I've always had trouble figuring out why the dative is used in such constructions:

Я учу драконов русскому языку каждый день—вот беда моя!

So why is the verb учить followed by an accusative object then the dative? Is the literal meaning something like, "I'm teaching dragons FOR the Russian language", with FOR meaning "after, in the way of, for the purposes of"

The base meaning of Dative is " to, for". Most people translate Dative always as "to" but "for" works way better in my opinion. мне холондо—is more "it's cold for me" that it is "it's cold to me".

If it's not what I suggested, wtf is going on with these teaching/ learning verbs выучивать, приучивать итд...

  • 1
    I've often wondered the same thing. I've personally reconciled it by assuming that Russian treats teaching as a form of leading or guiding SOMEONE (acc) towards or to the acquisition or assimilation of SOMETHING (dat).
    – CocoPop
    Sep 3, 2015 at 11:58
  • "I'm teaching dragons FOR the Russian language" would be translated "Я учу драконов для русского языка" (for the benefit of the Russian lanfuage, for it to prosper, for instance, not for the dragons to learn).
    – Anixx
    Sep 3, 2015 at 14:25
  • I meat "for" in a more abstract meaning. More like "in the way of", "in accordance with" The preposition по can mean something like according to x, So I just stretched the logic.
    – VCH250
    Sep 3, 2015 at 18:08
  • @Corey Roberts-Reynolds This English usage is very confusing. I would say "I'm preparing you to this exam" so not to look like if I were saying the exam would benefit. If it were a concert or a show, I could say the both way.
    – Anixx
    Sep 3, 2015 at 18:09
  • Sorry i deleted the last comment but, "I'm preparing students for the exam" is quite common. And it means for the benefit of the students and not the exam. But I thought you could say the same with the Russian verb подготовить, so I deleted the comment. By the way, we never say "to this exam" like in Russian.
    – VCH250
    Sep 3, 2015 at 18:17

6 Answers 6

  • Historically the meaning of Dative is giving. So it makes sense to give knowledge to someone using Dative.

  • In this particular example it would be wrong grammatically to put 2 objects either in Accusative or in Dative because it would be confusing:

    я учу драконов русский язык (all Acc wrong) -> я преподаю драконам русский язык я учу/преподаю драконам русскому языку (all Dat wrong) -> я учу драконов русскому языку

    Of course there are other cases left (at least Genitive, Instrumental and Prepositional), so why Dative? Again as mentioned above Dative designates that something is given or addressed to the person (object).

  • One more observation: учить has at least 2 meanings which can be gramatically deducted from the case used for the object:

    я учу русский язык - I learn Russian я учу русскому языку - I teach Russian


I would say "Я учу драконов русскому языку" is like "I'm driving/getting them to knowing it". Generally, "учить smb. (Acc) smth. (Dat)" is "bring smb. to knowlidge of smth.".


Ok, so I answered my own question. The definition of Учить as "To learn" is bad gloss in my opinion. That is, it's too simplistic.

In reality, a better translation is "To train". In English is perfectly valid to say "I'm training the students to/for Russian (the Russian language)".

It's more natural to say "I'm trying them in Russian". But "for" is ok too. It's just a matter of oblique cases here that don't add much meaning at all to the sentence—they are just required for no good reason.

But to my English ears "To train" is better followed by the Dative meaning "TO,For" than "To learn"

Учиться is effectively "To train oneself for X"

That being said "To train" matches all the other forms much better. "Выучить", обучиь итд; they all have a sense of training.

  • As @Vitaly Sazanovich pointed out in his answer... Russian "учить" can be interpreted either as "to teach / to train", or as "to learn". One has to deduct the meaning by analyzing the case of the noun.
    – Vitaly
    Sep 30, 2015 at 15:14
  • @ Vitaly Nobody said anything about "To train". Do a keyword search. Anyway, Most sources say it means "To teach" and maybe in passing mention "To train".
    – VCH250
    Sep 30, 2015 at 19:13
  • @ VCH250 You are right. Russians are less likely to translate "учить" as "to train". There is a difference in perception of the verbs "to teach" and "to train". I once had a discussion with a fellow Russian that an American job training is less about teaching (e.g. providing a foundation of knowledge) and is more about practicing few specific skills (e.g. do it like me). Hence "to train" for some people is associated with "тренировать" and "дрессировать".
    – Vitaly
    Sep 30, 2015 at 20:18

учить что-либо = получать знания самостоятельно (учить = получать знания)

учить кого-либо/что-либо (винительный = кого, что) чему-либо (дательный = кому, чему) = давать знания другому (человеку) (учить = давать знания)

notice that что-либо
in the first case - knowledge
in the second - knowledge-receiver

учусь чему-либо (дательный = кому, чему) = учить себя, давать знания себе

too hard to explain
may be it will be better to say that the study is THE ENDLESS WAY.
"двигаться к", "двигать свой(чужой) мозг и сознание к" - к кому? к чему? - к знаниям.

К - means the direction (may be to unattainable point)
you can't say В because ЗНАНИЯ (ПРИВЫЧКА) is not a geo-zone - it is some abstraction.

per aspera ad astra = через тернии К звездам.

  • A bit of a stretch, I'd say. Prepositionless dative is never used in the sense of moving towards something. Besides, the origins of everyday expressions are hardly ever this abstract. Sep 3, 2015 at 8:00

You can think of it as of an omitted verb. While does not work well with "language" (I cannot think of a suitable verb), it works with other examples:

Научить [подражать] плохому примеру.= To teach [to be similar] to bad example

Научить [следовать] плохому примеру.

Научить [следовать] плохому.

Научить [следовать] хорошему.

  • So how do you suppose it works outside of that particular example? "Научить говорить русскому языку"? "Научить владеть основам домоводства"? Sep 3, 2015 at 15:36
  • @Nikolay Ershov the both of your examples are incorrect.
    – Anixx
    Sep 3, 2015 at 18:03
  • Obviously. My point being that you chanced upon an example that works but it seems to be, by and large, the only one. Sep 3, 2015 at 19:09

It's a hard question. Intuition draws a blank here; "it's just how you say it". It's possible that the naming of cases by grammarians (dative, instrumental, etc.) has made them appear more meaningful, in and of themselves, than they really are, and what we call the dative case is really a semantically-unbound grammatical meme with a cloud of usages some of which are more frequent than others.

But since people are happily offering their speculations, here's mine: it might have started back when the -ti infinitives of Proto-Slavic verbs were still perceived as datives of now-extinct verbal nouns. Which would make *učiti sę slověnьskujemu ęzyku have the same basic syntax as, say, *učiti sę lětati.

  • Это какой-то шифр, что ли?)) ... učiti sę slověnьskujemu ęzyku
    – VCH250
    Sep 3, 2015 at 22:06
  • 1
    @VCH250 это попытка праславянского, за точность не ручаюсь. Sep 3, 2015 at 22:26

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