Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

03 Jul 2001, 12:35 p.m.

Dude, Where's My Dignity?

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

More seriously, right now I want to note some rather trite-seeming (to me) observations that I have made whilst studying Russian here in St. Petersburg, and before. And a shout-out to Sean and Cinzia, who are classmates of mine back in the States, and who are also in Russia right now.

Neuter. There are three singular genders in Russian: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Mostly the categorization depends on the ending of the word. Karandash (pencil) is a classic masculine word, ending in a consonant. Ruchka (pen) is a classic feminine word, ending in "a" (although words ending in "ya" and a soft-sign, or myakii znak, almost always are feminine as well). Moloko is textbook neuter, ending in "o" or "ye." There are other rules and exceptions that mostly annoy me.

Any regular conversation in Russian forces you to do certain things differently depending on your gender. A female has to use different forms of verbs in the past tense, for example (usually add "a" to the end of them). But, if I were writing in Russian, and I wanted to hide my gender and show that I was hiding my gender, I could use the neuter when I had to refer to my own sex. I couldn't do that in, say, French.

Process v. Product. Imperfective v. Perfective, respectively. There are completely different verbs to refer to process and product in many cases. And native speakers don't even think about which one to use. "I was buying" is different from "I bought." "I will be buying" is different from "I will buy." And there is no perfective present tense. And there's no present tense for "to be."

The difference between "I was buying" and "I bought" (and the future tense equivalent, mutatis mutandis) reminds me of a typical Indian-American error, if you want to call it an error. Indians in the U.S. often use an imperfective-sounding form when they could, and possibly should, use the perfective. And lots of extra forms of the verb "to be." "If you are being late, be calling me. I will be sleeping for a few hours." And so on.

(Students of Russian, e.g., brainwane, sometimes cheat and use the imperfective future instead of the perfective future, because it's easier to avoid conjugating verbs. Bad students! No biscuit!)

Voluntary and Involuntary Actions. Listen and Watch; See and Hear. All of these are different verbs (respectively, slushat', smotret', videt', slishat'). And that reminds me of an opinion that free-speech types (libertarians?) might believe, which is that you should be able to hear/see everything available, and to watch/listen to only what you like.

First published by Sumana Harihareswara at