Being near something means to have it. у него есть чемодан - by him is a suitcase. Are there other examples of Russian thinking, that can help me learn the language?

More examples I discovered:

English thinking - Russian thinking

English: "On the one hand I think..., on the other hand, I think..." Russian: "On the one side..., on the other side..."

English: "We go to the county-side..." Russian: "We go to nature..." (Мы идем к природе)

English: "in my opinion" Russian: "as for me"

English: "my pleasure; you're welcome; no problem" Russian: "please"

English: "I feel great" Russian: "I feel myself great"

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    I strongly doubt it's "Russian thinking", many other languages like Turkic or Semitic ones have the same construction for 'X has Y'. It's a mere construction, just the same way as the English 'there is an X' hardly reflects the "English thinking". To learn a language one has nothing else to do but to learn the language, the understanding comes much later, when one knows really many language structures together with their diachronic development.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 3, 2015 at 11:51
  • @YellowSky: Although there is an undeniable validity to your statement above, as a Russian learner I know where Johan is coming from. When I go to say or write something in Russian, I have to formulate it with "Russian eyes" because semantically and lexically, Russians approach things differently. The use of у+genitive is just one example, and an easy one to learn. However, in the case of уже, for example, I had to teach myself to insert it in situations where we don't use it in English normally, so that it would come naturally in Russian. I think this is what Johan is referring to.
    – CocoPop
    Jan 3, 2015 at 13:29
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    @CocoPop - You describe what I called 'language structures'. While learning Russian you learn to structure your speech (or call it structure the situations you talk about) in a way different from what you use in your mother tongue, but that doesn't necessarily mean you've got to acquire a completely new and integral way of thinking which can be called "Russian thinking", it's just like acquiring a new habit. If you're right-handed and learn to write with your left hand, you simply get a new habit, there's no particular philosophy or way of thinking behind it. That's what I mean.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 3, 2015 at 13:41
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    Speaking from personal experience - learning English - nothing helped as much as listening to radio. Not watching TV, mind you, as the latter presents more distractions from the language itself.
    – Alex
    Jan 6, 2015 at 3:48
  • @Alex, absolutely! I listen to horoshee.fm all the time and learned the meaning of настроения. Before, I listened to Radio Borneo, but now I get the message "Sadly it's out of our reach." Can you recommend one?
    – Johan
    Jan 7, 2015 at 4:42

1 Answer 1


Generally, what can help you learn a language is something that's largely the opposite; not reading too much into its grammar and idiomatics. And in this particular example, "being near something means to have it" is not even the correct literal interpretation.

The у of у него есть can only roughly be translated as "by"; it's not quite the same у that denotes spatial proximity. What I mean is: consider John chopped wood with his axe vs. John chopped wood with his father. The latter can be rephrased as John and his father chopped wood [together]; with the former, you can only do that as a joke. In the same way, there are usages of у that can be replaced with a synonymous preposition, возле, and there are those that cannot. Thus У реки есть гостиница "there is a hotel by the river" and У реки есть приток "the river has a tributary" may look grammatically the same, but they're intuitively different to a Russian speaker, and the test is that you can also say Возле реки есть гостиница while saying *Возле реки есть приток would be a case of "John and his axe chopping wood together". Just like English has, as it were, a separate with denoting instrumentality (which is a usage of "with" that doesn't exist in Russian), so does Russian have a separate у denoting ownership.

You could argue, of course, that there must have been an earlier stage when this usage of у hadn't yet been grammaticalised, and so one did speak of "having" something in terms of "being near" something. But here's the tricky thing about у: it's slightly narrower in meaning than возле, in that it can only express proximity to something that is, for all practical purposes, completely immovable; a part of the fixed scenery of life. Thus when applied to a person, it would mean something like the French chez — "at X's place", which was presumably then generalised to mean "in the domain of X's possessions".

By the way, the verb "to have" is itself a late invention in Indo-European languages. PIE itself is believed to have expressed ownership in a manner more similar to modern Russian, but using the dative: thus in Schleicher's fable, we have *h₂áu̯ei̯ h₁i̯osméi̯ h₂u̯l̥h₁náh₂ né h₁ést — literally "a sheep, to whom wool was not" — meaning "a sheep that had no wool". The English have and the (surprisingly unrelated) Latin habeō both started out as verbs for taking; Spanish even went through this shift once more — relegating haber to a purely auxiliary function and adopting tener, originally "to hold", as the verb for actual "having". But, as the song goes, to have is not to hold; and in the case of Russian, to be near something is not to have it.

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    +1, a very good answer!
    – Yellow Sky
    Jan 3, 2015 at 13:30
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    That answer can be framed and hung on a wall :) Bravo!
    – CocoPop
    Jan 3, 2015 at 13:33
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    Thank you Nikolay Ershov for your most interesting response! Tim Doner in a TED talk on YouTube say, when you say thank you in Farsi (Persian), the response may be "May I sacrifice my life for you." I don't know where this is coming from, but I was hoping that some Russian examples could bring me closer to understanding the Russian mindset and perhaps help me to construct my own sentences easier. As another example, there is also the English "on board", "above board", and other phrases that remind me of a seafaring context. Thanks again for understanding where I'm coming from!
    – Johan
    Jan 3, 2015 at 14:01
  • @Johan, well, the Russian for "thank you" is a contraction of "may God deliver [you]" and I remember reading about some American politician during the Cold War wondering if it didn't say something about how deep religion was entrenched in the Russian psyche despite all the official Soviet atheism. To which I say, not necessarily. Things like that make fun linguistic trivia but don't really tell you a lot, because language in its everyday use is both very careless and "automatic" and has a predilection for metaphors and overstatement essentially for their own sake. Jan 3, 2015 at 14:21
  • @NikolayErshov it's rather "may the God save you": ru.wiktionary.org/wiki/… Jan 6, 2015 at 15:02

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