Чьи эти прилагательные? Russian Possessive Adjectives

Published: October 20, 2011

Possessive adjectives form a class of their own in Russian grammar.[1] They can be formed with a variety of suffixes; moreover, with additional suffixes, it is possible to create entirely new possessive-relational adjectives, which cross categorical boundaries. Possessive adjectives replace the use of the genitive case for nouns denoting people, animals and names of professions. While certain types of possessive adjectives are archaic in modern Russian, others are still quite common in colloquial speech.

Although possessives are defined under the broad category of “adjective,” they have some characteristics which set them apart from other types of adjectives. In order to fully understand the unique properties of possessive adjectives, let us first review the types of adjectives encountered in Russian. Since words with similar grammatical constructions generally follow the same linguistic patterns and can have similarities in meaning, authors Н. Баженов and А. Финкель advocate dividing adjectives according to their lexical-grammatical category in their textbook on modern Russian grammar. This division results in three categories: qualitative, relational, and possessive, each of which follow specific grammatical rules and have properties unique to their category (Баженов 312).

Qualitative adjectives (качественные прилагательные) are usually the type which comes to mind when thinking in general about “adjectives.” They are perhaps the most straightforward, in that they “designate a trait or a quality characteristic of the noun modified” (Townsend 209). For example, the adjectives in the phrases белый дом (white house), and плохой писатель (bad writer) are both qualitative because they characterize the noun they modify (denoting color and characteristic, respectively). Qualitative adjectives are the only type which can have a short form counterpart, form a comparative degree, or serve as a base for creating abstract nouns with suffixes such as –ость, –ота, –изна (Townsend 210).

Relational adjectives (относительные прилагательные), as their name suggests, express a relationship of place, time, origin, or material (Земский 151). Some examples are: деревянныйдом (wooden house—house of wood), французский писатель (French writer—writer from/ofFrance) (Townsend 209).

The final category, with which this paper is most concerned, is possessive adjectives (притяжательные прилагательные). These express individual possession (Земский 152). There are several qualities associated with possessive adjectives, which make them unique from other types of adjectives. To begin with, they do not have the traditional forms associated with (qualitative) adjectives: the comparative degree and separation into a long and short form (Гвоздев, Современный 277); however, it is important to note that it is possible to create full adjectives from possessives by means of the suffix ­–ый, which will be briefly discussed below. Secondly, possessive adjectives decline to agree with the case of the noun they modify (Баженов 313). This, in turn, leads us to the third difference: the short forms of qualitative adjectives can only be used in the nominative case as a predicate, while possessive short form adjectives can be used in any grammatical function (Виноградов 159; Lunt 149).

From this brief introduction to possessive adjectives, it becomes clear that they are quite distinct, even among Russian adjectives. The Danish linguist O. Jespersens refers to them as “shiftwords,” in that their meaning is based on their situation of usage, and therefore the same adjective might have a different connotation each time it is used in a new context (quoted in Isačenko 168). The well-known Soviet linguist В. Виноградов describes their function as such: «Таким образом, прилагательные притяжательные, подобно указательным местоимениям, несут функцию индивидуализирующего, обособляющего указания на принадлежность одному существу, единичному обладателю» (In this way, possessive adjectives, like demonstrative pronouns, have the function of individualizing, isolating attention on the possession of one being, a single owner) (160).

Possessives are used in both colloquial speech and literary language (Гвоздев, Современный278). Because they express possession, possessive adjectives can be replaced with a genitive construction of the noun from which they are created (Гвоздев, Очерки 139). Given that these adjectives were originally nouns, it seems logical to consider this type of suffixation as derivational morphology, which involves adding a suffix to a word to change its lexical category.[2] On the other hand, Professor G. Corbett of the University of Surrey analyzed arguments from many scholars and multiple Slavic languages, debating whether possessive adjectives in Slavic should in fact be considered inflectional morphology, which involves adding a suffix to change a word’s grammatical function, but not its category.[3] Evidence from word order, he argues, suggests that possessive adjectives behave like nouns, and therefore should be included in the same class as nouns, or possibly even in a class all of their own. Ultimately, it is difficult to place possessive adjectives solely within the inflectional or derivational paradigm (Corbett 305).

There are two suffixes used to form possessive adjectives: ­–ин and –ов. The suffix –ин is used to show individual possession in familiar, everyday situations, including family relations and diminutives (Виноградов 162). This suffix is productive in modern colloquial Russian, meaning it is still used today to create new words (Академия 270; Rosengrant 37). On the other hand, forms with –ов, which are formed from masculine names, are considered to be archaic (Розенталь 144).

The suffix –ин is added to a noun which may be masculine or feminine, so long as it ends in –a; the –а suffix may be written orthographically as either –а or –я (Папп 295; Townsend 225; Виноградов 162; Maltzoff 84; Cubberley 134). This suffix may also occasionally be added to the names of animals, as long as they end in –a/–я (Виноградов 161):

cестра (sister feminine)      сестрин (sister’s)

дядя (uncle masculine)       дядин (uncle’s)

Because this suffix is formed with a soft vowel (-и), when it is added to a hard consonant, that consonant will then become soft (Академия 270). For example: дочка (daughter) has a hard final consonant (/к/), which is soft in дочкин (daughter’s). There are a few exceptions to this rule, which will be discussed below.

This suffix can present itself as several different allomorphs[4] of the vowel (/-i-/), which vary according to environment and whether or not the suffix is stressed. Practically speaking, this means that the way the vowel is pronounced will be subtly different depending on what consonants it follows. Because the suffix intrinsically turns all consonants soft, there are only a few environments to which the morpheme must adapt (Академия 270). There are three consonants in Russian which are, by definition, hard, and can never be made soft, namely ш [š], ж [ž], and ц [ʦ]. In these environments, the suffix will be pronounced as [-ɨn] to show that the consonant is hard. Because of Russian spelling rules, the suffix will still be written as –ин after ш [š] and ж [ž], but written as –ын after ц [ʦ] (Boyanus 175). See Table 1 below for an overview of these environments.

Table 1: Phonetic Variations in the Pronunciation of –ин According to Environment

Allomorph In the Environment of Examples




After hard ш, ж, ц


Машин (Masha’s)              Маша (Masha)


Кожин (Last name)             кожа (leather)      [‘ko.žɨn]

Спицын (Last name)           спица (spoke)      [‘spi.ʦɨn]




After a soft consonant

Москвин (Moscow’s)         Москва (Moscow)[ma.’skv’-in]



After an independent –j    (-ь) preceded by a soft consonant

Ильин (Ilya’s)      Илья (Ilya)            [ɪl’.’j-in]

Свиньин (pig’s)    свинья (pig)         [svɪ.’n’j-in]




After a soft consonant

Катин (Katya’s) Катя (Katya)       [’ka.t’j-ɪn]






After an independent –j    (-ь) preceded by a soft consonant

Дарьин (Darya’s)                Дарья (Darya)


Натальин (Natalya’s)        Наталья (Natalya) [nə.’ta.l’j-ɪn]




After a vowel

Раин (Raya’s)       Рая (Raya)            [‘ra.-jɪn]

Зоин (Zoya’s)       Зоя (Zoya)            [‘zo.-jɪn]


The second suffix for forming possessive adjectives is –ов, which is also written as –ев (Maltzoff 84). Unlike –ин, it is added to masculine nouns, or masculine names which are not diminutives (Townsend 225). The noun may end in a hard or soft consonant, or –й (-j) (Boyanus 175; Cubberley 134):

старик (old man)                                стариков (old man’s)

медведь (bear)                                  Медведев (bear’s/last name)

As with –ин, there are several different ways in which –ов is pronounced. Unlike –ин, however, –ов does not alter the consonant to which it is added; rather, it adapts to the consonant, and will be the hard version (–ов) after hard consonants and the soft version (–ев) after soft consonants. Therefore, there are many more possible environments in which –ов can occur. Additionally, because of final consonant devoicing, [5] the final “в” will be pronounced voiceless as /f/. However, if the adjective has any gender or case endings added, then the “в” will be voiced (Boyanus 177). See Table 2 for an overview of these environments.

Table 2: Phonetic Variations in the Pronunciation of –ов According to Environment



Allomorph Fem. In the Environment of Examples
-of -ovə Stressed

After a hard consonant

Соколов (last name) [sə.ka.’l-of] сокол (falcon)
-of -ovə Stressed

After a soft consonant

Королёв (last name) [kə.ra.’l’-of]     король (king)
-of -ovə Stressed

After an independent –j preceded by soft C

Соловьёв (last name) [sə.la.’v’j-of]

соловей (nightingale)


-əf -əvə Unstressed

After a hard consonant

Павлов (Pavel’s) [‘pa.vl-əf] Павел (Pavel)
-ɪf -ɪvə Unstressed

After a soft consonant

Соболев (last name) [‘so.bə.l’-ɪf]соболь (sable)
-ɪf -ɪvə Unstressed

After an independent –j preceded by soft C

Васильев (Vasily’s) [va.’sil.j-ɪf]        Василий (Vasily)
-jof -jovə Stressed

After a vowel

Змиёв (last name) [zm’i.’-jof]змий (serpent)
-jɪf -jɪvə Unstressed

After a vowel

Николаев (Nikolay’s) [n’i.ka.’la.-jɪf] Николай (Nikolay)

These are the traditional methods for constructing possessive adjectives. There is also, however, a nontraditional way to form these adjectives. The previous method involves examining the nominative form in order to determine which suffix to add. In his historic book on Russian grammar, A. Барсов offers an alternate approach, which involves examining the genitive singular: if the ending is –a, truncate the –a, and add –ов to the final consonant (486). For example:

Христа (Christ)                    Христов (Christ’s)

орла (eagle)                        орлов (eagle’s/last name)

If the final consonant is a husher (ж, щ, ш, and ч), add –ев instead of –ов:

царевича (prince)               царевичев (prince’s)

Additionally, -ев will be added instead of –ов if the genitive singular is –я:

царя (tzar) Genitive                            царев (tzar’s)

гуся (goose) Genitive                          Гусев (goose’s/last name)

This method is very useful for masculine nouns which have a fleeting vowel; when forming possessive adjectives from the nominative stem, it is important to remove the fleeting vowel before adding the suffix. When using the genitive as a stem, the fleeting vowel has already been removed:

Павел (Pavel)                       Павла    (Genitive)              Павлов (Pavel’s)

Using the genitive stem as a base can also be a method for the –ин suffix. If the genitive singular ends in –ы, change it to –и- and add ­–н:

Анна (Anna)                        Анны (Genitive)                  Аннин (Anna’s)

сестра (sister)                       сестры (Genitive)                сестрин (sister’s)

Илья (Ilya)                            Ильи (Genitive)                   Ильин (Ilya’s)

When the final consonant is ц, the suffix will be written as –ын, so no change of vowel will be needed from the genitive stem (Барсов 487; Boyanus 175):

царица (empress)                   царицы (Genitive)              Царицын (empress’/last name)

There are also some remnants of possessive adjectives formed from feminine third declension nouns with the suffix ­–ин. In the nominative, these nouns end in a soft consonant (Папп 295; Виноградов 161; Boyanus 175):

свекровь (mother-in-law)  свекровин (mother-in-law’s)

даль (distance)                    Далин (Last name)

лань (doe)                          Ланин (doe’s/last name)

In this case, the best method of formation is using the genitive singular as a base, since the nominative singular does not end in –а, which is the traditional form for using the suffix –ин. The genitive singular of third declension nouns does end in –и, however, so using the genitive as a base, it could be possible to form a possessive adjective from third declension nouns (Барсов 487). This method is especially useful for third declension nouns which have stem alternations, such as мать (mother) or дочь (daughter). The genitive of these nouns will already incorporate the stem alternation, which will serve as the base for the possessive adjective. An example from literature is this excerpt from Дело Артамоновых by M. Горький: «…хороши глаза у него; не отцовы, а материны»[6] (… he has nice eyes; not his father’s, but his mother’s [eyes]) (Гвоздев, Очерки 139; italics added): материн is formed from the genitive of мать (mother). It is important to remember, however, that it is no longer productive to form possessive adjectives from third declension nouns, so students should not attempt to create new adjectives from this class of nouns. An archaic example, which uses the variant stem ­–нин and has shifting stress, is shown below:

дочь (daughter)                   дочери (Genitive)               дочернин (daughter’s)

A convenient way to form more modern possessive adjectives from third declension nouns is to form the adjective from their diminutive form, which in the nominative will end in –а (or ­–и in the genitive):

дочка (little daughter)           дочки (Genitive)                 дочкин (little daughter’s)

As mentioned with the example of дочернин (daughter’s), there is an additional way in which –ин can present itself. In rare cases, –ин can be added to masculine nouns which end in a consonant, not a vowel; in this case, the suffix will present as –нин. It is possible that formations with this suffix were an overextension of its form based on the colloquial сынин (son’s). This type of suffix is no longer used, but there are still a few remnants of its usage (Академия 271; Виноградов 162):

брат (brother)                      братнин (brother’s)

муж (husband)                     мужнин (husband’s)

заяц (rabbit)                        заятнин (rabbit’s) (Note consonant mutation)

It is also possible to form possessive adjectives from indeclinable, usually foreign, words which end in –и. Because of their final vowel, the suffix –ин is used (Академия 270):

Мэри (Mary)                        Мэрин (Mary’s)

Вилли (Willy)                       Виллин (Willy’s)

In addition to variations in formation of the suffix, there are a few instances in which these suffixes are added to nontraditional bases. The most accepted nouns for forming possessive adjectives are names, including diminutives, or animals. In an extension of the category of “names,” it is possible, albeit rare, to form possessive adjectives from names of professions. Below are two examples from literature, first from Пожары by M. Горький, then from Мистер Твистер by С. Маршак (Гвоздев, Современный 278):

Дело капитаново (captain’s affair)                            капитан (captain)

В шофёрову спину (on the chauffeur’s back)             шофёр (chauffeur)

As well as names of professions, possessive adjectives can be formed from the names of mythological creatures (Академия 269):

чёрт (devil)                           чертов (devil’s)

дракон  (dragon)                драконов (dragon’s)

Finally, it is also possible to create possessive adjectives from inanimate nouns, so long as the same formational rules are followed (Барсов 488). In these cases, the adjectives are unlikely to be used as traditional adjectives, but more likely as last names:

мороз (frost)                         Морозов (frost’s/last name)

рука (hand)                          Рукин (hand’s/last name)

ад (hell)                                адов (hell’s)

The stress in possessive adjectives may fall on the root of the word, or on the suffix itself (Папп 300). Nouns which are ending-stressed in the oblique cases[7] will have stress on the possessive suffix:

княжна (princess)                княжне (Dative)                   княжнин (princess’)

Илья (Ilya)                           Илье (Dative)                       Ильин (Ilya’s)

If the grammatical endings are not stressed in oblique cases, then when the noun is converted into a possessive adjective, the stress will fall on the same syllable as it did in the original noun (Академия 270):

бабушка (grandmother)        бабушке (Dative)                   бабушкин (grandmother’s)

Степан (Stepan)                  Степану (Dative)                    Степанов (Stepan’s)

There are, unfortunately, a few troublesome nouns, which have shifting stress between the stem and endings in the singular and plural. In this case, the possessive adjective will usually have the stress of the plural form (Академия 270):

cестра (sister)                       сестре (Dat. Sg).                  сёстрам (Dat. Pl).               сестрин (sister’s)

Now that we have examined how to form these adjectives, let us examine their declension. Possessive adjectives have a unique declension pattern; this stands to reason, as they are short form adjectives, which can be used in the oblique cases. (Виноградов 159).

In the singular, the declension pattern of masculine and neuter possessives is different than feminine forms. The feminine is the most straightforward: in the nominative or accusative it declines like a short form adjective, and in the oblique cases like a full adjective (Папп 296; Академия 555):

N: Вот папина комната.                                   (There is dad’s room.)

A: Я вижу папину комнату.                              (I see dad’s room.)

G: Это из папиной комнаты.                             (This is from dad’s room.)

D: Он подошёл к папиной комнате.                  (He walked up to dad’s room.)

I: Рядом с папиной комнатой                            (Next to dad’s room)

P: В папиной комнате                                       (In dad’s room)

Like the feminine singular, plural possessive adjectives decline like a short form adjective in the nominative and accusative, and decline like a full form adjective in the oblique cases (Академия 555; Maltzoff 85).

Masculine and neuter singular possessive adjectives do not split so neatly into oblique and non-oblique patterns. Two cases decline like a full adjective, instrumental and prepositional; and the remaining cases (nominative, accusative, genitive and dative) decline like a short form adjective, which appear to be the same endings as a noun ending in a consonant (Академия 555).

N: Вот петров стол.                                             (There is Peter’s table.)

A: Я вижу петров стол.                                        (I see Peter’s table.)

G: Это из петрa/петрого стола.                            (This is from Peter’s table.)

D: Он подошёл к петровому/ петрову столу.        (He walked up to Peter’s table.)

I: Рядом с петровым столом                                 (Next to Peter’s table)

P: На петровом столе                                           (On Peter’s table)


Although these were the original endings for masculine and neuter possessive pronouns, there has been some debate as to the genitive and dative forms. Traditional grammars suggest using the short-form adjective endings; however, these are being more and more replaced by full adjective endings. In nineteenth century literature, it was not uncommon for possessive adjectives to decline as nouns, but now this trend has all but disappeared (Академия 556; Розенталь 144; Maltzoff 84; Isachenko 169):

Genitive:                *Возле дедушкина дома                  (near grandfather’s house)

Возле дедушкиного дома

Dative:                   *К соседкину сыну                            (to the neighbor’s son)

К соседкиному сыну

There has been some debate as to the current usage of possessive adjectives. Баженов suggests that in modern Russian, the suffixes –ов and –ин are used very rarely. Instead, adjectives formed with the possessive-relational suffix –ий are usually employed. The most common occurrence of possessive adjectives in modern Russian, he claims, is as last names, but in this sense they have lost their original function as an adjective, and are only used as surnames (Баженов 316).

On the other hand, however, the German linguist A. Isačenko states that while possessive adjectives formed with –ов are obsolete, adjectives formed from –ин are still living in today’s language (168). This is supported by Rosengrant and Lifschitz, who state in their advanced Russian textbook that these adjectives “are quite common in colloquial Russian” (37).

It is possible that the endurance of –ин over –ов is due to the fact that –н– is a very common suffix, used in many more grammatical capacities than just forming possessive adjectives. For instance, it is used in the formation of nouns with the meaning of a single unit from a group (виноград (grapes collective plural), виноградин (a grape)), or can have a diminutive meaning when joined with –к (мама (mom), маменька (mommy)). With the suffix –ан, it forms nouns with the meaning of a single member of an ethnic, geographic or sociological group (англичанин (Englishman), англичане (Englishmen)) (Виноградов 162; Townsend 190).

Although perhaps less productive in colloquial spheres, possessive adjectives are very common in the formation of Russian surnames. When used for this purpose, -в/-ва is more common than ­–н/-на (Boyanus 175). In fact, the primary usage of –ов is now tending more and more towards only surnames (Виноградов 161). When using the suffixes to form surnames, they can be used with animate or inanimate nouns. In fact, in that case “…имя неодушевленное или имя среднего рода становится прозвищем человека и, таким образом, делается как бы уже названием одушевленного существа» (…inanimate or neuter nouns become a nickname for a person, and in this way, already become a sort of title for an animate being) (Аксаков quoted in Виноградов 163).

In addition to surnames, possessive adjectives formed from –ов are quite productive in the formation of patronymics. These Russian middle names are formed from the possessive adjective of the father’s first name, plus the suffix –ич (male) or –на (female) (Lunt 76). Because patronymics are always formed from the father’s full Christian name, the final letter will be a consonant, which requires the suffix –ов, and never –ин (Boyanus 178):

Иван (Ivan)          Иван-ов (Ivan’s)                 Иван-ов-ич/Иван-ов-на (Patronymic)

Occasionally the patronymic is pronounced without the –ов suffix, especially in the masculine form, which unfortunately takes the emphasis off of the possessive quality of patronymics (Boyanus 178):

Иванович (Ivanovich)       [ivan-ə-vič]           [ivan-ič]

Possessive adjectives were frequently used in the naming of geographic locations. The names of many cities and towns in Russia were formed with –ин or –ов, or most likely originally had the meaning “someone’s city/town.” Generally, the name of a town will be in the masculine, while the name of a village will be in the neuter (Boyanus 175; Гвоздев, Современный 277):

Ростов                                                (Rostov, Russia)

Киев                                                   (Kiev, Ukraine)

Кашин                                                 (Kasha, Russia)

Пулково                                              (Pulkovo, Russia (St. Petersburg))

Царицыно                                           (Tsaritsyno, Russia)

Муханово                                            (Mukhanovo, Russia (Moscow))

Although forming new possessive adjectives is not entirely productive in modern Russian, there are some set expressions which are formed with possessive adjectives. They can be found in medical terminology:

кесарево сечение                               (caesarean section)

антонов огонь                                     (Anthony’s fire)

глауберова соль                                 (Glauber’s salt)

There are also instances of possessive adjectives in botanical terms:

анютины глазки                                   (pansy)

Finally, there are some expressions from classical languages or mythology (Isačenko 169):

авгиевы конюшни                                (Augean stables)

прокрустово ложе                                (Procrustean bed)

крокодиловы слёзы                             (crocodile tears)

Марсово поле                                       (Field of Mars)

гордиев узел                                        (Gordian knot)

дамоклов меч                                       (Damocles sword)

пиррова победа                                    (Pyrrhic victory)

эолова арфа                                         (Aeolian Harp)

Ахиллесова пята                                   (Achilles’ heel)

There are a few ways to augment possessive adjectives, as well as other suffixes which carry a slight possessive meaning. One such suffix, which is closely related in meaning to the possessive suffixes –ин and –ов, is –ий. This suffix forms adjectives that have the general meaning of possession, but can also have a relational meaning. They are formed most frequently from the names of animals, but can also be formed from the names of professions. Stress will always fall on the root, not on the suffix itself (Папп 300; Maltzoff 85; Townsend 226; Гвоздев, Современный 278; Cubberley 134). Stems which end in a velar[8] or the letters ц and д will undergo consonant mutation, or what the world-renowned linguist R. Jakobson refers to as substitutive softening (126):

волчий                  (wolf)                     волк

рыбачий               (fisherman)           рыбак

Русалочий           (mermaid)             Русалка

The declension of these adjectives is rather interesting. The masculine form appears to be the same as any soft adjective, such as синий (dark blue), especially if compared to the possessive-relational лисий (fox-like). However, this is not the case; possessive-relational adjectives have a fleeting vowel in their suffix, which soft (qualitative) adjectives do not have. The difference in their formation could be represented as follows (Папп 296):

s’in’ + oj                  vs.           l’is’ej + nulset

син + ий                                 лиси + и

син + его                                лись + его

син + ему                                лись + ему

This representation shows the difference in the stems and suffixes of the two types of adjectives. In fact, their declension is much closer to the numeric adjective третий (Maltzoff 85; Академия 271):

третий                                    лисий

третье                                     лисье

третья                                     лисья

третьи                                     лисьи

In his textbook on Russian grammar, Папп goes so far as to suggest that it would be better to consider a noun such as санаторий (health resort) as having a similar declension pattern to possessive-relational adjectives; this declension, Папп argues, is much more similar to possessives with -ий than the soft adjective синий. Likewise, the neuter and feminine forms of the adjectives would then need to be compared to their own nouns (since санаторий is masculine, only masculine adjectives would decline in a similar fashion); therefore лисье will decline like платье (dress), and the feminine лисья like гостья (guest) (Папп 296). Table 3 offers a comparison of these nouns and adjectives, to better illustrate the interesting declension pattern of possessive-relational adjectives.

Table 3: Comparative Declensions of Possessive-Relational Adjectives

синий лисий (M) санаторий лисье (N) платье лисья (F) гостья
Nom синий лисий санаторий лисье платье лисья гостья
Acc синий лисий санаторий лисье платье лисью гостью
Gen синего лисия санатория лисья платья лисьи гостьи
Dat синему лисию санаторию лисью платью лисье гостье
Instr синим лисием санаторием лисьем платьем лисьей гостьей
Prep о синем о лисии о санатории о лисье о платье о лисье о гостье

The suffix –ий was productive in the formation of possessive adjectives even in Old Church Slavonic. In this case, adjectives differed from their stem nouns by only the final consonantal morpheme; the possessive adjective had a soft final consonant compared to an original hard consonant (Кузнецов 241):

Володимирь (Volodimir’s)                         Володимиръ (Volodimir)

It is possible, and indeed quite common, to create a type of “full” or “long-form” adjective from possessives formed with –ин and –ов by adding an additional suffix. The two most common suffixes which are added to possessive adjectives are –ый (creating –иный and –овый), and –ск(ий). There are occasional phonological changes which occur with these suffixes.

The suffixes –иный and –овый are the more common “full/long forms” of possessive adjectives. They do not always express individual possession, however, and frequently may be used to express group possession. This loss of the individual possessive quality turns the adjective into a relational or qualitative adjective, depending on its usage; it now expresses characteristics, similarities or relationships (Виноградов 163; Розенталь 145):

лошадь (horse)                      лошадиный (horse-like)

зверь (beast)                         звериный (beast-like)

гусь (goose                            гусиный (goose-like)

бобёр (beaver)                      бобровый (beaver-like)

тигр (tiger)                            тигровый (tiger-like)

морж (walrus)                        моржовый (walrus-like)

This change of category is especially evident when the adjective is used in a figurative sense; for instance, compare the following two phrases:

утиные яйца                        (duck eggs)

утиный нос                          (duck nose)

In the first example, утиные is functioning as a relational adjective, that is to say, eggs from a duck (as opposed to from a chicken, goose, etc.). The second утиный, however, is used figuratively, to suggest a nose that looks like a duck’s, but not necessarily a nose from a specific duck; it is therefore being used in a (figuratively) qualitative sense (Гвоздев, Очерки 140).

The other suffix which can form “full/long forms” of possessive adjectives is –ск(ий). Like –иный and –овый, this suffix has the meaning of group possession (Виноградов 161). An important attribute of these new possessive-relational adjectives formed with –ский is that they do not have a short form, unless one considers the original possessive adjective as the short form (Townsend 226; Lunt 174).

A critical question concerning these new possessive-relational adjectives with the suffixes –иный, –овый, and -ск(ий) is the difference between these types and the original possessive adjective. For instance, what is the difference between мамин/материн and материнский (or папин/отцов and отцовский)? The original short-form possessive adjective shows possession of only one specific mother, while материнский describes something which is characteristic of mothers in general. In this sense, материнский and other adjectives with this suffix do not express possession, but a relationship, and therefore should be considered more closely with relational adjectives than possessive (Баженов 316).

Overall, the usage of possessive adjectives has become less common, being replaced by the genitive, so that the expression сын Саши (the son of Sasha) is more likely to be used over Сашин сын (Sasha’s son) (Townsend 226). Yet there is a slight nuance of expression when deciding whether to use a possessive adjective or to use the genitive case. In order to determine which form to use, one must examine not only the semantic relationship (the interplay between nouns/adjectives), but also the stylistic character of the phrase, for instance, literary language or colloquial speech. Possessive adjectives are common in oral speech, and in literary works which are imitating oral speech. Overall, while a possessive adjective is concrete, expressing one person’s individual possession, the genitive case has a more general possessive function (Розенталь 147). An additional difference is that the genitive case can be used in the singular or plural, and therefore can be used to express not only individual possession, but also group possession. Possessive adjectives, on the other hand, can only express individual possession (Виноградов 161).

There are some circumstances in which the two constructions have different meanings, so it is important to focus on the exact desired meaning. For example, compare the following two phrases:

создан новый городской центр                     (a new city center has been founded)

создан новый центр города                            (a new center of the city has been founded)

The first construction, using a possessive-qualitative adjective, has a more specific meaning, that the center which is being founded is a city center (as opposed to a woman’s center, for instance), while the second construction with genitive only states that a center which is related to the city has been founded. Another example of differentiating between the genitive and a possessive adjective is the following: В укрупненном колхозе имеются настоящие городские улицы (In the large collective farm there are real city streets). In this scenario, the genitive case (улицы города) is not entirely appropriate; it would suggest the meaning: In the large collective farm there are real streets of the city. This meaning is not as logical, because a qualitative meaning is required instead of purely possessive (which is what the genitive would indicate): the streets are city streets, as opposed to, for example, provincial streets (Розенталь 147). On the other hand, the following sentence requires a more possessive meaning than qualitative or relational: До появления в Москве электричества улицы города освещались газовыми рожками (Until the emergence of electricity in Moscow, the streets of the city were illuminated by gas burners). In this case, the possessive or possessive-relational/qualitative adjective (городские улицы) is not appropriate, because it is too concrete; the desired meaning is more general, as in “all streets in the city” (Розенталь 147).

On the other hand, there are some phrases which have only a stylistic difference, and not necessarily a difference in meaning between a construction with a possessive adjective and one using the genitive case. For example, consider the following two phrases:

рассказы Толстого                            (stories of/by Tolstoy)

толстовские рассказы                       (Tolstoy’s stories)

Both of these phrases have the same meaning, namely stories from/by Tolstoy. However, the construction with the possessive adjective is more colloquial than the phrase formed with the genitive case (Розенталь 147).

Possessive adjectives are quite the curious creature. Although they are not as common in modern Russian, their legacy lives on in Russian surnames. Examples from literature show that possessive adjectives have long been a unique feature of Russian (and Slavic) grammar. Luckily, the formation of these adjectives is simple enough that even a beginning Russian learner would be able to accurately predict formations, and therefore study this fascinating grammatical gem. The study of these adjectives may be insightful in the motivations for Russian last names: can President Dmitry Medvedev rely on his “bear” qualities to overcome Putin’s путь to the elections?

It would be of interest to examine the motivation for the inclusion of possessive adjectives in Slavic languages, but not in many other world languages. For example, Corbett examines possessive adjectives in Upper Sorbian, a Slavic language spoken in a small, isolated area in eastern Germany. Despite a close mingling with the German language, which has no such type of adjective, possessives have survived and are still used (Corbett 300). It is possible that since this category of adjective is not unique to expressing possession, it is repetitive within the overall scheme of a language’s grammar, and therefore was eliminated in other languages—why would one language have two different structures (genitive case and possessive adjectives) to express the same thing? The Slavic world, and Russians especially, have long been considered a unique entity, and possessive adjectives are only one more example of why this view is correct.

The author of this analysis, Margaret Godwin-Jones is currently a second-year graduate student at American University, where she is studying Russian translation. Upon completion, Margaret plans to enter a PhD program and ultimately return to study abroad in Russia. She hopes to become a translator/interpreter, and eventually teach Russian language and linguistics.

Works Cited 

Академия Наук СССР Институте русского языка. Русская Грамматика: Том I. Издательство «Наука», 1980.

Баженов, Н. М. and А. М. Финкель. Курс современного русского литературного языка. Kiev: Издательство «Радянська Школа», 1965.

Барсов, Антон Алексеевич. Российская грамматика. Moscow: Издательство Московского Университета, 1981.

Boyanus, S. C. and N. B. Jopson. Spoken Russian: A Practical Course. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, Ltd., 1952.

Cubberley, Paul. Russian: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Виноградов, В. В. Русский язык. Moscow: Издательство «Высшая Школа», 1972.

Гвоздев, А. Н. Очерки по стилистике русского языка. Moscow: Издательство «просвещение», 1965.

Гвоздев, А. Н. Современный русский литературный язык. Moscow: Государственное учебно-педагогическое издательство министерства просвещения РСФСР, 1961.

Земский, А. М. and С. Е. Крючков, М. В. Светлаев. Русский язык. Moscow: Государственное учебно-педагогическое издательство министерства просвещения РСФСР, 1966.

Hamilton, William S. Introduction to Russian Phonology and Word Structure. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 1980.

Isačenko, A. V. Die russiche Sprache der Gegenwart: Teil I, Formenlehre. Halle, Germany: Veb Max Niemeyer Verlang, 1968.

Jakobson, Roman. «Russian Conjugation.» Selected Writings, Vol. II. Paris: Mouton & Co., 1971. 119-129.

Кузнецов, П. С. and В. И. Борковский. Историческая Грамматика Русского Языка. Moscow: Издательство «Наука», 1965.

Lunt, Horace G. Fundamentals of Russian. 1958. Reprint. Rev. ed. Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1982.

Maltzoff, Nicholas. Russian Reference Grammar. New York: Pitman Publishing Corporation, 1965.

Matthews, K. W. Russian Historical Grammar. London: The Athlone Press, 1967.

Папп, Ф. and К. Болла, Э. Палл. Курс современного русского языка. Budapest: Tankönyvkiado, 1968.

Rosengrant, Sandra and Elena Lifschitz. Focus on Russian. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1996.

Розенталь, Д. Э. Практическая стилистика русского языка. Moscow: Издательство «Высшая Школа», 1974.

Townsend, Charles E. Russian Word-Formation. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.

Yule, George. The Study of Language. 2nd Ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[1] Please note that possessive adjectives do occur in other Slavic languages; however, this paper focuses only on possessive adjectives in Russian.
[2] For example, take the English adjective ‘good’ plus the suffix ‘-ness’ and the result ‘goodness’—a noun, not an adjective (Yule 76).

[3] For example, declining nouns in Russian is a form of inflectional morphology: the noun changes case, say from nominative to accusative, but it is still a noun and has not changed categories into a verb or adjective (Cubberley 255).

[4] An allomorph is a small unit of sound, which belongs to a larger subset of similar sounds that do not differentiate word meaning in the given language. Each allomorph is used in a different linguistic situation (called “environment”), but will not necessarily alter the meaning of the word. For instance, English plural nouns are almost always written orthographically as /s/, but might be pronounced voiced, as /z/: dogs [dɔgz] versus cats [kæts]. The overarching morpheme group is /s/, but it can present as two different allomorphs: /s/ and /z/, depending on what consonant it is following (a voiced consonant will be followed with /z/, voiceless with /s/, with some exceptions for other allomorph forms) (Cubberley 103). For more information on allomorphs, please see O’Grady et al. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited, 1996.

[5] Voicing assimilation is very common in Russian words. A voiced consonant at the end of a word will be pronounced voiceless instead: друг [druk]. Assimilation also occurs in the middle of a word when two consonants are adjacent: водка [votkə] (Hamilton 59). This occurs in other languages besides Russian, for instance in German (66).

[6] In this excerpt, it is possible to argue that the possessive adjectives are in fact functioning as qualitative adjectives rather than purely possessive: the boy’s eyes have the same properties as the mother’s; that is to say, they have the same qualities—if mother’s eyes are green with little brown speckles, so are his (Гвоздев, Очерки 139). This is simply one example of why Jespersons refers to possessive adjectives as “shiftwords”: the meaning of материны has slightly changed in this new context (quoted in Isačenko 168).

[7] For the purposes of this paper, the oblique cases (косвенные падежи) will be defined as: genitive, prepositional, instrumental and dative.  Nominative and accusative will be considered non-oblique (прямые падежи). It is important to note, however, that there is debate among Russian linguists as to whether accusative should be considered oblique or non-oblique.

[8] Velar Consonants (in Russian): к, г, and х (and their allophones, i.e. soft variants) (Hamilton 18). ‘Velar’ refers to where they are produced in the mouth: these sounds are made by placing the tongue against the back part of the roof of the mouth (officially called the velum, hence ‘velars’) (Yule 44).


About the author

Margaret Godwin-Jones

Margaret Godwin-Jones is currently a second-year graduate student at American University, where she is studying Russian translation. Upon completion, Margaret plans to enter a PhD program and ultimately return to study abroad in Russia. She hopes to become a translator/interpreter, and eventually teach Russian language and linguistics.

View all posts by: Margaret Godwin-Jones