really enjoy talking to you.

    As to the practicality of the declension, I concur with ahvalj in that it allows for greater flexibility of the Russian language when in comes to poetry or other similarly heightened regions of thought. That is a fine point, though, and it can be only truly appreciated once you've reached proficiency in Russian.
     
  25. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Germany
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    Look at the tenses and moods in Bulgarian - they more than compensate for the lack of declension.
     
  26. Drink Senior Member

    New England
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    Yes, but we're discussing nouns here.
     
  27. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Germany
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    I was addressing a very precise statement of yours.
     
  28. Drink Senior Member

    New England
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    I think learning cases coming from a mostly caseless language is harder than learning more moods and tenses coming from a language that has moods and tenses, albeit fewer of them.
     
  29. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    Which way? They belong to different parts of the grammar.
     
  30. Словеса Senior Member

    Русский
    They provide more context and more meaning for sentences, thus compensating for lacking meaning not provided by declensions. The key word is 'functioning language'.
     
  31. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    The discussion starts to become an illustration to the joke «умные — направо, красивые — налево». If I understand right, the topic question was not whether deficiencies in one aspect of the grammar are compensated by advantages in another.
     
  32. Словеса Senior Member

    Русский
    However, you asked exactly this question.
     
  33. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    I meant it to be a rhetoric question.
     
  34. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Germany
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    Nope. It very much depends not on the number of cases or tenses (although that may be a problem if they are really many) but on the conceptual differences in tense, mood, aspect etc. E. g. it matters little whether a language has five or six cases because the basic concept is the same. However, from what I've gathered, Bulgarian does has tenses and moods that (most of the) other Slavic languages did abandon at some stage of their evolution (aorist, imperfect etc, plusquamperfect etc.). Bulgarian even has a mood that none of the other Slavic languages ever developed: the Renarrative mood.
    Another thing is that while the tenses or moods may be the same or very similar morphologically, they may be used in very different way, which may amount to another conceptual difference. Ergo, the relative simplicity or difficulty mostly depends on whether the concept is easy to grasp and apply.

    Exactly. Simplicity in one part of grammar is compensated by extreme difficulty in another grammatical area, and vice versa. As Словеса says, the difficulty resides not so much in the number of forms to learn by heart (although that may also be a problem), but in the functions those forms have. I could discuss the niceties of the different use of morphologically similar or identical phenomena i Romance languages that are used in very different ways, but that would be too much off topic here.
     
  35. ahvalj

    ahvalj Senior Member

    I don't think we can seriously speak of any kind of compensation when a decay in some parts of the grammar is overweighted by a greater development in the others. I can provide examples of languages where both the noun and verb are grammatically poor (most Germanic ones, since the Plusquamperfect and Future in the Past are used for agreement purposes, and the distinction between the Preterite and Perfect is largely stylistic) and of those where both the noun and verb are rich (e. g. Turkic languages). The richness or poorness (both grammatical, in the amount of categories, and morphological, in the complexity of formation) are governed by some inertia in the language development, which is yet to be understood, and as I suspect lies not far in the human brain from forces causing the changes in fashion.
     
  36. Словеса Senior Member

    Русский
    I did not say that… I referred to functional completeness of a language: if it can pack enough meaning in a spoken sentence (the lesser part of what is to say), so that the rest is understood by the listeners for themselves (always the greater part), then the language is "fully functioning", and those "deficiencies" may indeed be said to be compensated by those "advantages" (in relation to this language exactly).
     
  37. FairOaks Junior Member

    Sofia
    Bulgarian
    Declension is more often used in ordinary sentences and, as a principle, is heavily codified by grammarians, whereas verbs have always been a grey area, which leads to loose, sometimes ridiculously incorrect interpretations by some speakers and general overwhelming confusion (on the other hand, I doubt there's many a normal Russian who
    mixes up cases, e.g. the dative instead of the genitive, the nominative instead of the accusative, etc.). Most of the time, a simple sentence consists of one predicative and a lot of other words, most of which are declinable in synthetic languages (e.g. "On the next day, John did something awful to his obedient wife in their overgrown garden"). In addition, I had the temerity to use the last sentence written by Словеса in order to compare the ratio of declension (marked in red) to conjugation (marked in blue):
    Imagine that translated into Russian almost word for word. Mistakes of the first type would stand out, whereas mistakes of the second one… not so much.

    As for Russians, when they speak Bulgarian, at one moment, they sound uncertain of what exactly they did on a particular occasion even though they were there in full consciousness; at another, they speak as if they were eyewitnesses to something which happened on the other side of the world.
     
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2014
  38. Словеса Senior Member

    Русский
    When talking about the use of declensions, the only point is nominative vs. accusative (or ergative vs. absolutive…): for the rest, you could not say that English does not really decline its nouns: I mean, what are those words in red doing?
    That's the point: it cannot be imagined this way. We speak and translate not grammatical categories, but languages. To know which way the language could be worse it is not enough to know which grammatical categories (units of sense that anyone is obliged to convey) it has, and which morphologic and syntactic means it has to express them. What we have to say is not classified into two cans with no interaction between them (things in one can, relations among them in the other can), so verbal categories and nominal categories may indeed affect each other: first, by providing the context, second, by fulfilling expectations on (I am not saying now "occupying") the bandwidth, thus putting into work imagination.
     
  39. Awwal12 Senior Member

    Moscow, the RF
    Russian
    People usually misuse the phrase "free word order". The word order in Russian is flexible indeed, but "free" may imply it doesn't matter - and it's no way so. Even if we let some obviously impossible cases alone (like putting a preposition after the word, or something like that) - one cannot just change the word order and get the sentence with the identical meaning. In some cases word order signifies emphases; in other cases - even such more important things as rhemes (that's how that "free" word order partly compensates the absense of the English definite/indefinite articles).
     
  40. FairOaks Junior Member

    Sofia
    Bulgarian
    English doesn't, but Russian does! Which means that, if you want to say a similar sentence in Russian, you have to decline all the shit in red (and still conjugate the verbs in blue—even more so than in English).
    The words you have marked in red are called prepositions (as you rather well know) and one uses them when speaking Russian, too. The difference is one has to decline everything that comes after them (e.g. «на следующий день»; «в заросшем саду»).

    (...)

    Adjectives, numerals, nouns, pronouns and articles (declinable stuff) occur more frequently than conjugation (connected with verbs only). That was my main point. You somehow managed to overlook it. If I were to say that it was harder to catch a mistake in the use of exclamations (merely because they are so scarcely found), would you still disagree?
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 9, 2014
  41. Awwal12 Senior Member

    Moscow, the RF
    Russian
    The Russian prepositions are quite polysemantic (or homonymous, depending on how you define words). В and на, for instance, can pe prepositions of both place and direction, and it's a good idea to distinguish them - but the only way is the use of cases. "С" can has several totally unrelated meanings as well ("together with", "from the surface of smth", "quantified approximately as" etc.). It's difficult to call the use of cases excessive here, if you meant that.
     
  42. Drink Senior Member

    New England
    English - New England, Russian - Moscow
    Hebrew, for example, has a preposition (את) for direct objects (although it is only used when the direct object is definite).
     
  43. Unreadable Junior Member

    Russian
    Not necessarily masculine gender, though. It could be nouns of feminine gender and 3rd declension such as дверь or ночь: "о две́ри" (prepositive) vs. "в двери́" (locative), or "о но́чи" (prepositive) vs. "в ночи́" (locative).
     
  44. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Germany
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    The soft sign is not a consonant, for spelling & grammar purposes.
     
  45. Unreadable Junior Member

    Russian
    True, I was talking about gender only. Although, phonetically speaking, "рь" in "дверь" is a single sound, and "чь" in "ночь" is the same as "ч" in "мяч".
     
  46. Angelo di fuoco Senior Member

    Germany
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual
    The soft sign indicates that the presence of a vowel in its place at some stage of the evolution of the word/language. True in 99 % of the cases.
     
  47. Awwal12 Senior Member

    Moscow, the RF
    Russian
    You bet, the only thing is that its absense doesn't signify the historical absense of the same vowel.
    In Old Russian плач and меч sounded (and were written) as плачь and мечь as well...
     
  48. Linguoman Senior Member

    Russia
    Russian - Russia
    It is an interesting statement. Could you explain it in more details?
    Specifically, I do not exactly understand what you meant by "they speak as if they were eyewitnesses to something which happened on the other side of the world" and why you think so.
     
  49. rusita preciosa

    rusita preciosa Modus forendi

    USA (Φιλαδέλφεια)
    Russian (Moscow)
    Mod Note:
    I would like to steer the discussion back to the original topic, which is
    the importance of noun declension in practice. Please feel free to open a new thread if you would like to discuss other topics.
     
  50. Unreadable Junior Member

    Russian
    Also, the meaning of "from the surface of" doesn't have to be literal, as in "брать пример с кого-либо". You don't actually take an example off somebody's surface here.
     

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