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In the phrase "У меня (есть)", I am the one doing the having, so surely I should be in the nominative, but instead we use "меня", which is accusative (or something else?).

I suspect this is because the literal meaning of "У меня есть кот" is something more like "There is a cat with me". Is this accurate? If so, what exactly does the preposition У mean here, and why is есть not conjugated?

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    Do you say "At I there is a cat" or "By I there is a cat"? – Anixx Nov 9 '14 at 10:08
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    Note that prepositions usually govern only one or two cases (rarely some popular preposition have a thirs for some specific use). So whatever the meaning, "у" would use Genitive. Why "у"+"есть" — that's a different question. "Having" is not really an action done by anyone (and if you "have an older brother", you literally have not done anything to have him). That's why some languages prefer to express possession with "there is" construction. Such as Russian or Japanese. – Shady_arc Nov 9 '14 at 15:54
  • The verb "есть" is conjugated. It is the third person singular form of "быть" (to be). – David42 Dec 19 '16 at 17:25
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The literal meaning is "By me there is a cat". The preposition у indicates something nearby, e.g., у окна = by the window. Every preposition requires the accompanying noun to have a definite case, and it just happens that nouns following у must be in the genitive case. Don't try to reason out "why" you need the genitive after у. As von Neumann would say, don't try to understand it; just get used to it. So we use меня and окна after у since they are the genitive form of я and окно.

There is no need to change the form of есть in this construction since it means "there is" and that's exactly what you're saying.

The construction у + genitive есть may seem like a complicated way to express possession if you compare it to English, but you shouldn't expect different languages to convey the same idea in the same way. There are other means of conveying possession in Russian with a grammatical construction that is closer to the English form (e.g., я имею право... = I have the/a right...), but the у + gen. construction is the standard idiomatic method in ordinary circumstances. The usage of я имею is rare in everyday speech. See the question at The usage of иметь.

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  • Could you explain why есть is unconjugated? Is it ever conjugated in Russian? – Jack M Nov 9 '14 at 11:36
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    @JackM Its obsolete conjugation is я есмь, ты еси, он есть,мы есмы, вы есте, они суть. As you can see, only 3rd person singular is preserved in modern Russian, due to the copula's relatively limited use. I believe, far more native speakers of English know "thou art" than there are native speakers of Russian who know the old conjugation for "to be"-verb (which has not been in use for several centuries already). – Shady_arc Nov 9 '14 at 15:57
  • That is, you can forget it if you are not interested in Old East Slavic (a.k.a. Old/Ancient Russian). – Shady_arc Nov 9 '14 at 16:05
  • @Shady_arc and actually 3rd person singular is actually what one would want here anyway. – Anixx Nov 9 '14 at 16:16
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    @Anixx but we use 3rd person singular even when theoretically one would want plural: no one says "У меня суть тетради". Only "У меня есть тетради". However, in academic writing some people may use "суть" in the meaning "A is B" to sound deep and wise (not sure if they do). And just like "есть", this 3rd person plural is then used both in singular and plural. – Shady_arc Nov 9 '14 at 17:15
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У меня есть кот literraly means I have a cat. So if you looks for seamless of sense and forms the phrast "The cat belongs to me" is closer to understand why "меня" but not "я".

Of course there is the direct translation Я имею кота, but it is not nice and can suppose some obscene connotation.

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  • The last example (with word иметь) is highly NOT recommended. – Artemix Nov 17 '14 at 8:29
  • Correct, I wrote about it. – user4591 Nov 17 '14 at 21:56
  • It is completely new to me that иметь has a meaning like this. Can you expand or cite? – OmarL Apr 28 '17 at 10:50
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Regarding this last bit:

why is есть not conjugated?

It's the verb быть (to be) in 3rd person singular. The reason it's not conjugated is that other forms have been dropped in recent 500 years. They were:

  • я есьм
  • ты еси
  • он есть - still used
  • мы есьмо
  • вы есте
  • они суть - very rarely but still used mostly in written, by educated people

(If you look at other Indo-European languages, Italian has forms of "essere" (to be) very similar.)

Nowadays, являться is used where "to be" is explicitly needed, and surprisingly идти is used similarly to "there is" in English (у нас машины идут в базовой комплектации - there are cars of base options in our shop).

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I think, it's same as "I am" and not "I is" in english.

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    I think the difference in more akin to that in English between I am vs. for me. – Aleks G Nov 16 '14 at 20:41

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