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In Russian, animate and inanimate nouns inflect differently. Let's compare "кабан" and "стакан":

Я вижу кабанов. Я стреляю в кабана.

Я вижу стаканы. Я стреляю в стакан.

It is all easy-peasy unless it comes to situations where animate nouns are used to figuratively call inanimate objects and vice versa. That is, situations where the grammatical animacy is in conflict with the physical animacy. I am totally confused as to what is the rule for such situations, and am very much overwhelmed by apparently inconsistent examples I found in the Internet.

Let's consider the word "козел." Usually this noun means an animal, namely a goat, but can also be used to figuratively call a man, namely a kind of stubborn badass, and is also a figurative name for a gymnastic tool. I see in the Internet that when people talk about this gymnastic tool, they inflect it as an animate noun: "Перепрыгнуть через козла," not "перепрыгнуть через козел."

But now let's consider the word "зебра." Normally this noun means an animal, namely a zebra, but is also used to figuratively call a pedestrian crossing. And when people talk about pedestrian crossings, they inflect the noun as an inanimate one: "Они наносят зебры," not "они наносят зебр."

I am totally confused by this. There are two nouns, each primarily meaning an animal, and when these animals are used to figuratively call inanimate objects, one of these animals remains grammatically animate and the other one does not. I am at a loss as to where the logic is and what I am missing. There might be some deep principle I have failed to surmise.

Okay, I can simply look in a dictionary and blindly memorize such things, simply ignoring the apparent logical inconsistency, but I am puzzled as to what I should do when the figurative use of the noun is not very common or when I am the first to figuratively use it. For instance, I am puzzled what I should do in the following three cases:

  • Case 1: The word "тараканы," usually meaning cockroaches, is sometimes used to speak about psychological issues. For the latter meaning, I do not know how I should write: "Я вижу всех твоих тараканов" or "я вижу все твои тараканы."

  • Case 2: The word "валенок," usually meaning a special kind of shoe, is sometimes used to speak about an uneducated villager. I do not know what is correct: "Не хочу учить валенки" or "не хочу учить валенков."

  • Case 3: Let me now give you an example of situation in which I am the first to use a noun figuratively. I often play gomokunarabe, a Japanese game characterized by a virtually infinite number of opening variants, which can be divided into a number of classes. For openings of one class I myself use the word for a ray, a maritime fish known in Russian as "скат." I am puzzled how I should say in Russian, meaning an opening of that class: "Я изучаю скат" or "я изучаю ската." Or this dilemma: "Я решила поставить на доску скат" or "я решила поставить на доску ската."

My question is this: What rules, logic, or general principles are there for inflection of animate nouns when they are used to figuratively call inanimate objects, and vice versa? I would be also grateful for responses to cases (1)-(3).


P.S. I just found that Russians say "сыграть в крокодила" (a game), but "изготовить крокодил" (a certain illegal drug). That is, one and the same animal, the crocodile, remains animate when it denotes a game, and becomes inanimate when it denotes a drug! This is really tricky! Any explanation?

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It's a complicated matter, and as a native speaker I'm lucky not to think about it consciously.

Typically, when a person is named after an inanimate object, the word behaves as if it were animate all along, so the option

Не хочу учить валенков / лаптей / чурок

is the correct one.

When it's the other way round, things get more complicated. I'd say Перепрыгнуть через козла but наносят зебры. While this seems like a contradiction, the difference is, I believe, that козел as a sports equipment looks somewhat like the original animal, so we still talk of it like of an animal. Meanwhile, зебра as a pedestrian crossing is quite abstract, so if you'd say "вижу зебр" instead of вижу зебры, the listener would have a mental picture of a striped herd, not of several crossings, even if they are in the city. If, however, you'd see a statue of the famous event from our Civil War, the Charge of Zebra-Mounted Sailors, "вижу зебр" would be the correct phrase, even though the statues are clearly inanimate.

Your скат as a game term is probably abstract enough to deserve an inanimate form, if it means a strategy. But if its meaning is that the cards or tokens make the shape of a ray, then it might behave as animate. To mess things up, we say поставить на доску слона, not слон in chess. Why? Probably, even though the chess piece looks nothing like an elephant, we still mentally treat it like a doll or statue, which keeps the animate form.

Frankly speaking, I'd recommend you not to try to solve this analytically; once you've read enough Russian literature and had enough practice speaking with the locals, maybe you'll pick up the pattern subconsciously.

UPD: the follow-up questions are also quite challenging, and I'm afraid I don't have a definite answer. I may have an idea of what I would say in such a situation, but my explanation of the reason may be completely bogus, and I'm not entirely sure that another Russian would speak the same way I do.

For the constellations, I'd say увидел обе Медведицы, because they, frankly speaking, have nothing in common with the animal. It's more like a proper name. Imagine two mountains, Малая Кошка and Большая Кошка. Once again, it would be Вижу обе Кошки.

Regarding забить козла: looks like the names of the games inexplicably behave like animate objects even though the concept is rather abstract. Перекинуться в дурака, сыграть в крокодила, etc. Don't ask why, I honestly have no idea.

Regarding скат, I even have no intuition what I'd say in this case. Might be either way. If this would be an unfamiliar term, such as I'd mentally put quotes around it, it would more likely remain скат, but выложил ската also sounds fine. Same as when speaking about WW2, we might say formally батарея подбила три "Тигра" и две "Пантеры", but a boasting artillerist could say мы трёх тигров и двух пантер завалили, and as a colloquial speech that would be fine.

To make things worse, sometimes living things may be talked about in an inanimate form. Я выловил две щуки or я поймал двух щук? Both fine (by my ear). Maybe 'cause they end up dead? Yet, no-one would say застрелил на охоте козёл, only козла. Mystery. Or a really weird case of misogyny.

Back to the original conclusion, I'm afraid. We use the form according to our mental image. But why is the image one way or the other? Intuition or bust.

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  • This answer is way, way better than mine! You've grasped the very essence of the issue I've noticed the author quite often struggles with - when it come to language usage, sometimes it's just that there's not well established set of rules one can use in any situation. – shabunc Jun 6 '19 at 8:16
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    So it is correct to say сыграть в крокодила (a game), but изготовить крокодил (a drug). One and the same animal, the crocodile, remains animate when it denotes a game, and becomes inanimate when it denotes a drug. This is really, really tricky! Russian is so complicated! – Mitsuko Jun 6 '19 at 11:22
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    @Mitsuko "Крокодил" is also a type of connector Also inanimate, "для соединения можно использовать обычный крокодил" (для неспециалистов "крокодил" напишут в кавычках). – tum_ Jun 6 '19 at 21:28
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    @Mitsuko - I think that козёл is animate in перепрыгнуть через козла because in Russian non-living things that resemble people or other living beings are animate grammatically, e.g. кукла (doll), матрёшка (matryoshka nesting doll), and even робот (robot) are animate nouns, so козёл as "gymnastic buck" is of that category, too. – Yellow Sky Jun 8 '19 at 15:47
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    @Mitsuko - The overall idea is that if the noun names a thing which is a living being or it's a kind of a model of a living being, then the noun is animate. When you call people тюфяк or тряпка, those people still remain people, with arms and legs, head and breast, etc. So, those nouns are decline like animate in this case, although usually they're inanimate when they name those non-living objects. – Yellow Sky Jun 9 '19 at 13:57
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A human language develops over time, and its rules often become counterintuitive. Whether you want it or not, even native speakers have to look into the dictionaries.

"Козёл", as a gymnastic tool, is a legitimate inanimate noun. Therefore "прыгать через козёл" is totally legit and even should be preferred. However, many people, including myself, have a longstanding habit of speaking "прыгать через козла". And we have an authoritative backing from philologists: Zaliznyak's dictionary specifically mentions that the gymnastic tool is both inanimate and animate.

"Зебра", as a pedestrian crossing, is still considered a colloquial word. Wiktionary.org and probably some other resources insist that it should decline as an inanimate. But for me they are not authoritative enough, and I happily stick to my habit of using the word "зебра" as an animate only.

I would be also grateful for responses to cases (1)-(3).

Case 1: Я вижу всех твоих тараканов. Don't see any reason for using an inanimate here.

Case 2: Не хочу учить валенков. Well, in fact, both can be used: "не хочу учить валенков" -- I don't feel like teaching people as dumb as shoes; "не хочу учить валенки" -- I don't want to teach them, because it's as useless as teaching shoes.

Case 3: Я решила поставить на доску разыграть ската. It is like in chess: I used to playing the Sicilian Dragon -- Раньше я обычно играл дракона [в сицилианке].

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  • Thanks for such an interesting answer. Do I understand it right that in both cases (animate noun for an inanimate object, and inanimate noun for an animate object), you always prefer to inflect the noun as an animate noun? – Mitsuko Jun 6 '19 at 8:42
  • In gomokunarabe, the board is empty at the start of the game, and the first move of the first player is to put three stones anywhere on the board. These three stones are like a constellation of stars. If these three stones make a big triangle rather than are close to each other, I call such a position a ray (скат). This is why I say поставить - I put a ray on my very first move. – Mitsuko Jun 6 '19 at 8:44
  • @It's often the case that the primary meaning (here an animate) influences us more in everyday speech. But as I mentioned, this is not a strict grammar rule, and, say, "прыгать через козёл" even sounds a bit more literate. – Matt Jun 6 '19 at 9:01
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Usually noun in such usage just preserves the category it belongs "originally", so it's just

Я вижу всех твоих тараканов.

(since "таракан" is animate) - the same about "поставить на доску ската" - and

Не хочу учить валенки.

(since "валенки" is inanimate)

However I can not help but notice that, while grammatically, at least second phrase sounds quite artificial and non-natural for native speaker - regardless of what form of inclination it will be used.

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  • Thanks a lot. So it is ungrammatical to say "я вижу чурок"? Чурка means a piece of wood, so when I figuratively call some people pieces of wood, I should still inflect them as inanimate nouns? – Mitsuko Jun 5 '19 at 20:02
  • Any comment on "они наносят зебры"? As you can check in Google, people inflect it as an inanimate noun when they talk about pedestrian crossings. – Mitsuko Jun 5 '19 at 20:08
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    "чурка" is de-facto a separate animate noun to be honest (I also need to stress out that it's extremely inappropriate to use it) "они наносят зебры" is indeed inanimate, good point. – shabunc Jun 5 '19 at 20:26
  • >>second phrase sounds quite artificial and non-natural for native speaker<< Does the following phrase sound better: "не хочу учить лаптей"? Or "не хочу учить лапти"? – Mitsuko Jun 5 '19 at 20:41
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    I have to disagree: "Не хочу учить (этих) валенков", "Видишь вон того валенка? В моём классе учится." – tum_ Jun 5 '19 at 21:03

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