A Swiss in Petersburg and some difficulties of the Russian language

Daily Russian lessons with Tatjana

Tatjana has written educational books for Russian. One of them is the Учебник Уровень B1, edited by Slatoust or Златоуст. We meet daily, in my first week for 3 hours and then for 1.5 hours to work on the gerund, the aspects, the verbs of movement and more. I enjoy trying to improve my grammar systematically, as I am often cheating my way around the aspects and verbs of movement counting on the fact that the Russians are generous and understand what I am trying to say. And going back to the level of thinking before talking is painful, yet useful, if I want to bring the command of the Russian language to a next level.

Here are two lessons learnt.

Where Russians meet Bern – “two” has a gender

Ernst was from Bern and he differentiated “two” by gender: “zwo Froui” (two women – feminine), “zwee Manne” (two men – masculine) and “zwoi Müsli” (two little mice – neuter). This is where the dialect of Bern and the Russian language meet: Also the Russians differentiate “two” or “dva/dve” by gender: две женщины (feminine) and два мужчины (masculine) – neuter does not exist in Russian. I am from Basel and we just say “zwai”, the Germans say “zwei” and the Anglosaxons use “two” without considering the gender.

What I find particularly confusing is that in Bern “zwo” to me sounds masculine (but it is used for the feminine gender) and “два” in Russian sounds feminine (but it is used for the masculine gender). Hence I am always confused in Bern and in Russia. Tatjana has never heard about this similarity between Bern and Russia – and now spends some time to practice две and два to get it automatically wired in my brain, despite the fact that “dva” sounds feminine, but is masculine.

Gerund or Деепричастия

The Russians know an adverbial construction that is similar to the gerund – the деепричастия. Using them, the Russians characterize an action (i.e. they are similar to an adverb) and, at the same time, this gerund behaves like a verb: it comes in the two aspects (complete and incomplete or совершенный and несовершенный вид) and it can command an object. In general verbs of the incomplete aspect form their gerund on “ja/a” or  “я/а” and verbs of the complete aspect form it on “v/vschi” or “в/вши” (the latter derived from the past tense):

  • читая – прочитав, говоря – сказав, крича –  крикнув, улыбаясь – улыбнувшись

but as always in Russian, there are exceptions:

  • идя – придя, неся – принеся or total exceptions like будучи and едучи – or verbs that do not allow to form a gerund at all like бежать and ездить.

The gerund characterizes an action (how, why, when, if, despite) whereby this second  action can take place at the same time, repeatedly or the action is canceled (incomplete aspect) or earlier and the result is still true (complete aspect). And this is, where it becomes difficult for non slawics like me:

  • Он приготовил обед, слушая радиои = he prepared lunch AND listened to the radio.
  • Он приготовил обед, послушав радио = he prepared lunch AFTER having listened to the radio.

The difference may look small for us, but it is huge for Russians.

There are also fixed expressions based on these gerunds, like честно говоря (honestly or ehrlich gesagt), взяв за основу (based upon), закатав рукава (tucking up the sleeves or die Ärmel hochkrempelnd) or не мудрствая (directly said or ohne Umschweife).

Some conjunctions are also based on the gerund like хотя or несмотря на (despite).

Slatoust has written a whole book about the gerund, but it is currently not available.

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