by Don  

I skipped breakfast this morning, so meals are much in my thoughts at the moment. Let's discuss them. First off, the nouns breakfast, lunch, and dinner are завтрак, обед, and ужин respectively. Яичница means fried (or scrambled) eggs, so “I ate fried eggs for breakfast” comes out «На завтрак я ел яичницу». Notice that the meal name goes in the accusative case after the preposition на, which in this case means “for,” and the item to be eaten also appears in the accusative case.

Beginning American students of Russian often write things like «Я ела завтрак» “I ate breakfast.” Technically that's a perfectly grammatical sentence. The trouble is that Russians don't really say it that way very often. Instead they use the verbs to eat breakfast, to eat lunch, and to eat dinner, which are завтракать, обедать, and ужинать respectively. (The perfective of each verb is made by prefixing по- to the imperfective.) Just how big is the difference in usage? I did a non-exhaustive Google search and found the following:

Search phraseHits
ел завтрак346
ела завтрак137
ело завтрак4
ели завтрак342

Pretty amazing, huh? The least common past-tense form of завтракать is more common than all the past-tense forms of «есть завтрак» combined. So if you are ever tempted to say «Я ел(а) завтрак», substitute «Я завтракал(а)» and then award yourself a Scooby snack for stylistic savvy.

Another common error is to say «Я завтракал яичницу». NOOOO! You can't say it that way. Oh, sure, the Russians will understand you, but you will sound like a stupid foreigner. Who needs that? It's good to sound like a mysterious and exotic foreigner, or a stylish and well-traveled foreigner, or a wise and devout foreigner, but try not to sound like a stupid one. To avoid that issue, you need to know that the three meal verbs we mentioned before are complemented by the instrumental case of the thing dined upon. Thus we have:

Итак завтракала кашей и сосиской, обедать буду салатом как обычно. (source) So I breakfasted on oatmeal and sausage, and I will lunch upon salad as usual.
Сегодня мой кот завтракал супом со сметаной и бисквитом... Судя по мордочке - ему нравится. (source) Today my cat breakfasted on soup with sour cream and a biscotto... Judging by his cute little snoot, he likes it.

(Note: каша in the next to the last example is actually a much broader word than “oatmeal,” and бисквит is really much broader than “biscotto,” but we'll save those discussions for another day.)

Just for fun let's include this little gem of an example that I came across the other day in a Russian translation of Stephen King's “Pet Sematary”:

[Кот] позавтракал кишками той мышки. [The cat] had breakfasted upon the entrails of that mouse.

The simplest way to discuss breakfast is to simply use the verb быть “to be”:

На завтрак у меня была каша.I had oatmeal for breakfast.
На обед у меня будут сосиски.I will have hot dogs for lunch.

Notice that in this approach the food item is in the nominative case because it is the subject of the verb, and the verb has to agree with a subject.

In terms of style, phrases like «Мы завтракали» and «На затрак мы ели блины» are perfectly neutral, but if you use the verb завтракать and also mention the food item «Мы завтракали блинами», then you are in a higher stylistic register. It's sort of like the difference between “We ate blintzes for breakfast” and “We breakfasted upon blintzes.”

Finally, at the beginning of a meal one can use the traditional phrase «Приятного аппетита!» “Bon appétit!”

1 comment

Comment from: anonymous [Visitor]

It would be useful to mention, perhaps by editing the text itself, that яичница is pronounced with a шн sound.

12/13/10 @ 15:05

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