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I came across this exercise (pg 191 in Russian in an Easy Way if that helps) where it talks about the Olympics.

One sentence is:

Зимние игры называют Белой Олимпиадой.

I understand the verb as 'to call, name' followed by the instrumental case. But it sounds like the 'winter games' are calling something the 'white Olympics'. If they are being called that why not use себя, or a reflexive verb or the dative case....?

I hope I provided enough context, but if not here is a pic of the page (it is at the end):

enter image description here

17

I understand where your confusion comes from: the verb seemingly agrees with the preceding noun which you mistook for the subject.

This sentence is actually of a special kind called неопределённо-личные предложения ("indefinite person sentences"). They have no subject and the verb is in the third person plural:

В зале поют. - There is singing in the hall.

Мне сказали принести это сюда. - I was told to bring it here.

Мне принесли эту книгу. - Someone brought me this book.

Ему здесь всегда рады. - He is always welcome here.

The subject is not mentioned because it is not important. There are a few ways to render such sentences into English (which normally requires a subject): using the passive voice ('I was told'), using an indefinite pronoun ('someone') or restructuring the sentence, see above.

Although the predicate is plural, it bears no indication of number. E.g. if you are told:

Проходите, вас ждут. - Please come in, they are waiting for you.

From this phrase alone, you can't deduce how many people are waiting for you, it could be one. Another example:

Что делать, если говорят, что любят, но замуж не берут? - What do I do if I'm told that I'm loved but never get proposed to?

Despite of the plural, it is obvious that the person does not want to marry many people at once.

Back to your sentence:

Зимние игры называют Белой Олимпиадой.

Using называют with no subject is a common way to say what something is called. The subject (who is doing the calling) is not important.

The verb называть takes two complements:

называть <кого-либо/что-либо (Accusative)> <кем-либо/чем-либо (Instrumental)>

to call <something> <something>

Зимние игры fill the accusative case slot in your sentence. To make this more obvious, one could also say:

Олимпиаду называют зимними играми.

Here Олимпиаду is in the Accusative and зимними играми is in the Instrumental case.

N.B. There is also безличные предложения (impersonal sentences) which are slightly different from "indefinite-person" sentences.

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  • 1
    "They" is not necessary here. It can also be just " The winter games are called the White Olympics" (implied they). That's more in the the spirit of the rest of the text than "They call the winter games the...", which is a bit odd in this context. As an English speaker I would be asking "Who are they?" – VCH250 Nov 5 '17 at 21:36
  • @VCH250: I just got curious and found the following about usage of they in here. See item 2). I agree though this construct is rarely used in English. – farfareast Nov 6 '17 at 0:05
  • @VCH250, farfareast, you are both right. I have updated my answer to not mention the 'implied they'). – Sergey Slepov Nov 6 '17 at 8:17
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It is the same as "they call it the White Olympics". In addition to other answer I'd like to note that this form is always used with plural form of the verb называть. So it's easy to distinguish two different cases if you use some singular or uncountable object like:

Нефть называют чёрным золотом. They call oil the "black gold".

OR

Америку называют страной свободных людей. America is a country of free men, they say.

Here you can clearly see that plural называют is not to express an action of "oil" entity.

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I think you gave an answer to your own question while asking. You just wrote:

But it sounds like the 'winter games' are calling something the 'white Olympics'.

So you are quite right that зимние игры называют could act as a subject and a verb in the sentence, but the verb requires a direct object, that very "something ". If there's no object the sentence sounds weird. So зимние игры here is a direct object in the impersonal sentence. They call winter games... This is a popular way to render passive voice in Russian while translating from English.

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    A comment. If the initial assumption about "Winter Games call [themselves] the white Olympics" were true, then it would spell называются. The -ся bit is for self reference. As it is not there, someone different calls the Winter Games "white Olympics". – Oleg Lobachev Nov 2 '17 at 16:28
  • А если кого -то еще? Зимние игры называют первых чемпионов. Такое вам не приходит в голову? – V.V. Nov 3 '17 at 13:41
  • Пример кажется мне достаточно искусственным, в данном случае идет сравнение на семантическое соответствие того, кто (формально) называет и кого называют, грубо говоря: <игры> называют <победителей>. Если это не парсится — <игры> называют <играми>, то подразумевается что субъект тут не <игры>, а опущенное <люди>. То есть получается <люди, опущенно> называют <игры> <играми>. – Oleg Lobachev Nov 3 '17 at 14:27
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Sentences without subject with verbs in plural form accusative case are used in formal texts to describe sort of widespread common knowledge. Grammatically this implies an omitted subject like все / люди / они. Usually this is translated to English using passive voice:

Москву также называют Белокаменной. — The city of Moscow is also called "The White-stone One".

Плетёные корзины изготовляют из ветвей ивы. — Wicker baskets are made of willow branches.

Этот праздник отмечают в конце лета. — This holiday is celebrated at the end of summer.

После окончания ремонта инструмент тщательно чистят. — After completion of repair works the instrument[s] should be thoroughly cleaned.

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The use of the verb "называют" without a subject is extremely common, with the meaning of "they call..." or "some people call...". The inversion of the verb with the object is also common in this context. In Russian the word order is more flexible than in English: we tend to put the topic of the sentence first, even when it differs from the grammatical subject. (Here the grammatical subject is "they" or "some people", but the sentence is not really about the people: it is about the "winter games").

The use of this verb without the first object is, on the other hand, extremely uncommon to the point of being borderline ungrammatical - as it does not really make sense to provide a name without specifying the object being named.

So it is true that technically this sentence could be read in two ways, but one meaning is really much more natural than the other. Russian speakers are used to word order inversions; so when they try to figure out whether "Зимние игры" is in fact a nominative or an accusative (as it could be both), its position at the beginning of the sentence is not necessarily the first cue that they consider.

If one tried to avoid this ambiguity (even though, as I said, there is really no need to), one could indeed say

Зимние игры называются Белой Олимпиадой.

However the the two formulations have different nuances of meaning:

  • I would translate the original sentence as "They call the winter games the White Olympiad", or maybe even "Some people call...". This leaves room for the possibility that other people prefer to use a different name.

  • The other one, though, I would translate it as "The winter games are called the White Olympiad". That's just what their name is, period; there is no subjectivity involved.

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Formally, that type of sentence is known as неопределённо-личные предложения ("indefinite person sentences") and are typical for Slavic languages.

However, for an English speaking person, it'll be easier to think of them as "implicit subject sentences". And indeed, you come across them in English as well. Consider this short monologue:

  • Remember John? Spoke to him recently. (Do you remember John? I spoke to him recently" or "We spoke to him recently").

In this example the subject is contextual or implicit. By the same token Зимние игры называют Белой Олимпиадой are meant to say Зимние игры (они) называют Белой Олимпиадой or Зимние игры (люди) называют Белой Олимпиадой.

One final point and it's about the trap of Russian cases. As you correctly pointed out Белой Олимпиадой out is Instrumental (Ablative) case. However, Зимние игры is NOT in Nominative case (and therefore it is not subject). It is in Accusative case and as it's here same as Nominative case it can only be determined from the context.

In English, with its rigid structure, a sentence must start with a subject, which by definition is always in Nominative case. In Russian, determination of the case is the key to understanding relations between nouns in a sentence. The order of words is less important than their case. Thus you could just as easily say Называют Зимние игры Белой Олимпиадой or Белой Олимпиадой называют Зимние игры.

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  • Welcome! Consider formatting your answer for better readability. – Vadim Landa Nov 7 '17 at 10:41
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It's strange that only the last phrase caused the question. The text has many similar grammatical constructions.

1) Олимпийские игры проводят один раз в 4 года = (Они) (!) проводят Олимпийские игры один раз в 4 года = Олимпийские игры проводЯТСЯ один раз в 4 года.

2) На стадионе поднимают белый олимпийский флаг = (Они) поднимают на стадионе белый олимпийский флаг = На стадионе поднимается белый олимпийский флаг

3) Эти соревнования организуют летом и зимой = (Они) организуют эти соревнования летом и зимой = Эти соревнования организуются летом и зимой

4) Зимние игры называют Белой Олимпиадой = (Они) называют зимние игры Белой Олимпиадой = Зимние игры называются Белой Олимпиадой

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it sounds like the 'winter games' are calling something the 'white Olympics'

Yes, it sounds like this until you read the next part and see that the case does not match. Then you go back and re-parse. Also, "Olympic games" are inanimate, so you should have suspected something is wrong as soon as you read "называют", which implies animate subject.

why not use себя, or a reflexive verb

These variants can be valid, but they're stronger. They imply the name is the true name.

You can say

olympic games held in winter are called "White Olympics" - a true name for the games.

but you cannot say

"Winter Olympics" are called "White Olympics" - name redefinition.

I do not consider "White Olympics" the "true name" (I've never heard them called that), so I won't use the reflexive verb here.

Now I know that at least some people call "Winter Olympics" the "White Olympics", so I'd write "Зимние Игры иногда называют Белой Олимпиадой"

dative case

I'm not sure I understand this proposal.

Updates:

In most cases the specific action "называть" needs to be performed by someone [alive]. How can a stone or a game call something something? There are very similar verbs that do not need an animated subject: "Игры вызывают радость." (Games bring the joy.) Bringing the joy is something that a subject can perform even being inanimate.

"inanimate objects can always do things, if only in a make believe story"

That's true. "Труба зовёт в бой" ("Trumpet/bugle calls to battle") is perfectly fine. Each ambiguity has some more common and less common parsing. If you want to use the less common meaning you need to "justify" it by adding details that highlight your logic.

  • "Video games take all your time." - I get it.
  • "Olympic games steal all attention" - I get it.
  • "Olympic Games name the White Games" - sort of grammatically correct, but what exactly does that mean?
  • "Olympic Games define White Games as sport games that are played on a white field." or "Olympic Games name White Games the best sport." - grammatically correct, but what exactly do you mean by "Olympic Games define" or "Olympic Games name"?

The incompatibility between inanimate subject and "называют" does not extend to the reflexive form "называются". It seems to me that the "Inanimate Subject + Reflexive Verb" expressions are most often understood as passive. The specific reflexive form "называются" is now biased towards passive connotations even when the subject is animate. "Называют себя" ~= "call themselves", but "называются" ~= "are called" (even though these were the same words in the beginning.).

Parsing:

  1. "Игры" => Inanimate (Nominative Subject OR Accusative Object);
  2. "называют" => commonly needs animate subject => "Inanimate_Subject" parsing of "игры" is unlikely, the likely parsing is "Inanimate_Object in an indefinite-personal sentence"
  3. "белой олимпиадой" => not Genitive case (not "Subject calls object .") => Likely parsing is "Object is called name", but still not 100% sure - it could still be "Subject defines as description."
  4. End of sentence => "Subject defines name as description." parsing is broken. This leaves the "Object is called name" variant.
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  • Maybe it's a Russian thing but 3rd person plural verbs do not make me think of only animate subjects. But yeah, reparsing is something I've recently noted as being more significant and needed than earlier, now that I know many more nouns... – nate Dec 15 '17 at 19:20
  • BTW, dative case proposal was from thinking of 'to me', as in мне, as if the game's name was to itself.... Yeah, hard to explain so never mind haha – nate Dec 15 '17 at 19:23
  • @nate >"3rd person plural verbs do not make me think of only animate subjects". It's not about all such verbs, just the specific one. In most cases "называть" needs to be performed by someone [alive]. How can a stone or a game call something something? There are very similar verbs that do not need an animated subject: "Игры вызывают радость." (Games bring the joy.) Bringing the joy is something that a subject can perform even being inanimate. – Ark-kun Dec 16 '17 at 0:09
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    P.S. The incompatibility between inanimate subject and "называют" does not extend to the reflexive form "называются". It seems to me that the "Inanimate Subject + Reflexive Verb" expressions are most often understood as passive. The specific reflexive form "называются" is now biased towards passive connotations even when the subject is animate. "Называют себя" ~= "call themselves", but "называются" ~= "are called" (even though these were the same words in the beginning.). – Ark-kun Dec 16 '17 at 0:45
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    >"inanimate objects can always do things, if only in a make believe story" That's true. "Труба зовёт в бой" ("Trumpet/bugle calls to battle") is perfectly fine. Each ambiguity has some more common and less common parsing. If you want to use the less common meaning you need to "justify" it by adding details that highlight your logic. "Video games take all your time." - I get it. "Olympic games steal all attention" - I get it. "Olympic Games name the White Games" - grammatically correct, but what exactly does that mean? – Ark-kun Dec 16 '17 at 1:15

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