One of my viewers on the Russian Course asked the following question:
So I’m beginning to get a pretty good grasp of how Russian grammar works, but one point is still unclear to me. A lot of times the accusative case is used when it seems the nominative would convey practically the same meaning. With the other cases it’s very clear which needs to be used. Can you help me?
Well, naturally I can help, although I prefer not to do one-on-one, so if a question is worth answering it’s more likely to be answered if you either ask me in a place where others can also share it, or let me answer it in such a way, as indeed I’m doing now.
It also helps, by the way, when you ask a question if you’re one of my subscribers. This person hadn’t remembered to subscribe to me prior to asking the question, but I thought, “ok, interesting question, I’m going to look into this anyway…”
However, I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I asked him for an example, and the answer came back:
I’m sure there’s something I’m missing, but here:
Июльский вечер, любимые глаза И нашу встречу вернуть уже нельзя.
How would this sentence accurately be translated into English, and what would be the difference in meaning if ‘нашу встречу’ were changed to ‘наша встреча’?
Incidentally, would you mind giving me a brief history of your attraction and subsequent path to the mastery of Russian language?
OK, with regard to the latter point, I am writing a whole article about that which is going to be in Claude Syzygycc’s Polyglot Story Book, and that’s actually on here too, a work in progress at the moment and passworded so that people don’t read it here but go and get Claude’s book when it comes out. There’ll be a free online version and hopefully also a paper version.
OK, now to the question. The example comes from the lyrics to the song ‘Proshchay naveki’ (Goodbye forever) by Vadim Kazachenko. For those who are interested the full text is as follows:
В город приходит вечер За окном уже третий день ноябрь Я зажигаю свечи Предо мной фотография твоя Снова и снова память Возвращает меня в те дни, в те дни Снова и снова я грущу о них Снова и снова память Возвращает меня в те дни, в те дни Снова и снова я грущу о них Прощай навеки последняя любовь Прощай навеки - и нет печальней слов Июльский вечер, любимые глаза И нашу встречу вернуть уже нельзя Нас познакомил случай И я думал, что он счастливым был Мне бы не верить лучше А я встретил тебя и полюбил Сказочный праздник лета Был прекрасен и чист, как ты, как ты Яркое солнце, травы и цветы Прощай навеки последняя любовь Прощай навеки - и нет печальней слов Июльский вечер, любимые глаза И нашу встречу вернуть уже нельзя.
The reason why in this case the accusative is used is because of the word “нельзя” which should be translated “you cannot/may not”, or “one cannot/may not”. That means you have an unspoken, impersonal subject. You also have the same with “mozhno” and various other words. It is part of the Russian love of impersonals, which I talk about in some of the Huliganov Russian lessons.
Arkadiy Vainer, an old boss of mine and I would say also a friend, now sadly departed, wrote the book – which became under his directorship also a famous film with Vysotskii – “Mesto vstrechi izmenit’ nel’zya”. “You may not change the meeting place”. This is the same idea. “Vstrechi” is genitive but “Mesto” is in the accusative. You can’t see it in a neuter noun or an inanimate masculine one, but if we said using a feminine noun, let’s say “povestka” the agenda of the meeting, you would say “Povestku vstrechi (actually, for that kind of meeting ‘zasedanie’ would suit better, but I’ll gloss over it) izmenit’ nel’zya”.
In the example you gave, “the July evening”, “the beloved eyes”, and “our meeting” are all things which you (or “one”) cannot bring back. So the impersonal subject is implied, but not stated expressis verbis.
Do we have such impersonal subjects in English? Well yes, we do. Take for example the famous song by Elton John and Kiki Dee (aka Reginald Dwight and Pauline Matthews, but “Elton John and Kiki Dee” sounds better) “Don’t go breaking my heart”. Now, in this “my heart” is direct object, not subject, and if you need any proof of that, then just replace “my heart” with the first person singular pronoun – would you say “Don’t go breaking I” or “Don’t go breaking me”? Clearly the second. So if “my heart” is the object, what’s the subject, “go”? That’s a verb, how can it be the subject? In fact the subject, unspoken as it often is with imperatives, is “you”. You can add it if you like – “Don’t you go breaking my heart”. So you see it’s not just Russian that throws up these grammatical puzzles from time to time.
Hope this helps.