In Russian, verbs in the past have gender information attached to them, so that “я спросил” implies that the asker was male, whereas “я спросила” comes from a female.

Why no other tenses have this trait, or why verbs were even chosen to differ by speaker's gender?

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    Think of the French je suis allé/allée without the suis bit. That's how they came about. – Nikolay Ershov Mar 18 '16 at 8:10
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    Think of the French Same holds in Italian: "è venuto" vs. "è venuta". – Matt Mar 18 '16 at 9:07
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    It gets more complicated in Hindi/Urdu where the past tense (perfect) takes on ergative characteristics in which the old passive becomes reinterpreted as active so that the past participle of the passive becomes the main verb and agrees with the object, not the subject and the subject has a particle. So the typical past tense would read John sang the song = by John the song was sung and sung would agree with song. It is more complicated than that but that's the simple outline. I read a whole book on ergativity recently and it was exhausting. :-) – pbarrett Mar 21 '16 at 21:42

Because historically what we call past in modern Russian is perfect, and what we believe to be past forms of the verbs are in fact participles (adjectives formed from verbs).


Он пел / она пела / оно пело (he / she / it has sung)

Он бел / она бела / оно бело (he / she / it is white)

In old Russian there was a number of other past tenses. The most used of them, the aorist, did not change by gender.

  • could you please provide an example of aorist in Russian? Maybe some rudimental constructions? – Justin McGuire Mar 19 '16 at 21:29
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    @Justin: In modern Russian it's the particle бы, and, according to some scholars, past constructs like он возьми и закричи. However, you can take pretty much any well known Church Slavonic text and there's a good chance you'll find an aorist there: имже вся быша; вкушая вкусих мало меду; шед удавися etc. – Quassnoi Mar 20 '16 at 9:29

Good question. I guess for the same reason why in English you say "ten apples" and not "ten apple", you have said "ten" already, why add "s"? :) If I am not mistaken, in Chinese they say "ten apple". Historical, etymological reasons. Same in Spanish, even worse, the words are changed not only according to gender, but also according to tense and if its single or plural. English is so much easier :)

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    In Chinese, they say "ten thing apple", the word for "thing" being different depending on what the thing is: a woman, a stick, an emperor or a quiz question. – Quassnoi Mar 18 '16 at 11:02


  • the Russian past tense is the past perfect
  • the past perfect is the past tense form of the verb (eg пел) + the present tense form of the auxiliary verb
  • the past tense form of the verb is a predicate adjective
  • predicate adjectives requires gender/number agreement
  • the auxiliary verb is the copula (быть)
  • the copula is dropped in modern Russian in the present tense

(That dropped copula is what causes the confusion.)

So if we include the copula, as in older* Russian:

Он есть пел.
Она есть пела.
Оно есть пело.
Они суть пели.
Мы есмы пели.

It is analogous to Ukrainian, Serbian and so on (and even Italian and French for many verbs).

It was true for Russian copula in any situation.

Он есть инженер. Погода есть хорошая.

But in modern Russian:

Он ∅ пел.
Она ∅ пела.
Оно ∅ пело.
Они ∅ пели.
Мы ∅ пели.
Он ∅ инженер.
Погода ∅ хорошая.

The copula is dropped, but the agreement is still required.

How old is old? Wikipedia article on zero copula:

The present tense of the copula in Russian was in common use well into the 19th Century (as attested in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky) but is now used only for archaic effect.

  • it's not the copula which requires the gender and number agreement. Adjectives agree with the noun by gender and number without any copula. – Quassnoi Mar 21 '16 at 16:02
  • The copula requires it && NPs happen to require it. (It's not always the case, for example in German or Dutch only NPs require it. So I have mixed feelings about phrasing it so broadly.) For all I know, there could be some language where the copula requires it and NPs do not. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 22 '16 at 6:42
  • @AMBittlingmayer: sorry, don't get your point. It happens so that in Russian adjectives and participles agree with the noun they define by gender and number. Non-predicative adjectives (хороший день) don't require a copula in Russian, and never did, still they do agree by number and gender. Copula has nothing to do with that. – Quassnoi Mar 22 '16 at 6:49
  • Agree, copula has nothing to do with non-predicative adjective (хороший день). The point is that the OP's question and the correct answer have nothing do with non-predicative adjectives. It only has to do with copula. "The copula requires gender and number agreement". It is true. (Or do you disagree?) I have mixed feelings about making less-specific (if equally true) statements in the answer. – Adam Bittlingmayer Mar 22 '16 at 10:29
  • @AMBittlingmayer: I most certainly disagree that copula requires gender or number agreement by itself. My point is that copula has nothing to do with the gender agreement, at all, it's the adjective that matters. You can say она врач or она есть врач or она была врачом or она Весы, so we don't have any gender or number agreement, copula or not. No adjective, no agreement. – Quassnoi Mar 22 '16 at 11:07

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