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Gender, Language, and Names:

Languages in which nouns have gender sometimes have the noun's gender turn on the noun's ending. In Russian, for instance, nearly all inanimate singular nouns that end with "a" or with the letter that's transliterated as "ia" (or "ya") are feminine. My tentative sense is that this is also generally true in Spanish, and in French with the "e" ending. English nouns of course don't have gender, but generally speaking English first names, and the standard nicknames, have "a" as a marker of femininity, though with a few relatively rare exceptions (e.g., Asa, Dana, and Ezra).

But here's the funny thing about Russian: Though the "a"/"ia"-feminine rule is indeed so for nearly all inanimate singular nouns, it is not the rule for nouns referring to people (for instance, "papa" is father, "diadia" is uncle, "starshyna" is platoon leader); and it is not the rule for names. In fact, some not uncommon Russian male first names -- such as Ilya and Foma -- and most Russian male nicknames (Sasha and Zhenia, which can also be a female nickname, Vania, Misha, Dima, and many more) end in "a" and "ia."

This is all a long way to mention that our guest-blogger Ilya is a Mr. Somin (unless you want to call him Prof. Somin or just plain Ilya) rather than a Ms. Somin. A commenter made the mistake of calling him Ms. Somin, so I thought I'd disabuse others of that notion.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Gender, Language, and Names II:
  2. Gender, Language, and Names:
Lev:
Ilya Kuryakin
4.4.2006 12:47am
Adrian (mail):
There is a problem with Ilya Somin and Select-a-blogger feature. Whenever I try searching for posts by another blogger, I get all his posts in addition to posts by blogger I have been searching for. For example,
http://volokh.com/?bloggers=eugene
returns posts by both Eugene Volokh and Ilya Somin.
4.4.2006 1:09am
DonBoy (mail) (www):
Either the preface or one of the appendices of Lord of the Rings explains that some character names have been changed from the "actual" names; in particular, Frodo was really Froda, but the translator felt that since this strikes English-speakers as feminine, he changed it to Frodo. This level of fake-care really blew my mind, when I was 10. (But I read too fast for my own good, and I swear I was very deep into the trilogy the first time before I realized that Merry and Pippin were not female. Honest.)
4.4.2006 1:22am
Walk It:
Somebody thought he was a she?

That would be pretty progressive to have a woman regular on the VC.
4.4.2006 1:24am
Bruce:
Lev, I thought the same thing. I guess no one remembers the Man from UNCLE.
4.4.2006 1:34am
Splunge (mail):
I was very deep into the trilogy the first time before I realized that Merry and Pippin were not female.

I also at the same age. But on later reflection, it occurred to me that (1) with the possible exception of Eowyn, Tolkien has no "ordinary" (e.g. non-heroic, non-iconic, non-goddess) women in his stories -- for that matter, there's almost zero eros to go with his abundant agape -- and (2) some of his male characters seem distinctly androgynous. Whether (2) is connected to (1) and from thence to Tolkien's toilet training or psychical substrata und so wieter deponent sayeth not.

But anyway, I realized my mild confusion over Merry and Pippin had nothing to do with the names: "Frodo" didn't strike my young ear as any more "masculine" than "Pippin." But there was no doubt that Merry and Pippin acted more feminine than Frodo and Sam, and I think that's why they were initially pegged as female.

Interestingly, some of the most decidely masculine characters I've ever read were drawn with great sympathy by Mary Renault in her series on Alexander the Great. And yet Renault was lesbian.
4.4.2006 4:04am
Iwazaru (www):
or...no hockey fans here who know Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the best Russian players in the NHL (but still no Alex Ovechkin).
4.4.2006 4:42am
Sealion II:
Random linguistic note from high school Spanish: there's actually a subset of Spanish words where "a" ending words are masculine, because they were imported from Greek, in which "a" is apparently a masculine ending. Hence "el drama, el mapa, el tema" (the (masculine)drama, map, theme".

I remember the whole Froda/Bilba thing, too; the thing that really blew my mind was that the whole Lord of the Rings was supposed to have been translated, which seemed like a really weird thing to throw in as a side note at the end of a thousand pages. Why not bring it in at the beginning, like Gene Wolfe does in The Book of the New Sun?
4.4.2006 5:05am
Sarah (mail) (www):
This will probably be my only opportunity to express in public how annoying it is to have to use masculine adjectives with feminine looking nouns that refer to masculine objects/people, but have to decline said nouns as though they were feminine. I mean, yes, studying Russian is supposed to drive you crazy, but this has to go down in the "fundamentally unfair" list of linguistic attributes. Though I suppose it's part of that tradeoff for non-declinable foreign neuter nouns.
4.4.2006 5:06am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I find it interesting that the Slavic Russian "papa" is almost identical to the informal Romance Spanish word for the same thing, and that it differs somewhat from the Old English roots for "father". But I suspect common roots, given that the Latin is "pater", which is not that dissimilar to "father".

I have always found it interesting that so many languages do distinguish nouns and pronouns by sex. In today's politically correct times, it is hard to envision why it was so important to distinguish between male and female, when it would have been so much more efficient to not do so.

We had a discussion today at Althouse.com about whether to use "he or she", alternate, or just use "he". One poster told of having a Con Law prof always use "she" to refer to the president - esp. since we have yet to have a female president. Life would seem to be a lot easier if we hadn't implemented this distinction in the first place. Yet, we did, and there must be good reasons for it.

I don't know German well enough to talk about endings there, but suspect that a lot of our use of "a" to end female names comes from the Latin/Romance languages where that ending is commonly female. One of the first things I learned in Spanish in about the third grade was that niño was male and niña was female. In Latin, 1st Declension is primarily femine, and the nominative singular tends to end in "a", and most of the other cases include "a", whereas 2nd Declension is primarily masculine, and the nominative singular often ends in "us", while most of the other cases utilize the other vowels. Adjectives are similarly declined, with the masculine singular nominative typically ending in "us" and the feminine in "a".
4.4.2006 5:41am
Unkempt:
I find it interesting that the Slavic Russian "papa" is almost identical to the informal Romance Spanish word for the same thing, and that it differs somewhat from the Old English roots for "father". But I suspect common roots, given that the Latin is "pater", which is not that dissimilar to "father".

As far as "papa" is concerned, whatever the history of the word is in any given language, I would be shocked if the explanation for its ending in 'a' and for it's almost universal existence didn't have something to do with the fact that babies find it easy to say that way. I would therefore think that "papa" is a very special exception to the rules about the gender of words, from which no conclusions about other a-ending masculine names/words can be drawn.
4.4.2006 8:51am
Willard:
For those who are interested, those Spanish words with "a" endings but masculine gender are neuter in ancient Greek. They show up as masculine in French too (e.g., le probleme, le systeme--there are accents over the penultimate "e" which I can't reproduce here).
4.4.2006 9:27am
Mike BUSL07 (mail) (www):
Dyadya and Papa are indeed easily enough explained by the preferences of babies, but I cannot say the same for "Starshina." That one caught me off guard. As far as I know, the word has to have been around since before Peter I, since the rank structure introduced by Peter was derived from Western European languages.

Was the "a/ya" ending more common in the 17th century and prior? Does anyone know this stuff? I'm very curious.
4.4.2006 9:30am
tefta (mail):
More importantly, is Ilya really Juan (Non-Volokh?
4.4.2006 9:52am
WB:
As Iwazaru said... we hockey fans have known this for a long time.
4.4.2006 10:04am
CEB:
Along the lines of The Lord of the Rings being translated (and sort of sticking to the Russian theme): in the "Foreword" to Lolita, "John Ray Jr." explains to us that, while most of the name in the book have been changed to protect the innocent, the heroine's first name has been retained. However, her surname has been changed, and her real surname only rhymes with the surname given in the book (Haze). I'm sure I'm not the only one who's puzzled over what her real last name was. (For what it's worth, my guess is "Maze")
4.4.2006 10:05am
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
It struck me as an odd comment that English nouns don't have gender. What then about female variants of names of professions? Yes, it's not a required attribute of every noun, but it's too pat to say that we don't have such. I spent a lot of time (while learning English and other languages all nouns do take gender) trying to determine what the regular rules that produced waitress and policewoman were. Not utterly successfully.
4.4.2006 10:34am
Sasha (mail):
Mike BUSL07: I haven't done any systematic study of this, but I notice that many Russian masculine words ending in a/ia have that final vowel stressed: not just (I presume, not having heard the word spoken) "starshyna" but also "sluga" (servant) and "sud'ia" (judge). Of course this happens in the feminine too, e.g. "sem'ia" (family), "molva" (rumor/buzz), "tsinga" (scurvy). But I suspect the masculine nouns like that derive from some ancient declension that's separate from the standard feminine a/ia declension. If I knew Greek or something else that's older than Latin, I might be able to say something more definite.

Similarly, there's that whole category of neuter nouns ending in -mia: plamia (flame), imia (name), plemia (tribe), znamia (banner), etc. I suspect they somehow relate to Latin third-declension neuter nouns ending in -men, like flamen (a type of priest, lit. "he who lights the sacred flame"), nomen (name), etc. Not that the Russian comes from the Latin, but I strongly suspect they share a common root in some Greek or other Indo-European declension.
4.4.2006 11:09am
DK:
Is it really true that French _nouns_ ending in "e" are feminine? While some French adjectives are feminized by adding an "e" (blonde, brune), I am not sure that "e" consistently or even mostly signals female gender in nouns. I can think of many counterexamples (Le Monde, Le Chiffre, Le Petit Prince, le golfe, le commerce, le cidre), and you can find more at http://french.about.com/library/weekly/bl-gender-m.htm and http://french.about.com/library/weekly/bl-gender-f.htm . The about.com pages list several endings signalling masculinity but also ending in "e".

Also, re: Tolkein, Eowyn is heroic, and there _are_ a few ordinary women in Tolkein: the women who work in Minas Tirith's Houses of Healing; at least one tavern worker, and Samwise's wife Rose, and various other hobbit women and girls.

Of course, Tolkein is atrocious at writing female characters, but his primary life experience was as a solider in WWI and as an Oxford don, neither of which occupations were likely to give him much insight into women. I've always thought that his primary psychological issue in the books was a need to work out his post-tramautic stress/survivor's guilt/moral tensions from the WWI trenches (see not just the Dead Marshes but Gollum, Frodo's deterioration, Denethor sending young men out to die, the breaking of the Fellowship, etc.) I doubt there were many women in Tolkein's combat flashbacks.
4.4.2006 11:31am
Rami (mail):
The exceptions you cite in English--Asa, Dana, Ezra--are all Hebrew names that have entered English and are thus not really indicative of English nouns.
4.4.2006 11:56am
Houston Lawyer:
Do law professors still use female pronouns to describe an unidentified subject? Bar-Bri did this 20 years ago and it threw me every time.

I was asking a 24-year old secretary in the office yesterday regarding whether she had ever seen The Graduate. She said she thought she remembered something about Ms. Robinson. I explained to her that the fact that she was Mrs. Robinson made all the difference.
4.4.2006 12:32pm
WG:

You're right, not many boy's names ending in "a" in the top 1000 in the US:

3 Joshua
137 Dakota
382 Ezra
394 Luca
603 Elisha
674 Asa
730 Hamza
743 Aditya
853 Luka
890 Shea
930 Koda
4.4.2006 12:44pm
Gordo:
I remember from my days at UCSD, deciding whether to take German or Russian to satisfy the foreign language requirement. I noticed that the German class met 3 times a week for 2 hours a day, while the Russian class met 5 times a week for 2 hours a day. They both had the same number of credits. Naturally, I took German.

My mother, who speaks fluent Russian, explained to me the difference in class time was due to the fact that Russian is one of the most fiendishly difficult languages to learn. She had the advantage of speaking it from childhood, but rued the fate of anyone trying to learn it as an adult.
4.4.2006 1:19pm
Abe Delnore:
Of course, Tolkein is atrocious at writing female characters, but his primary life experience was as a solider in WWI and as an Oxford don, neither of which occupations were likely to give him much insight into women.

Tolkien's marriage, by all accounts quite happy, to a woman with whom he was very much in love doesn't count as a primary life experience?

—Abe Delnore
4.4.2006 1:20pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Well, Mr. Somin can choose to be male if he wishes, but I think we can all agree that there's a glaring need for some hot female libertarian Conspirators.
4.4.2006 1:40pm
The River Temoc (mail):
My mother, who speaks fluent Russian, explained to me the difference in class time was due to the fact that Russian is one of the most fiendishly difficult languages to learn.

From someone who's learned both: try Arabic. There's not even a comparison!

Actually, I'm not that convinced that German is easier than Russian. It's not easy to divine the gender of many German words from their appearance, for one thing; for another, Russian case endings, for the most part, are pretty distinctive, whereas in German, for example, the endings for the feminine plural in the genitive and dative are basically identical.

As an anecdote to all this, I'd suggest Persian, where nouns have no gender whatsoever.
4.4.2006 1:53pm
KeithK (mail):
Regarding Tolkien, the fact that LOTR is a "translation" is really no surprise when you understand the Professor's background and interests. The man was absolutely fascinated by language and the fictional languages were central to the development of his stories. Chances are that not a soul would have ever questioned the name Frodo as opposed to Froda, but he needed to explain the change to make it all consistent in his mind.
4.4.2006 2:02pm
Sasha (mail):
By the way, along the lines of Rami's comment above (about Ezra, etc., coming from Hebrew) I suspect the Russian masculine names ending in -a/-ia also all come from names in Hebrew (possibly some from Greek) ending in -a/-ah/-as: Luka (Luke of course), Foma (Thomas), Ilia (probably Elijah).

(See Luka Lukich from Gogol's Inspector General; Foma Akvinskii, which is how you say Thomas Aquinas in Russian; and scientist Ilia Mechnikov, who became called Elie Metchnikoff in France. Also note Ilia Volokh, who played, among others, a Russian terrorist in Air Force One; no relation to the Volokh Conspiracy.)

Also, consistent with my conjecture from my comment above, all three of these names are stressed on their last syllable. (So Luka wouldn't be able to fit into a Suzanne Vega song. But try this, see 505 U.S. 1003 (1992), on regulatory takings: "My name is Lucas, I want to build a second floor....")
4.4.2006 2:05pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
My Russian is pretty rusty, but I would guess that "papa" is a loan word for father -- being easier to say than "otyets."

As I learned at my grandfather's knee, "dyedushka" is grandfather -- ends with an ah.
4.4.2006 2:06pm
KeithK (mail):
Bruce, I find it very odd that you would consider it more "efficient" to not have gender distinctions among nouns and pronouns. Differences in endings give a clue to meaning of the word in question and thus would encourage quicker understanding. This is particularly clear with pronouns - "he" and "she" convey more information than a generic unsexed pronoun would.

Having no gender based endings probably makes it easier to learn a new language. But needs of non-native speakers probably have very little effect on the development of language.

English did have gender distinctions once upon a time (Old English, 1000 years ago). I find it fascinating that these distinctions eroded over time on the British Isles but not elsewhere in Europe.
4.4.2006 2:11pm
Sasha (mail):
The British Isles/elsewhere in Europe division makes sense, if you believe that English (thanks to the Anglo-Saxon/Norman mixing) was subject to greater intermixing of different languages than some other obvious European countries, which retained a purer Germanic- or Romance-rooted language.

I think David Levy, Adam Smith's Rational Choice Linguistics, has a good discussion of the vocabulary/inflection tradeoff, where languages that people learn in adulthood tend to be more vocabulary- rather than inflection-rich. So English tends to simplify more than others, both because Romance and Germanic mixing was baked in the pie after 1066 and because there are so many foreigners out there speaking it. (It's only 9 pages long. Read The Whole Thing, as they say on the blogs.)
4.4.2006 2:25pm
Dr. Z. (mail):
Fear not, Ilya Kuryakin is well-remembered. Besides being inherently attractive and sympathetic, he drew attention as the underdog of his spook duo. For reasons known only to themselves, if to anyone, the HollyWoodHeads cast Napoleon Solo as alpha spook and true ladies' man - and then dressed him in *white socks* with his dark suit. Who could forget?

Of course, Leo G. Carroll was the most sympatique. Wish I had had profs like that.
4.4.2006 2:35pm
Peter Wimsey:

English did have gender distinctions once upon a time (Old English, 1000 years ago). I find it fascinating that these distinctions eroded over time on the British Isles but not elsewhere in Europe.


Actually, gender distinctions have eroded all over Europe, just not as much as they did in England. Latin had three genders; most (all?) romance languages just have two. German has three genders, but Dutch only has two. Interestingly, dutch's genders are neuter and "common" - the masculine and feminine fell together into one gender, while the neuter gender remained.
4.4.2006 2:36pm
dafydd (mail) (www):
The first time I saw a comment involving Russian male names ending in "a," was around the release of the music video of Elton John's "Nikita." Lovely female Russian soldier in a song with a male name...
4.4.2006 2:55pm
Mark B. (mail):
I'm surprised in a thread (somewhat) about Slavic linguistics that no one has brought up the fact that this whole "-a" ending consideration only applies in certain cases. The endings of nouns depend on which declension they are in, and in which case they are being declined, and number (as well as whether the noun is animate or inanimate, in some instances).

For example, Ilya in the nominative case becomes Ili in the genitive and dative cases. (I believe; my Russian is rusty).

Another example in a related language, my name translates as "Marek" in the nominative, but "Marka" in the genetive. (My Polish is not rusty :) So the "a" is there sometimes, but not at other times. Polish has a similar situation as with Russian regarding familial diminutives: "tata" for father, for example, in the nominative, but "tato" in the vocative (used when addressing tata directly).

To fluent speakers of these languages, all these declension and gender considerations are automatic. To speakers of non-declining languages like English who are not familiar with a declined language, all these things may seem quite mysterious, complex, and counterintuitive.
4.4.2006 3:54pm
Michael Livingston (mail):
Well, try Italian, where the suffix a is always feminine . . . except when it's not. Thus un fascista (a fascist) may very well be male, while il feminismo (feminism) is definitely a male word although presumably many of its proponents aren't. I can't tell you how many times I've expected to meet a man and it's turned out to be a woman, or vice-versa. As long as you never say, "Is your husband home," you are OK.
4.4.2006 4:30pm
Tom R (mail):
Spanish and Italian masculine nouns ending in -a do come from Greek, but fall into two classes:

[a] original Greek ending was -as, masculine. These sometimes keep the -s in Spanish but never in Italian (eg Andreas --> Andres Serrano but Andrea Bocelli). Others, especially corresponding to English -ist, change it to -a (el comunista/ il communista).

[b] original Greek ending was neuter -a (to programma -> il programma/ el programa.

Also, the normal possessive singular for Russian masc and neuter nouns ends in -a, but Evgeni above is talking about the nominative, where this is rare.

PS: Why is it that so often, in Indo-European languages that have more than one case, the masculine/ neuter singular possessive (a) is the same for both, and (b) is the same as the nominative plural for either? eg

Latin: domi = "house's/ houses"
Russian (CMIIW): mjesta "place's/ places"
and of course, English: Volokh's/ Volokhs

The fact that in English they're prnounced identically can be confusing, but at least they're spelt differently.

Greek (-ou/ -oi) and Romanian (-ui/ -i) are exceptions, though, as is German.
4.4.2006 5:17pm
Sasha (mail):
Why is nominative plural often similar to genitive singular, for instance in Russian and Latin?

Well, this might be pure coincidence. (In Russian, for instance, when this happens, the stress tends to go on different syllables, e.g. stOla (of the table) vs. stolA (tables), oknA (of the window) vs. Okna (windows).)

Or it might have to do with the "dual" and similar forms, that is, the special plural that's used for small numbers of things. This doesn't exist in Latin, but it does in some other languages. Russian has a vestigial dual form for certain nouns, especially ones that usually come in twos (e.g. "rog"/"roga" (horns), "glaz"/"glaza" (eyes) when you'd expect "rogi" and "glazy"); but what's more common is the different Russian plural forms depending on whether the noun has an indeterminate number, a number whose name ends with 1, a number whose name ends with a digit between 2 and 4, and other numbers like 5, 36, 100, etc.

So in Russian, "tables" is nom. plur.; "2 tables" or "53 tables" is gen. sing. (i.e., "2 [53] of table"); "5 tables" or "26 [100] tables" is gen. plur. (i.e., "5 [26, 100] of tables"); "41 tables" is nom. sing. (i.e. "41 table"). So it's not crazy to find that the nom. plur. (used for plurals without number) is sometimes similar to the gen. sing. (used for numbers between two and four).

You thought Russian was weird? Well, it's weirder than you thought. Take the phrase "Here are two interesting tables" or "I see two interesting tables." In Russian, this would be "Vot dva interesnykh stola," or, similarly, "Ia vizhu dva interesnykh stola." "Two" would be in the nominative or accusative ("dva"); "interesting" would be in the gen. plur. ("interesnykh"); "tables" would be in the gen. sing. ("stola"). One noun phrase, three different forms!

Still not convinced that it's weird? When a noun is a direct object of a verb, it goes in the accusative. Except when it's ANIMATE! Then it goes in the genitive! Except when it's FEMININE! Then it still goes in the accusative! Ever heard of Phizbin?

Thanks for listening.
4.4.2006 5:49pm
tmegapscm:
My mother, who speaks fluent Russian, explained to me the difference in class time was due to the fact that Russian is one of the most fiendishly difficult languages to learn.

While it may be the case (I don't know if it is) that Russian is inherently more "complex" than German, I would, in this specific case, attribute the difference in class time not to this difference in complexity, but to the difference in similarity to English. It's always easier to learn a language that's closer to your mother tongue (or to another language you already know).
4.4.2006 6:45pm
Peter Wimsey:
While it may be the case (I don't know if it is) that Russian is inherently more "complex" than German, I would, in this specific case, attribute the difference in class time not to this difference in complexity, but to the difference in similarity to English. It's always easier to learn a language that's closer to your mother tongue (or to another language you already know).


It is certainly true that for native speakers of English, German is easier to learn than Russian. This may well not hold for native speakers of slavic languages, such as Polish, however.
4.4.2006 7:01pm
Sasha (mail):
German has 4 cases; Russian has 6.

German case endings are, on the whole, easier (no changes in the noun except for the dative plural -n, the genitive singular -s for masculine and neuter nouns, and the -n in all oblique cases for "weak nouns"; all other case markers are contained in the article or adjective).

German conjugations are generally easier. Russian verbs have regular endings, but there are unpredictable stem consonant changes, and the whole perfective/imperfective business that is an overlay on the tenses and does a more complicated version of what we do with tenses and explanatory words.

So far, advantage: German! Here are two points that decrease the perceived advantage of German:

German is closer to English etymologically, but it's still different enough that it's less of an advantage for German than is commonly thought.

Russian uses a different alphabet, but that's something you overcome quickly, so it's less of a disadvantage for Russian than is commonly thought.

And here are some points in favor of Russian:

Three words: Funky verb placement (in German).

German and Russian both have 3 genders, but the gender of German nouns is harder to intuit, while Russian noun gender almost always follows from the ending of the noun.

German plurals are, on the whole, harder than Russian plurals (there are basically 9 possible plurals in German, with either an umlaut addition or not, and either no ending or an -e, -(e)n, or -(e)r; as well as an -s).

German adjectival endings (strong, weak, mixed) are somewhat confusing, but not too bad.

Overall, I'd still say German is easier than Russian, unless you have a huge advantage like coming from another Slavic language. I speak Russian natively, and speak it better than I speak German, but I've also experienced college-level education in both languages and have an idea what it's like for English speakers.
4.4.2006 7:41pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
there's a glaring need for some hot female libertarian Conspirators

Individuals are, by definition, individual, but I would guess that libertarianism must have a lot less appeal to women in general. (Note that citing examples of female libertarians does not refute this unsupported observation.)
4.4.2006 8:07pm
B. B.:
Usually when determining gender of a Russian it is easier to look at the last name if you are not sure of the first name's gender, no? As the female last name often tacks on an "a" in some way?

For example, mens tennis player Marat Safin, and his sister, women's player Dinara Safina. Likewise with names like Kournikova and Sharapova (likely the daughters of a men named Kournikov and Sharapov, correct?).

As such, Somin would make me assume male, as I would expect Somina for the feminine (unless, of course, he is among those whose family truncated their last name at some point).

Of course, knowing Ilya is a male name already, that wasn't really necessary here.
4.4.2006 8:35pm
Tom Tildrum:
Further on Tolkein, remember that Merry and Pippin were actually Meriadoc and Peregrine. The fact that their diminutive nicknames strike us as feminine reminds me of other such instances, such as Paulie (from Rocky, or the Sopranos) or Poppy (GHW Bush).
4.4.2006 8:58pm
Sasha (mail):
B.B.: This last name business seems promising... unfortunately, there are two problems.

First, there's the -a ending in the feminine only for "Russian" names, i.e., those ending in -ov, -ev, -in, -oi, -yi, -ii, and maybe some other endings I haven't thought of. It doesn't apply to "foreign" names, like -ian (Armenian), -adze or -shvili (Georgian), -enko (Ukrainian), or even "Volokh." So our mother is not called Anna Volokha. Of course, it certainly doesn't apply to REALLY foreign names, like Bush or Blair or Chirac.

Admittedly, this first consideration doesn't apply to "Somin."

Second, Russians in America typically adopt the masculine version of their name. My 1L classmate Dina had a last name ending in -in (not -ina); my Russian professor Natalia had a last name ending in -skii (not -skaia).
4.4.2006 9:07pm
Bruce:
Ever heard of Phizbin?

Unless there's a full moon on Tuesday, in which case you speak Chinese.
4.4.2006 9:33pm
Scott Scheule (mail) (www):
A commenter made the mistake of calling him Ms. Somin, so I thought I'd disabuse others of that notion.

And I apologized to her! So can we please just let it go?
4.4.2006 9:34pm
Bleepless (mail):
When Vladimir Nabokov was teaching, he insisted that a certain novel was "Anna Karenin," English lacking the gender suffix.

Also, Russian is much easier than English in one respect: there are many fewer exceptions to the rules.
4.4.2006 11:02pm
Scott Scheule (mail) (www):
When Vladimir Nabokov was teaching, he insisted that a certain novel was "Anna Karenin," English lacking the gender suffix.

Strangely enough, the novel was "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
4.5.2006 12:20am
Lev:
La femme Nikita.
4.5.2006 1:22am
Sarah (mail) (www):
I hate transliteration, it hides mistakes and makes translation a pain. Will the Volokh site kill my attempt at writing in Cyrillic? No! Very good.

Nom.: Иля (Ilya) ("My name is Ilya"/"Меня зовут Иля")
Acc.: Илю (Ilyu) ("I looked at Ilya"/"Я смотрела Илю.")
Prep.: Иле (Ilye) ("The book is about Ilya"/"Эта книга об Иле.")
Gen.: Или (Ili) ("Ilya has the book."/"У Или книга.")
Dat.: Иле (Ilye) ("I gave the book to Ilya"/"Я давала книгу Иле.")
Instr.: Илей (Ilyay) ("We were drinking with Ilya"/"Мы пили с Илей.")


As compared with...

Nom.: Иван (Ivan) ("My name is Ivan"/"Меня зовут Иван.")
Acc.: Иван (Ivan) ("I looked at Ivan"/"Я смотрела Иван.")
Prep.: Иване (Ivanye) ("The book is about Ivan"/"Эта книга об Иване")
Gen.: Ивана (Ivana) ("Ivan has the book."/"У Ивана книга.")
Dat.: Ивану (Ivanoo) ("I gave the book to Ivan"/"Я давала книгу Ивану.")
Instr.: Иваном (Ivanom) ("We were drinking with Ivan"/"Мы пили с Иваном.")


This site has the most concise summary I've seen online yet.

(if I've goofed above, someone tell me; I have hopes of actually being any good at this language someday.)
4.5.2006 1:27am
Tom Round (mail) (www):
> Acc.: Иван (Ivan) ("I looked at Ivan"/"Я смотрела Иван.")

Shouldn't that be Acc.: Иванa (Ivan) ("I looked at Ivan"/"Я смотрела Иванa.")

-- since Ivan is an animate noun?

Kruglov
4.5.2006 4:07am
Sasha (mail):
Sarah -- Thanks for finally introducing some Cyrillics into here! It turns out that "Ilya" is a convenient but not accurate transliteration. Even when I was writing "Ilia", because I prefer using "ia" for "я" (that's also "standard" practice), that was incorrect. In fact, it should be transliterated "Il'ia", since it's spelled "Илья". You're otherwise right on the endings -- "Илью", "Илье", etc.

Just a few other quibbles:

"Я давала книгу" means "I was giving the book"; for "I gave the book", you want to write "Я дала книгу". That's all about perfective and imperfective aspects of the verb. (Note: the stress in "давала" is in the middle; the stress in "дала" is at the end.)

My impression is that "Я смотрела Илью" needs a preposition and should be "Я смотрела на Илью" ("I was looking at Ilya" -- for "I looked", use the perfective form "посмотрела". Of course, I would use "посмотрел", on account of I'm a guy.

Finally, as Tom Round points out, "I was looking at Ivan" should be "Я смотрела на Ивана". Why? Because (as I pointed out in my Phizbin comment above), when a noun is ANIMATE and in a MASCULINE or NEUTER FORM, then to form the direct object you use the GENITIVE, not (as you'd think) the accusative. (Or, if you prefer thinking about it this way, you're still using the accusative, but the accusative form for masculine- or neuter-form animate nouns coincides with the genitive.)

Why does this work for Иван (Ivan) and not for Илья (Ilya)? Because Илья, which ends in -я (-ia), is a feminine-form noun (even though it refers to a man), like Саша (Sasha), папа (papa = daddy or Pope), слуга (sluga = servant), судья (sud'ia = judge), etc.

Good luck in your Russian studies!
4.5.2006 10:35am
Sasha (mail):
Sorry -- above, I shouldn't have said "Ilya is a feminine-form noun (even though it refers to a man)." Instead, I should have said: Ilya is a feminine-form noun, even though it's masculine.

The difference is that the second formulation makes it clear that any adjectives modifying Ilya take the masculine form; same for any verbs connected with Ilya. Example: "Есть хороший Илья и злой Илья. Хороший Илья Сомин написал статью с Джонатаном Адлером о решений Кило. А злой Илья...." ("There's a good Ilya and an evil Ilya. The good Ilya Somin wrote an article with Jonathan Adler about the Kelo decision. Whereas the evil Ilya....")

I presume it's clear that when I say "feminine-form noun," all I mean is that it's a noun belonging to the category of words ending in -a or -ia like "gazeta" or "nedelia", which are almost all feminine.
4.5.2006 11:29am
Tom Round (mail):
> "решений Кило... the Kelo decision"

And all this time I (here in Australia) have been mentally pronouncing it to rhyme with "Hello", not like "Kilo". Just like I went for years thinking Scalia was pronounced "SKAH-lia", not "skull-LEE-uh". And (having studied Italian) mentally pronounced Schiavo as "shee-AH-vo" and not as "SKY-vo", which seems (once it filtered through the TV news downunder) to be the usually Americanglish pronunciation. One of the advantages of the MSM (esp TV/ radio) over the Internet.

Wasn't it Schopenhauer of whom his contemporaries said, they found it easier to understand his work if they translated it into French and then back into German?

PS: Parallel with Russian "animate" (masc) nouns taking a genitive form when they are in the accusative, Spanish "animate" nouns taking a dative form when they are in the accusative. Of course Spanish has no cases, but you insert "a" (to) between verb and object. Eg, "Veo una casa" (I see a house) but "Veo a Juan" (I see John).
4.5.2006 6:36pm
Tom Round (mail) (www):
> mentally pronounced Schiavo as "shee-AH-vo" and not as "SKY-vo"

Ooops, that should be "Skee-AH-vo" and "Shy-vo" respectively.
4.5.2006 11:15pm
Sasha (mail):
I know Susette Kelo, so I know how her name is pronounced. :)
4.5.2006 11:47pm
ys:
To probably round off this discussion with another anecdote of gender misperception. I have a very popular book in my field where the name of the first author is listed as Edward Lazowska. I did not think that Edward was really a woman, but the last name puzzled me a lot. I happened to meet the author at a conference a few years later. It turned out, that his Polish grandmother came to this country with children but not a husband. Thus, her last name was not changed to its male form, as was and is typically done with Slavic endings of a married couple. Her children inherited whatever was in the immigration papers.
4.6.2006 8:34pm