"This is not fair!" said the Russian after looking at a map when they realized that they were not at the state fair.

I don't remember precisely how the joke goes, but it goes something like the above. I was thinking that the reason why the joke works is that, in Russian, one can distinguish between nouns and predicative adjectives, even though no articles are used, because the two are declined differently.

Это -- не честнo!
Это -- не ярмарка!

In contrast, when one translates the above two sentences into English, one relies on the presence of an article to tip-off clearly whether the predicate is a noun or a (predicative) adjective.

Does the fact that both nouns and adjectives are highly declined in Russian, and moreover declined differently from one another, enable Russian speakers to get by without articles?

EDIT: Looking at the comments and answers to this question, it appears more likely that Russian does not have articles because of the declension of nouns. Of course, technically speaking there is no evidence for "why" articles are or aren't in any given language -- the comments however do note an apparent correlation between the declension of nouns and the absence of articles, as well as between undeclined nouns and the presence of articles, in several branches of Indo-European languages. Still, we are talking about a sample size of at most n=4-7, so nothing definitive.

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    This may perhaps be a reasonable intuitive explanation why Russian can get along without articles, but I believe it would be more correct and productive to consider why English (and other European languages) acquired articles. The ancestral languages for most European languages (Latin, Sanskrit) didn't have articles either. – Zeus Aug 17 '16 at 0:38
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    Articles have nothing to do with declension, they have different functions. – V.V. Aug 17 '16 at 6:04
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    Это -- не честен! is ungrammatical. Это is neuter, честен is masculine. – Anixx Aug 17 '16 at 8:52
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    @Anixx, if you want to be pedantic, no, but it's the closest approximation to Proto-Indo-European that we actually know. – Zeus Aug 17 '16 at 9:08
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    I think you mean "Это нечестно!" That is what @Anixx means when he says that "Это -- не честен!" is ungrammatical. – David42 Aug 25 '16 at 21:21
up vote 12 down vote accepted

Russian relies on the context. From the context it is almost always clear whether we speak about a definite or indefinite concept. In some cases it's unclear and we just use additional words to describe that. Look:

There is boy whose name is Max. Boy entered room. In room there were lot of toys. Boy took his most beloved toy and went to another room. In this room Max placed toy on red table. On table there were already other toys. Then, boy played with them some time.

I'm pretty sure that you can correctly place all the missing articles in the example above. So, from the Russian (and almost any Slavic language) point of view the concept of articles is redundant. They don't carry any additional information, which isn't already available from the context. And that is the reason why Russians have problems and one can make funny jokes about them. And I hope that I used all the articles correctly in my explanation.

This has nothing to do with the declension or predicative adjectives.

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    +1 As to jokes I like this one: "A Russian (being in London) asks a policeman: 'What is time?' The policeman looks at him, thinks for a while and replies: 'I'd say, it's a rather sophisticated philosophical category.'" – A.Toumantsev Aug 17 '16 at 15:59
  • Another crazy edge case in English is when adding "the" inverts the meaning of a sentence: "The police were in possession of the thieves." "The police were in the possession of the thieves." – Lester Buck Oct 15 at 3:22

What is conducted by articles in English is often conducted by word order in Russian:

Мальчик вошёл в комнату = The boy entered a room.

В комнату вошёл мальчик = A boy entered the room.

Of course, free word order is possible because of declension.

By the way, I often feel that English lacks a would-be-useful article for what is conducted by the pronoun some. Similar to English in this case, pronouns can be used in other languages instead of articles.

For instance, the word for "one" can be used to specify what is conducted by indefinite article in English:

Мне это дал один коллега = A colleague gave it to me. (literally: One colleague gave it to me.)

  • Actually indifinite article on Englisb os told to be reduced form of "one" (not of "any" as the spelling may suggest) – Arioch Oct 14 at 20:08

My impression is that no language develops articles because it "needs" them. I'd even venture to say that articles start out as glorified filler words, and then gradually become indispensable as language sheds some of its complexity. Ancient Greek had a definite article despite being extensively inflectional. The Nordic suffixed articles predate the loss of Old Norse declension, although they became much more heavily used afterwards. Chinese, on the other hand, lost all of its declension but never developed articles. And then we have the curious case of modern colloquial Czech, which one might argue has an emerging definite article, while showing no signs of losing inflexion or even simplifying it (it's about twice as complicated as the Russian one).

  • Articles usually start as pronouns. – Anixx Oct 9 at 14:39
  • @Anixx Filler words in different languages — not a lot of pronouns on the list, but they do crop up. – Nikolay Ershov Oct 9 at 14:50
  • "Chinese, on the other hand, lost all of its declension" when did Chinese have declension? – Curiosity 22 hours ago
  • @Curiosity Proto-Chinese was agglutinative, if I'm not mistaken. – Nikolay Ershov 13 hours ago

The main function of the definite and indefinite articles in English is to express explicitly definiteness/indefiniteness of the noun. There are formal rules in contemporary English grammar making their usage (or zero article usage) mandatory in standard situations. In Russian, some helpful words are used instead - less formally and just by necessity, in case the context doesn't clarify the aspect of definiteness: e.g. we simply use pronouns этот/это/эта/эти/тот/то/та (тот прохожий) for explicit expression of definiteness and smth. like the numeral один (один мой друг) for addition of indefiniteness. As for the origin of indefinite article in English, it comes from the numeral one, 'an' being the older form. It is about the same in some other languages (Italian: un/uno/una, etc.). In Chinese, indefiniteness can be expressed (in singular case) quite similarly, by using the numeral 'one' before the measure word (=classifier, which precedes the noun in singular), so the typical 'yi ge' in Mandarin functions much like indefinite article, while the pronoun 'zhei ge' (this/that) before the noun expresses definiteness; indefiniteness of a noun in plural (+ unknown quantity) is expressed by default (no numeral, no classifier), while definiteness in plural is expressed explicitly - by using the pronoun 'zhei xie' (these/those), with or without 'numeral + measure word'.

So, the languages without 'mandatory' articles use their own grammatical 'workaround' means, other than just context. Here's a source, mentioning usage of post-positioned particles in Russian, which function similarly to definite articles:


  • Один in "один мой друг" is not numeral, but a pronoun as well. – Anixx Oct 9 at 14:40

I believe the OP's example isn't even about declension. He's asking how Russian distinguishes between different parts of speech, such as between "fair" being a noun or an adjective in this example. And the answer is that Russian, unlike English, doesn't have word conversion -- the same word can't be used as different parts of speech. So in OP's own words

both nouns and adjectives are ... declined differently

is esentially the explanation. But I'd say that it's not really about declension, but about the fact that different parts of speech in Russian are formed with different endings (and possibly suffixes), which makes them clearly distinguishable from each other (modulo some occasional coincidental homoforms like "три" or "полого").

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    За песчаной косой лопоухий косой пал под острой косой косой бабы с косой.--all word classes are distinguishable but not because of endings and suffixes, right? – V.V. Aug 18 '16 at 11:38
  • Yes, I agree that I oversimplified. I did mention in my response, though, that coincidental homoforms happen, often because of coinciding endings of different forms of different parts of speech, in which case -- context to the rescue. This example is a classic, and it's a great one, and I love it, but it's not something that would commonly occur in regular speech or a typical text. – zipirovich Aug 19 '16 at 1:08
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    Oh, and I also realized that it's not true that Russian doesn't have conversion -- it does: "мороженое" or "косой" (the лопоухий one) are examples. But still, in Russian it's pretty rare, while in English it's one of the basic features of the language. Say, "to google" would be one of the freshest examples. – zipirovich Aug 19 '16 at 1:14

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