Ничто, ничего

by Don  

The word for nothing in Russian is ничто. Grammatically we call it a negative pronoun, and as a pronoun of course it occurs in all six cases:

Nom ничто
Acc direct object: ничего
after prepositions: ни во что, ни на что
Gen ничего
Pre ни о чём
Dat ничему
Ins ничем

The first curious thing to note about the word is that you rarely encounter the nominative case form; instead you often find the genitive. For instance, if you wanted to say “nothing helped,” you might expect the translation to be «ничто не помогло». That is a perfectly grammatical sentence, but more often you would hear something like this:

Я попробовала разные лекарства, но ничего не помогло. I tried various medicines, but nothing helped.

That's not to say you won't ever see ничто. Back around 1997 there was an advertising campaign in Russia for Sprite. It began with posters of sexy models that said «Имидж ничто…» “Image is nothing…” and followed a while later by another set of posters with sexy models that said «Жажда всё» “Thirst is everything.” I remember being confused when I saw the first set of signs because they had nothing about Sprite on them, but weeks later I understood it when the second set of signs appeared that included Sprite images. Apparently the campaign worked: even a decade later you can still find people playing with the phrase. For instance, at the beginning of this month there was an article on podrobnosti.ru entitled «Имидж ничто, ответственоость всё» “Image is nothing; responsibility is everything.” The phrase has even penetrated popular humor:

“Image is nothing; thirst is everything. I won't let myself dry out.”

It's worth remembering that once you put a form of ничто in a sentence, you must also include the negative particle не before the verb. And if ничто is the object of a preposition, the ни separates from the rest of the word and moves in front of the preposition:

Я ничего не понимаю. I don't understand anything.
— О чём ты говорил?
— Я ни о чём не говорил.
“What were you talking about?”
“I wasn't talking about anything.”
Книжный шкаф упал, когда на него влез ребёнок, так как он ничем не был прибит к стене. The book shelf fell over when the child climbed up it because it wasn't attached to the wall with anything.
Раненый солдат ни на что не смотрел, просто сидел тихо, не тратя силы. The wounded soldier didn't look at anything. He simply sat quietly without wasting his energy.

In conversation ничего acquires a wide range of meanings:

— Как дела?
— Ничего.
“How are you doing?”
— Спасибо за деньги.
— Ничего.
“Thanks for the money.”
“No big deal.”
— Как новое платье?
— Ничего себе!
“What do you think of my new dress?”
“Wow! It's so beautiful.”

Thus in the end nothing means a lot of different things. Ironic.


Comment from: Shady_arc [Visitor]

— Как новое платье?
— Ничего себе!

“Ничего себе!” is a set phrase mush closer to “Wow!” or “Amazing!” than to “Not bad at all” in that it expresses the surprise of the speaker. Actually, it interrupts the flow of the conversation unless the words he heard are the source of surprise itself. Compare:

“I can breathe underwater for 4 minutes.”

“What do you think of my new dress?”

In the first pair of lines one can easily see what happened. In the second dialogue we can assume that, probably, the second person didn’t see the dress, and then turned around as the first person asked about her dress, and was very surprised - probably, the dress was something wonderful… Anyway, “Wow” sounds slightly off, and doesn’t really answer the question.
The same goes for “Ничего себе” in this context

Don responds: Points well taken. The dialog has been adjusted to have a different slant.

10/22/10 @ 05:02
Comment from: Артем [Visitor]

— Спасибо за деньги.
— Ничего.

Обычно не говорят “ничего” в ответ на спасибо. В таком случае отвечают “не за что” (not at all) или “пожалуйста” (you are welcome).

Don responds: Point taken. I was sloppy. I had more in mind the meaning of “no big deal”; I’ll adjust the translation accordingly.

11/28/09 @ 22:38

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