TOPIC: Definite and Indefinite Articles
LETTER

Dear RLM,
I've been studying Russian for a year now. My first instructor, a native, said that Russian does not have definite and indefinite articles, like the and a/an in English. Then I read in a textbook that these articles are "implied" in Russian.
Could you explain, please.


MENTOR REPLY

Gentle Linguist,

Since you said "please," the RLM is at your service.

Your instructor was more or less correct but I should also add that since this was your "first" instructor, s/he was doing the time honored thing all Russian instructors do: lie about how easy Russian is.

The opening lecture probably went something like this: "Welcome to class, students! I start with good news! Unlike German language, where the articles are downfall of even brightest minds, in Russian language NO articles!" Your first instructor was fully aware that by the time you discovered the fine points of this claim, you'd have another instructor.

* * *

The truth of the matter is that definite and indefinite articles are not a "Russian" problem but a "Russian to English" problem. Take the following, for example:

У нас хороший, удобный диван.
"We have a nice, comfortable couch."

Notice that I translated the sentence using the English indefinite article a. If I didn't, I would sound like that native Russian teacher of yours:

"We have nice, comfortable couch."

Russian emigres don't feel comfortable with articles in English. Why? Because, as your instructor said, correctly, there are no definite and indefinite articles in Russian. (For those of you who read the Fundamentals of Case Grammar article at the outset of this Grammar Review: it's a Surface Structure thing!)

With all the other stuff going on, you probably didn't notice, but a potential "Russian to English articles problem" came up on the first day of class:

-- Боб, что это? ("Bob, what's this?")
-- Это книга! ("That's a book!")
-- Нет, это не книга. Это карандаш! ("No, this isn't a book. It's a pencil!")
-- Да, карандаш! ("Yes, it's a pencil!")
-- А где книга? ("And where's the book?")
-- Вот книга! ("Here'sthe book!")
-- Очень хорошо, Боб! ("Good job, Bob!")

See, your teacher was right: no articles in Russian, just in English. Russians don't care if:

"The tree fell on a commissar."
"A tree fell on a commissar."
"The tree fell on the commissar."
"A tree fell on the commissar."

All Russians care about is that Дерево упало на комиссара! Now there's one less commissar to hound them and it was worth losing a/the tree to get rid of him.

* * *

English, on the other hand, doesn't allow singular nouns to stand around all by themselves! They're required to be accompanied at all times - "commissar-like" - by either a definite or indefinite article or by a demonstrative pronoun, like this or that.

What's the difference between the following two English sentences:

"Do you have the key for this car?"
"Do you have a key for this car?"

Well, in the first sentence, you probably own the car. In the second, you sound like you're stealing it: "Joe, you got a key that'll fit this car?"

One more example:

"Do you have a recipe for Veal Prince Orlov?"
"Do you have the recipe for Veal Prince Orlov?"

What's the difference? In the first sentence, you haven't a clue on how to prepare Veal Prince Orlov. In the second, you also don't have a clue but at least you know that someone has written the recipe down somewhere on a piece of paper.

So what have we learned? The article a/an in English is "indefinite" in the sense that it does not point to or single out a specific noun. While the English article the is "definite" because it singles out or points to one specific person, place or thing - the mailman, the village, the recipe for Veal Prince Orlov.

* * *

Can these notions be expressed in Russian? Sort of. As that grammar book you were reading noted, they can be "implied." This is where the present tense link verb есть comes into play:

- У кого есть ключ от дома?
"Who has a key to the house?"

- У кого есть газета?
"Who has a newspaper?"

Note that the indefinite article a suddenly appears once more in the translations. Why? Because the notion of existence is indefinite! No, but seriously, if you want to know if someone has (or "owns") something in general - a car, a watch, a cat, an answer - this is an indefinite notion in English.

Now, let's take out the verb есть and see what happens:

У кого ключ от дома?
"Who has the key to the house?"

У кого газета?
"Who's got the paper?"

Note that the definite article the has just popped up in the English translation. Why? In English, if you want to know if someone has (or owns) something specific - the car, the watch, the key, the paper - this a definite notion. To the Russian mind, the objects in the last two examples above are indeed "definite," in that both the speaker and the addressee(s) understand that they're talking about a "specific" key and paper, but that's as far it as it goes - an unstated "common" understanding.

Now let's take this a step further and see what happens:

-- У тебя есть ключ от дома?
"Do you have a key to the house?"
-- Нет, у меня нет ключа.
"No, I don't have a key."

-- У тебя ключ от дома?
"Do you have the key to the house?"
-- Нет, он не у меня.
"No, I don't have it."

In Russian, when one responds to a question that has the verb есть in it, the verb itself is negated in the answer with the negative нет (не + есть) because the notion of possession (in English, the verb "to have") is in question. This makes sense because the focus is not on a specific or definite noun but on the question of possessing or "having" that object. "Do you have a car, a boyfriend, an idea?" "No, I do not have a...."

When a seemingly similar question without the verb есть is posed, the focus shifts to the possessed object and the possessor. As a result, the object becomes specific - the equivilant of a definite "the" in English. The response therefore is focused on the specific object , and so the noun is pronominalized (noun (ключ) > pronoun (он). Moreover, it is the possessor that is negated in the response: не у меня, that is, the response is something of a "disclaimer" - "Not me, I don't have the key."

* * *

So what, in the end, have we learned? Not much! And it all can be summed up for students of Russian as follows:

  • Articles don't exist in Russian but they do pop up when Russian is translated into English. (It's a Surface Structure thing!)
  • Fortunately, the use of English articles is second nature to you and you'll get them right every time!
  • Not so your native teachers!

So for once, you're ahead! When you get to aspect, a notion that Russian natives get right 100%, you'll lose your advantage. But bask in your glory while you have it and be sure to ask your native teachers to translate everything they say in Russian into English, so you can reinforce your superiority:
"Sir/Madam, would you say: the idea is good' or that 'it is a good idea?'"
"Vat you mean? Is very gut idea!"

THE Force be with you,
A Russian Mentor