Beginner Russian: Making Sense Of 'To Be'

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!

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Здравствуйте,
    When I first started to learn Russian, this was one of the things that really popped out to me, now I love it!
    It just makes things so simple, and a verb can mean so much in Russian where as in English you could say it in so many ways (he walks, he is walking, etc).
    I think this is one of the reasons I absolutely love learning Russian.

  • I agree. It's one of the many things that add up to make Russian my favorite of all languages. (Or at least the favorite of those I've experienced so far!)

  • And to think that some people never get started with Russian because it's 'too hard'.. Man, they're missing out!

  • No language is "hard". That's the first thing to remember. It may be different from our own, but how many hundreds of millions of people grow up learning Russian just the same as we learn English? Was it really so hard for them?

  • Yeah, sure, some languages are very different, but that shouldn't make it any more difficult. You just gotta get used to how it's different. I know that when I learned English, I didn’t consider it hard at all, it just took time and some hard work. ;)

  • Not to rush anything (I know it's only March), but have you thought about what next year's language might be? Just wondering.

  • I have a "short list" of languages I would really like to know fluently: Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and Arabic. I live in Chicago where there are almost as many Polish people as in Warsaw, so motivation is high there. And since I have Lithuanian roots, I also have strong motivation to learn that language. So I feel a strong sense that next year's language will be either Polish or Lithuanian.

  • Wow, that's really interesting. I never knew about this Lithuanian side of yours. Do you know which part of the country your roots are from? (I am Lithuanian.)

  • I think I must challenge that. Languages can be as hard as hard can be. Look at Tsez, for example: it is said to have over 60 cases and sounds which are nearly impossible to learn unless you're a native speaker (you should really hear it). Russian too is pretty hard. They're all still learnable, though.

  • No, I really don't know much about it. My great great-grandparents came over from Lithuania, and most of the information about that has been lost. But their traditions have lived on through the family.
    There is a baltic bakery here in town where I go to buy Lithuanian rye bread. Everyone in that neighborhood is Polish, as are most of the employees, but the owner is Lithuanian and whenever I walk in she starts talking to me in Lithuanian... so I assume this means the genes are strong enough in me that someone else can recognize it. :-)

  • Hey thank you a LOT! It is really helpful to know this things, I tried to learn russian in internet cause nobody teaches russian in my city (I even doubt there any russians living in my city) so grammar was always something very confusing to me. Now I finally understand it a little bit better. I love this page!! :D

  • Study hard, listen to lots of Russian music, and watch lots of Russian movies. Make an account at and soon you will make new friends who want to practice their English with you. In return, you can practice Russian with them.
    Good luck!

  • Mam nadzieję, że w przyszłym roku wybierzesz polski :)

  • It's definitely one of the languages I'm picking from.

  • Hope you don’t mind a correction to this post despite it is quite old.«она является красивецей»Firstly, the correct word is красавица -> красавицей
    Secondly, «являться» does not fit well in this example. Actually, I find difficulty correctly describe its peculiarity, but I feel it requires a concrete job title, sport title, etc. after it, and can also used in bookish definitions, so “She is beautiful” will still be «Она красивая» under any circumstances, but you could say «Она является победительницей Мисс Европы—2012».

  • Dear blogger, good post!
    I write from a non-english view but I have a interest in languages and although (did I get that right?) I only know Swedish and English (well, I know only these well) and sometimes we do many of these things as well even though we not only have a copula meaning "to be" but also 2 semi-copulas (some say that we don't but no one is 100% sure and I say we do) which mean "to become" and "to be found" and we use them at times English use "to be", and sometimes we don't use anything! Example. If you invite some friends over and offer them some chips you can say "chipsen goda?". A perfecly accepteble sentence and it literly means "the chips good?", but English prefer "IS the chips good?". Another example on how we do things different is on how we use "Bli", (to become). We use this if we want to speak about something that is going to go from X to Y. In English you say "Who wants to be a millionair?", but that would sound wrong in Swedish, it would sound as if though you would only be it a little while and then stop. We prefere "Who wants to BECOME a millionair".
    Many think tht languages is very different from one another but the more you dig into them, the more you relese that all language features are in every language, but only in different degrees, places and social norms. English for example have all deterimates before nouns and adjectives (that's words like "this"). It is correct to say "That is a red car", but still you can hear people go around saying "true that", doing the exact opposite of the "right" way. This is of course simply becuse languages not are static but dynamic, the change all the times. I learnt that chinese have tones and thought that that was strange, and then I saw that both English and Swedish have them as well, but just not that heavy or grammaticilazed ( you can hear the different between "an insult" and "to insult").I have reseached alot in another languages and now I have a question on my mind: how do the russians say the famous Hamlet quot "to be or not to be?" if the verb "to be" really died out? Now that is a true mindblower!

  • Thanks for your comments!To answer your question... the famous Hamlet quote reads “быть или не быть” in Russian.  :)

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