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What are negative words in Russian?

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“I will never not tell nobody nothing about it” — that is a word-by-word translation of what Russians would say, meaning “I will never tell anybody anything about it.” As you can see, negative words, such as “never,” “nobody,” and “nothing,” play an important role in Russian. How many of them can you actually fit in one sentence? Follow me, and you’ll find out.

“I will never not tell nobody nothing about it” — that is a word-by-word translation of what Russians would say, meaning “I will never tell anybody anything about it.” As you can see, negative words, such as “never,” “nobody,” and “nothing,” play an important role in Russian. How many of them can you actually fit in one sentence? Follow me, and you’ll find out.

For review of grammar terms used in the post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end.

Negative words beginning with НИ- (ni-)

The majority of Russian negative words are formed by putting НИ- (ni) [no] in front of a question word, e.g., кто (kto) [who], где (gdye) [where], or как (kak) [how], so if you know those in Russian already, you will have no trouble forming negative words yourself.

Here is the full list of them (in the nominative case where applicable):

Screen Shot 2021-09-26 at 5.34.05 PM

Some of them are adverbs (никак, нисколько, никогда, нигде, никуда, ниоткуда) and never change their form. Others, on the other hand, look more like nouns (никто, ничто) or pronouns (никакой, ничей), and therefore, change their endings according to case (никто, ничто), and also gender and number (никакой, ничей) — see details here.

⤷ TIP: НИ (ni), when added before a word (in linguistic terms, when it is a “prefix”) is never stressed when you pronounce the word.

 

 IMPORTANT

Russian negative words may often be translated with “any” rather than “no” because there is only one negation in most dialects of English.

Я нигде не могу найти свои ключи.
(ya niGDYE ni maGOO nayTEE svaEE klyuCHEE)

Literally: I nowhere cannot find my keys.
English: I cannot find my keys anywhere.

Negative words beginning with НЕ- (nye-)

In the table above we saw how negative words are formed with НИ (ni). You can also form negative words in Russian by adding НЕ (nye) in front of question words, though their meaning and use will be different (we’ll discuss it later in this article). Here is the full list of those:

Screen Shot 2021-09-26 at 5.43.25 PM

⤷ TIP: НЕ (nye), when added before a word (in linguistic terms, when it is a “prefix”), is always stressed when you pronounce the word.

Again, while most of the negative words starting with НЕ function as adverbs and never change, некого [nobody] and нечего [nothing] look and behave like nouns and have different endings in different cases (see here). These two negative words do not, however, have a nominative case and are only used in impersonal sentences (the ones without a subject).

  IMPORTANT

You probably noticed that most Russian negative words with НИ have pairs with НЕ, e.g., НИгде and НЕгде [nowhere], but НИкто [nobody] and НИчто [nothing] do not. This is because words НЕкто (NYEkto) and НЕчто (NYEchta) actually mean “somebody” and “something, respectively, and are not negative in the least!

НЕсколько (NYEskalka) is another word that looks misleadingly negative, but in fact means “a few, several.”

Russian negative words with prepositions

In addition to changing their endings, negative pronouns никто [nobody], ничто [nothing], никакой [no/none/not any], as well as некого [nobody] and нечего [nothing], have another curious feature — when used with prepositions, they are “broken” by them in the following way:

ни/не + preposition + question word

Screen Shot 2021-09-26 at 5.50.08 PM

НИ or НЕ?

НЕ (nye) means “no” in Russian, and it is a purely negative element, sufficient for negating something. On the contrary, НИ (ni) is not negative per se, it is used to intensify negation and can only be used with another НЕ in a sentence (or when it is implied).

Use НИ only when there is a НЕ in a sentence / context.

Compare:

Я ничего не ел. 
(ya nichiVO nye yel)
I haven’t eaten anything.

Мне нечего есть. 
(mnye NYEchiva yest)
I have nothing to eat. 

  IMPORTANT

You may see negative words with НИ (ni) on their own, forming a whole sentence. In this case, they do have a negative meaning because HE (nye) is implied:

  • Что ты будешь есть? - Ничего. Implied: Я ничего не буду есть.
    (shto ty BOOdish est? - nichivO)
    What are you going to eat? - Nothing. Implied: I will eat nothing / I won’t eat anything

Multiple negation in Russian

It is because НИ (ni) is an intensifier, rather than a negative element, that you should expect one НЕ (nye) in a Russian sentence (usually before the verb) and a virtually unlimited number of negative words with ни- (ni-) that intensify the negation.

Examples: 

В этой квартире никогда никто не жил.
(v Etay kvarTEErye nikagDA niKTO nye zhyl)
Literally: In this apartment never nobody has not lived.
English: Nobody has ever lived in this apartment.

Remember the example we used at the very beginning of this post?

Я никогда никому ничего не скажу об этом.
(ya nikagDA nikaMOO nichiVO nye skaZHOO ab Etam)
I will never tell anybody anything about it.

Interesting facts

Some negative pronouns have special meanings, for example:

1.  Ничья (niCHYA) means “tie” or “draw” in sports (literally, “nobody’s”)

2.  Ничего (nichiVO) [nothing] is often used in the meaning “it’s okay” to reassure or calm somebody down, or “never mind,” e.g., 

      • Ничего, все наладится!
        (nichiVO, fsyo naLAditsya)
        It’s ok, everything will work out!

      • Что ты хотел? - O, ничего.
        (shto ен khaTYEL? - O, nichiVO)
        What did you want? - Oh, nothing / never mind.

3.  Никакой (nikaKOY) [no / none / not any] may also mean “dead tired” or “of no talent or skill,” for example:

      • Он после работы приходил никакой.
        (on POSlye raBOty prikhaDEEL nikaKOY)
        He came from work dead tired.

      • Художник из него никакой.
        (khooDOZHnik iz niVO nikaKOY)
        He is no artist. / He has no artistic talent.

4.  Не за что! (nye za shta) [for nothing] is a typical reply in Russian to Спасибо! (spaSEEba) [Thank you], so basically it means, “You are welcome!”

Unpacking the grammar

  • Gender represents categories in which nouns are split. In Russian, there are three: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

март (m.)       March
книга (f.)       book
кафе (n.)       café

  • Number represents the quantity the noun refers to, meaning if it is singular or plural.

      • the boy (s.)    the boys (pl.)

  • Case is the form of a noun (and the adjective etc. that modifies it) or pronoun that shows the role it plays in the sentence.
    For example, the accusative case indicates that the noun or the pronoun are the object (= receiver of the action) of the verb:

I saw him 

("Him" is in the accusative case; it is the object of the sentence.)

Nominative case indicates that the noun/pronoun is the subject (=what/who does the action):

He saw me 

(“He” is in the nominative case; it is the subject of the sentence.)
There are six cases in Russian– nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional.

  • Nouns are words that represent people, things, animals, ideas, or actions, like man, table, tiger, generosity, running

  • Pronouns are words that replace nouns:

      • John is a teacher → He is a teacher 

  • Adverbs are words that modify adjectives of verbs:

      •  very young

      • He ran quickly

  • Adjectives are words that are used to describe something, including people, animals, things, places, or ideas. 

      • a big tree, a delicious cake, a crowded place, an adorable child; the school is new; he is our old teacher.

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Anna Classing

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