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In Russian, нужен/нужно/нужна/нужны take the dative. The person needing something is put in the dative case. So им был нужен is quite clear and means "they needed". Now, the sentence:

Кто им был нужен

means "Who did they need"? "Who was necessary for them"? I would have expected that кто has to be put into the accusative, i.e. кого. In German, for instance, when I ask this, I would ask "Wen oder was brauchten Sie"? and it's cleary accusative. Not nominative.

Same holds for other examples, like Мне нужна ваша машина. Why not Мне нужна вашу машину*?*

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  • In German, the more direct translation would be "Wer war für sie notwendig", which uses nominative case
    – king_nak
    Commented Aug 5, 2022 at 8:28

2 Answers 2

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This is a deponent verb (as in Latin or Greek), where the subject and object are inverted.

In English "SUBJ needs OBJ" (usual word order). In Russian it would be "SUBJ нуждается в OBJ" (i.e. using the reflexive -ся form). But the direct nonreflexive form нужен switches the subject and the object. That's why the logical "subject" мне becomes the object and takes the dative, and the logical "object" ваша машина is now the subject (and takes the nominative).

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Кто им был нужен?

is literally translated as

Who was necessary/needed for them?

As you can see, the pronoun who is in the nominative here, and there's the verb "to be" — in both English and Russian. The phrase "Who did they need" looks ungrammatical to me, at least, I would use "whom" here. There is no verb meaning "to need" in Russian, but there is a verb meaning "to want," which is governed the same way: Кого они хотели? = Whom did they want?. Both in English and in Russian, the phrase uses the accusative.

So, In Russian we say "be needed/necessary" and we cannot say a direct equivalent of "to need," but we can say equivalent of "to want", using the accusative.

There's a verb, нуждаться, in Russian (roughly meaning to need), but it's used with the preposition в (in) and takes the prepositional case. It's similar to the English verb "to be interested in".

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  • "Who did they need?" is perfectly correct. WHOM is less and less popular and is never heard in conversation.
    – CocoPop
    Commented Jul 21, 2022 at 16:56
  • @CocoPop he means that historically like a few centuaries ago "Whom did they need" and "whom" in other sentences was used much often. Because It was a correct way to say. Like "thee" instead of "you" when you refer to only ONE person not to many ones. In French and in a lot of other languages as well there is "thou" like in russian "ты", in French "tu". But languages tend to be simplified that is why "you" is perfectly fine and "thou" is really strange to say Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 19:46
  • @VadzimNemchenko: I know what he meant — he thought the sentence was ungrammatical becuase of "who" and not "whom." But I wanted to clarify that "who" is more natural and acceptable today than "whom."
    – CocoPop
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 19:49
  • @CocoPop I think he knows it. He just highlights that "Whom" was and is a TRUE and correct way to say. But people simplified the language and now "who" is gramatically ok to use in all cases. Just imagine when you do have "thou" in Russian and you learn english and it turns out they don't have "thou" but they did. it means "thou" is a TRUE and correct way to say. So seems like in English languages cases almost have disappeared. Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 19:55
  • @VadzimNemchenko: I was merely responding to the phrase "looks ungrammatical to me"
    – CocoPop
    Commented Aug 1, 2022 at 20:27

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