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I recently learned that possessive pronouns are not used as often in Russian as they are in English and, therefore, this implies that a translation into English with a logical possessive might be better if the context indicates that one is implied. This was actually brought to my attention via a Duolingo lesson in which the correct answer for

Пока брат читает, я работаю.

was

While my brother is reading, I am working.

I was actually almost finished reading the comments in a discussion thread linked to the prompt you see above, and about to move on, when I came upon the following comment toward the end:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but here's my understanding.

In English, singular countable nouns are usually used with some kind of modifier (either 'a', 'or 'the', or 'my'/other possessive pronouns). In Russian, singular nouns don't require modifiers.

When the modifier is omited in English, it means 'brother' is used like a name, to refer to a specific brother and not just 'a brother' is general. This is not what the Russian sentence means, so that's why just 'brother' is not accepted.

This raised some questions for me, such as can be found in the post I wrote in reply:

Do Russians ever use "brother" similarly? In other words, do Russians ever use "brother" or any other family member as a name? And, if so, how is the distinction made? (More importantly, how are English students of Russian to know the difference?) Would it, perhaps, ever be capitalized as in:

Пока Брат читает, я работаю.

I know I have seen "Big Brother" as in "a person or organization exercising total control over people's lives" is sometimes (but not always) spelled with capital letters as in:

Большой Брат

I actually tried to investigate this a bit via digital means. What I found with Google's Ngram didn't help much and an advanced search of Russian pages did seem to indicate that some might capitalize it from time to time, but the practice appears to be rather limited and somewhat arbitrary. I did some further research in this regard and discovered some things that I will add in an answer to this post.

Since most of the posts in that thread are a year old, I wasn't too sure if I would get a reply or get one relatively soon, so I thought I'd post it over here since the Russian Language StackExchange has proven to be one of the more active forums I've visited.

To be realistic, I understand that this question may seem somewhat insignificant, and surely, not knowing the answer to this question isn't likely to move a person's mastery of Russian ahead by leaps and bounds, but every little drop in the bucket of Russian language knowledge is incrementally beneficial. So, if you are a native or fluent speaker of Russian and have any thoughts on this, please share them with us.

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    Is 'Hey, bro!' an example of using 'bro' as a name? – Sergey Slepov Aug 30 '17 at 9:28
  • @SergeySlepov W/o doing any further research (e.g., consulting with grammar websites, usage books), I'd consider "bro" in your example above an example of using "bro" as a name. Grammarians or linguists might have a special name for it, but I think it would fall under general notions of what most people mean when we use the word "name." It isn't a legitimate first name like "Sergey," nor is it a common nickname like "Миша," or even a cute one like "Cupcake" or "Pumpkin," but I still think it qualifies as a name (even though it isn't much more personally identifiable than "Hey, you."). – Lisa Beck Nov 23 '17 at 19:54
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First, you should be aware, that in the todays world, with all these information/communication devices out there, there are numerous ways one can use words, sentences etc. And for such specific cases there can be great "diversity" in usage. That is, if you see somewhere

"Yes, put those away before Sister Constance sees you."

"Спрячь это, пока Сестра Констанция не увидела."

I would say from my personal experience, that usually we don't capitalize such words in such cases. But that doesn't mean, that everyone does the same. This specific case was possible, I'm 100% sure of this, due to translation from English, the translator probably decided to leave the capitalized word as it was in English.


Second, we need to get rid of ambiguity with the word name. In Russian, we usually use the word (имя) "name" only (there may be some exceptions, I'll add them, if I recall any) in reference to a person's first name, full name (first (optionally the middle one) and last together) , to a thing's (like a ship) name and rarely to a nickname or last name. We usually don't use "имя" even for names of cities/villages etc, we use the word "название".

This means, that if any word (including the words for family members), is being used as a first/last name, nickname it must be capitalized. The word Брат can be a foreign first/last name, a nickname and in these cases it must be capitalized.

But if the word (any word, not even specifically one for a family member) is used as an address and is not a first name or other proper name, then it has not to be capitalized. The item from english.stackexchange, provided by you, mentions such cases:

Mom and Dad are capitalized when they're used in place of names, e.g. Hi, Mom

but in Russian, this would be an ordinary address, not a name, as here:

  • Привет, мам/ Hi, Mom
  • Здравия желаю, товарищ сержант/ Hello, sergeant (probably this should be capitalized too)
  • Откройте двери, водитель автобуса/ Open the door, bus driver

So this is the second point summarized: if the word is being used as a first/last name, nickname it should be capitalized. Otherwise, if the word is being used only in place of a name, like an address, a "position" in some monastical order or whatever, then it should not be capitalized, unless its capitalization is required by some other rule, like it's the first word of a sentence.


The third point, is that in Russian, as a general rule of thumb, we capitalize only words, which are some sort of proper names, like: Иван, Солнце (when it used as the name of the star, that is Отправить миссию на Солнце, but на небе светит солнце, город Москва, крейсер Москва, Государственная Дума, Московский физико-технический интститут etc. We don't capitalize many things, which are capitalized in English: (I — я, Russian — русский, Admiral Nimitz — адмирал Нимиц, the Parliament (when it refers to a specific parliament) — парламент, President Trump — президент Трамп.


And the fourth point, which is related to the words, which refer to family members. In sort of informal slang, the words (мать, отец, брат, сестра, only their full variants, not diminutive ones like папа, мама, ма, па, сестренка and so on) are often used as address even to people, who are not family members in that situation. This use can be considered offensive by many:

  • Не убивай, брат из к/ф "Брат", cannot recall any other example
  • Эх, мать, давай споем
  • Отец, есть сигарета? (the word "отец" wouldn't be capitalized, if it wasn't the first one in the sentence)
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    "Hello, sergeant (probably this should be capitalized too)" - I just googled "what's up officer" and indeed in many cases Officergot capitalized – Arioch Aug 28 '17 at 8:27
  • You make some really good points in your answer. (For example, the one about how the Russian may have been translated by a native English speaker who carried over English capitalization conventions. That thought did enter my mind.) I truly appreciate your contributions, especially since I am assuming they are coming from a native speaker. However, I was hoping to see some answers/comments that cited some sources. Do you know of any that touch on minute matters such as these? – Lisa Beck Sep 14 '17 at 20:40
  • @LisaBeck, thank you. Did you mean sources (by these words Do you know of any that touch on minute matters such as these?). Also, sorry, but what does it mean to touch on minute? Couldn't find anything about this phrase in the dictionary – user907860 Sep 15 '17 at 2:54
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    @user907860 "Touch on minute" has no meaning (AFAIK) in the English language (or any other), but "touch on minute matters" means something like "address insignificant aspects" (of something). The word "minute" can refer to time, and most often does, but it is also used as an adjective to mean "small" or "trivial." But that's just off the top of my head. For a more authoritative source, I'll add a link to a dictionary definition for both "touch on" and "minute." – Lisa Beck Nov 23 '17 at 20:15
  • @user907860 Yes, I was referring to sources. BTW, I just reread your answer. It is really quite good and the more I think about it, the more I realize it is worthy of a green checkmark ... with or without any cited sources (although, if you've got any to add, I'd love to see them). – Lisa Beck Nov 23 '17 at 20:20
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The short answer

The short answer is “no.” Russian writers do not appear to capitalize a word for a family member even when it is used as a name. This is true whether directly addressing the family member or not (or adding a modifier like "little/big" or "younger/older"), and true whether or not it is translated into English as "my brother" or simply "brother." Here are some examples from Reverso:

"We're just trying to have a peaceful drink over here, brother."
"Мы тут пытается спокойно посидеть, брат."

"We've been through a lot, big brother."
"Мы прошли через многое, большой брат."

"I will bring you back, my brother, I promise."
"Я воскрешу тебя, брат, обещаю."

"... while my brother is eating corpses, he is not my brother"
"... "'пока брат ест трупы, он мне не брат', ..."

This last example is not from Reverso but from an informБЮРО online article titled, "Уехавшая в Одессу жительница Акмолинской области называет свою мать трупоедкой."

The only one legitimate exception I can think of, where "брат" is capitalized in such instances are those in which "brother" begins the sentence as in:

"Brother threatened to cut off my ears so I'd never hear Chopin again."
"Брат угрожал отрезать мне уши, чтобы я никогда не слушала больше Шопена."

But you may also find other exceptions as in:

"Bless me, Brother, for I have acted against the example of the Gods."
"Благословите меня, Брат, ибо я поступал вопреки наставлениям Богов.

But this last example seems to be the exception and not a rule/standard/common practice and you're bound to find others similar to it.


Other forms of address: honorifics

I also took a look at what examples could be found via a Google search and was immediately reminded that, in English, we sometimes capitalize the word “brother” when referring to monks as in the following example:

“Brother Kevin looped his arm around Andrew’s neck, while Brother Joshua quickly followed.”

By the way, the example above comes from a book titled, Enclosure: A Trappist Tale. I have only read a few lines of it and, well, let’s just say it goes beyond what most might consider “brotherly love” and very much ventures into what some, if not many, would consider racy, progressive (and/or even seditious), but it provides a good example of what I’m trying to teach here linguistically.

“Jack sat up, interested now, while Brother lay down and put one arm over his eyes.”
—From Brother, Brother, p. 14

My cursory search on Russian monks did not rule out that they, too, are not also referred to as “brothers” and addressed as “Brother __________” (or “Брат __________”), but I did not quickly find any evidence that they are addressed or referred to in this way. After doing some searches with "сестра," however (see below), I suspect they can be (even though I haven't always seen "брат" capitalized in such instances). I would think that there is some sort of standard protocol on such a thing, but my access to authoritative sources on the Russian language is somewhat limited due to various factors (a language barrier for starters).

Be that as it may, in English, this use of “brother” to refer to a member of a religious order can also be seen with its female counterpart — sister— and can extend beyond the honorifics used for traditional houses of religion. If the following example is any indicator, this appears to be true for the Russian language as well.

"Yes, put those away before Sister Constance sees you."
"Спрячь это, пока Сестра Констанция не увидела."

I can’t be 100% certain because I’ve never seen the show and am relying on a Wikia FANDOM page here, but Sister Constance appears to be a nun who occasionally appears in a show called Orange is the New Black.

Other, less traditionally religious examples follow:

"And will be as long as the Sister of the Dark lives."
"И будет пока Сестра Тьмы жива."

"Они жили тихой жизнью пока Сестры света не похитители ее."
"They were living a quiet life until the Sisters of the Light abducted her."

A capitalized “сестра” can also refer to what is known in British English as “a senior female nurse, typically in charge of a ward,” as in the following example:

"I thought they were rabid until Nurse Crane filled me in."
"Я думал, это бешенство, пока сестра Крейн не просветила меня.


The fraternity kind of brother

I’ve also read that Brother, when capitalized, can also refer to a member of a fraternity, but having met some fraternity brothers in my college days, I would have to say that I believe this usage is archaic if not dying out. Although, I do believe I’ve seen a couple of books where this appeared to be a part of the dialogue. However, it seemed that this was something that might have been in use at one time at older, established, private universities such as one of the Ivy Leagues. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall any of the fraternity brothers I met ever addressing one another as “Brother ____________.”


A bit on vocatives

In Russian, siblings (and I assume other family members and the like) are not capitalized even when used as names and even when used as a vocative (unless the vocative is used in an exclamatory way or starts the sentence/phrase/expression). This finding was limited to what Google’s Ngram and search of Russian web pages indicates where I only tested this with “брате,” but I suspect similar results would be found for other family members. Furthermore, some web pages I encountered seem to back this up:

“Recall also Pushkin’s «Что тебе надобно, старче?» … (‘What do you need, old man?’) …”
—From "Is There a Vocative Case in Russian?"


Odds and ends regarding the capitalization of words for family members

In English, you might also capitalize a family member in circumstances where there is more than one and you are referring to them by number or letter (e.g., Brother #4 or Brother D). I’m not entirely sure one would do that in Russian and my guess is that common practice would be to keep the word lowercase.

With or without the preceding examples, I realize that some native English speakers may not fully be aware of all the many conventions for capitalizing (or not) one’s various family members. For a decent discussion thread that goes into somewhat more depth on this, I recommend the following from the English Language & Usage StackExchange:

Capitalization of “sister” and “brother”

For cultural aspects regarding the use of the word “brother,” you may want to visit this one also:

Use of “brother” in non-family and non-religious contexts

It doesn’t deal with the issue of capitalization but touches on other aspects that may or may not be relevant to the Russian language. Regardless, both Russian and English speakers, of which this forum may have several, might benefit from reading it.


The following is something of an aside, but I felt it relevant enough to add here:

I mentioned in my question that I also sometimes see “big brother” capitalized in Russian. This is true even when it has not been in English (and typically wouldn’t be when not used as a name). This is true whether referring to one’s older brother or a surveillance state. Keep in mind that the examples that follow these next ones (and the ones that preceded it) are direct copy from Reverso and stray from the literal a bit here and there even when it doesn’t seem necessary to do so. I found this to be true of the next couple of examples, especially:

"As all you know, George is my big brother."
"Как вы знаете, Джордж - мой Старший Брат.

"You saw watchtower as big brother and you turned away."
"Ты думал, что Сторожевая Башня это Большой Брат, поэтому и отвернулся."

But even then, there are exceptions as in:

"I could be a Big Brother."
"Я могу быть 'старшим братом'".


Final conclusions

To recap briefly, family members are not capitalized in Russian even if being used as a name for someone and not a noun. In English, it would be technically more correct to write, “While Brother reads” rather than “While brother reads,” but you could conceivably see examples of both. An example of correct usage in English (again, from Reverso) is as follows:

We don't have the time to wait for Brother's graduation."
**Нам некогда ждать, пока брат окончит школу.

What the relative prevalence is of instances where possession is implied and where it is not, I could not tell you. In fact, I do see a lot of examples on Reverso where a possessive pronoun is used before a word denoting a family member, so if you use it, you don't run the risk of not being understood and it is unlikely that it will even sound odd to a native Russian. Having said that, it does appear that this lack of a possessive pronoun seems to occur more when the noun representing the family member comes after the following words:

пока
как
и

or the following prepositions:

за, к, с

or immediately follows a verb.*


*It looks as if the possessive pronoun might be more likely to be dropped in instances where the word for the family member is in the dative, prepositional, and/or quite possibly the instrumental.

But these are just observations from what I've seen at Reverso, and, for the sake of full disclosure, mainly based off of the word "сестра," so I can't be certain that this observation is true in general.


Hope that helps someone out there who might have a similar or related question and if you are a native or fluent Russian speaker or teach it to others and you have something to add or disagree with anything I’ve written, please post a comment.

  • It seems you did not understand a question. If someone has a name or surname or nickname "Брат" or "Мать", it definitely would be capitalized. -1. – Anixx Aug 27 '17 at 9:22
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    the wiktionary page, you cited, has the vocative case for the word "брат" as "брате". This is very archaic, if it is correct at all. No one, use the word "брат" as "брате" in the vocative case in Russian, though this is how it is used in Ukrainian. One uses simply "брат" in the vocative case – user907860 Aug 27 '17 at 14:33
  • "Акмолинской области" - I don't think in casual Russian that should get capitalized. In official jargot, when that is a term, it usually would be. But not in regular language I think – Arioch Aug 28 '17 at 8:30
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    @Anixx "you did not understand a question." She is the author of the question. – Vitaly Aug 28 '17 at 13:33
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There is no common name or surname in Russian that would councide with word for brother.

But if used as a proper name (for instance, nickname), it definitely would be capitalized. In ambiguous cases you always can use possessive pronouns, and I think it is in general better way of expression when using terms for relatives.

Suppose there is society ruled by Mother and one wants to refer to his own mother. He definitely would say "моя мать".

  • 1
    you misinterpreted the question. – Sergey Slepov Aug 30 '17 at 9:34

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