Avva has announced a wonderful find: the original source of the epigraph to Nabokov’s Dar (The Gift, currently my favorite of his novels). The epigraph reads:

Дуб — дерево. Роза — цветок. Олень — животное. Воробей — птица. Россия — наше отечество. Смерть неизбежна.
П. Смирновский.
Учебник русской грамматики.

[The oak is a tree. The rose is a flower. The deer is an animal. The sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.
P. Smirnovskii, Textbook of Russian Grammar]

It sounds too good to be true, and one could be forgiven for assuming Nabokov made it up, but Avva links to an image of the actual page; the quoted line, which can be seen in its full splendor at the top of his entry, is at the upper left of the page image. (It turns out to be a series of examples illustrating section 10, which concerns gender; I’m not sure how the examples help, since only the last uses an adjective to make explicit the gender of a noun—the rest are simple equations of two nouns, though it’s true that examples of all three genders are given.) This makes me very happy.


  1. I thought it was made-up too when I first started reading Dar.
    The examples aren’t just examples of all three genders, by the way: there are examples of several different endings:
    There’s masculine ending in a consonant, neuter ending in -o, feminine in -a, masculine in soft-sign, neuter in -oe or adjectival ending on noun, masculine in short i, feminine in -ya, and neuter feminine in soft sign.
    All the other varieties of endings (masculine in -‘ya -a, -ya; neuter singular in -ya and neuter pleural in -ya; masculine plural in -e; etc.) follow in the next couple of paragraphs.

  2. > when I first started reading Dar
    I’m on page four now, five months later. I really should pick that book up.
    I wonder if my unchecked assertion about “all the other varieties of endings” is true. I’m at work, and they’ve been known to fire at sight of a livejournal, so I’m too scared to look closer.

  3. Pefsky! Long time no see!

  4. I don’t speak Russian so maybe this is an obvious question, but how come the translation of ??? — ?????? is “the oak is a tree” instead of “the oak — a tree” or something?

  5. Michael Farris says

    Matt, Russian doesn’t use present tense forms of the verb ‘to be’ (byt’ ?) (like am, is, are in English) it does use future and past tense forms.
    In speech I gather there is something of a pause between the subject and the complement in a copula statement and this pause is sometimes (usually? always?) indicated in writing with a dash.
    My knowledge of Russian is pretty basic, but I’m sure the Russophones here can correct any mistakes I may have made 🙂

  6. Yeah, that’s about the size of it.

  7. following up on Matt’s question, how come all of the pairs are separated by a dash except for “Death inevitable”? — Is it because the other ones are all two nouns where as that is noun adjective?

  8. Nevermind. Yes. I see now that this is the case.

  9. It’s a verb adjective, from не избежать.
    To translate it closer to its Russian grammatic form, I’d say “Death is unavoidable”, since to avoid is a verb. Stylistically, “inevitable” is truer.

  10. Дубъ—дерево. Роза—цвѣтокъ. Олень—животное. Воробей—птица. Россiя—наше отечество. Смерть неизбѣжна.

    Am I the only one who loves those old pre-1917 letters? Does anybody know if there is an online dictionary giving old-orthography spellings? Also I’m afraid none of the HTML ways of setting a font with the rare characters worked. The blog filtered them all out )-:

  11. No, I love them too (and I’ll bet other Russophone readers do as well); if you find such a dictionary, do let me know. (I’ve got several print ones, of course.)
    If you read Russian, this novel should be right up your alley!

  12. I think I understand what gender has to do with it
    Дуб (masc.) — дерево (neut.) / Oak is a tree. As you see there is no agreement between the subject and the object. This is the rule that is being demonstarted, no gender agreement because each noun has its own fixed gender and that’s it. Unlike verbs and adjectives which adapt themselves to the “head word”, nouns remain as they are, except in a few cases (like professions) where there are gendered alternatives. The rest of examples
    Роза (f.) — цветок (m.).
    Олень (m.) — животное (n.).
    Воробей (m.) — птица (f.).
    Россия (f.) — наше (n.) отечество (n.).
    Смерть неизбежна. ???? Well, неизбежна is deverbal adjective which agrees in gender with the noun. What it demonstartes except of usual Russian Weltschmerz, I don’t know.

  13. That makes sense; it’s nice to have an answer after seventeen years.

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