by Don  

The Russian word for coffee is кофе. It's an indeclinable noun, which means it never changes its ending for case or number. Despite the ending, it's a masculine noun, not a neuter one. In other words, one is supposed to say чёрный кофе, not чёрное кофе. There is a reason for that: the word used to be кофей, which is clearly masculine. In fact, if you read Crime and Punishment in Russian, you will still find it spelled that way.

You know how in English data is supposed to be plural, but everyone uses it as a singular form? That is, we are supposed to say “These data are interesting,” but in fact we usually say “This data is interesting”? The Russians are in a similar situation with the word кофе. Theoretically it's masculine, but it's incredibly common to hear it as a neuter. The error is so widespread that it has spawned a well-known joke:

К буфетчице постоянно подходили покупатели, которые просили одно кофе. At the snackbar customers would constantly ask the clerk for одно coffee.
Каждый раз она с досадой думала: Each time she would get irritated and think:
«Что за безграмотность! “What illiteracy!
Хоть бы раз в жизни услышать нормальное один кофе.» Just once in my life I'd like to hear a proper один кофе.
Вдруг к ней обращается иностранец: Suddenly a foreigner walks up to her and says:
«Мне, пожалуйста, один кофе…». I'd like один coffee, please…”
Буфетчица с удивлённой радостью смотрит на него, The clerk looks at him with surprise and joy,
и он добавляет: «…и один булочка.» and then he adds “and один sweet roll.”

The last line is funny because in that context a Russian will say одна булочка; thus the foreigner accidentally got the grammatically tricky point right, but then he slaughtered the Russian language by making a mistake that no native speaker, not even the least educated, would ever make.

This joke is retold all over Russia in a thousand variations where the customer changes: often he's a Georgian because the Georgian accent is well known and commonly mocked, sometimes a Russian, sometimes a foreigner, and the jokes are sometimes written with funky Russian spelling to portray his non-Russian accent.

Update 2009-09-02: As of yesterday a decree of the Russian Ministry of Education and Science went into effect that affirms several dictionaries as normative for Russian as the official language of the Russian government. Those dictionaries acknowledge that кофе can be treated as neuter, so in a sense it is now officially acceptable to say чёрное кофе. The dictionaries include:

  • "Орфографический словарь русского языка" Б.Букчиной, И.Сазоновой и Л.Чельцовой
  • "Грамматический словарь русского языка" под редакцией А.Зализняка
  • "Словарь ударений русского языка" И.Резниченко
  • "Большой фразеологический словарь русского языка" с комментарием В.Телия


Comment from: Shady_arc [Visitor]

There was a lot of controversy regarding the law on the official language. Still, liguists say that the law did not introduce anything new. Just some dictionaries were “officially established” as the dictionaries that contain the norm. However, the books themselves do not have anything particularly surprising. One thing that the specialists found disturbing is that the otherwise most authoritative and large dictionary edited by Lopatin was not in the list ("Russian Academy of Sciences Russian Language Orthographic Dictionary"). Its online version can be found at www.gramota.ru. It contains 180 000 words while the largest dictionary approved in 2009 was “only” 100 000 words long. Of course, for such popular words as “кофе” there cannot be any difference amongst such dictionaries.

This neuter variant was marked as an acceptable colloquial variant years ago. I think nowadays the word “кофе” is masculine ONLY because older speakers prefer it this way, and because the dictionary says it is the norm. Nothing else about this indeclinable noun is especially masculine for even a native speaker who encounters the word for the first time.

Well, my old dictionary has only the masculine variant, but it was published in 1968 (which is more than fourty years ago). A dictionary published in 2003 states that “neuter variant is unacceptable in strict/formal literary speech". The linguists discussing the new law said that dictionaries had been including neuter gender for “кофе” as a not-quite-good-for-formal-writing colloquial variant as early as in 80’s.

There is an article on the subject by GRAMOTA.RU here:

05/19/10 @ 14:53
Comment from: Dmitry [Visitor]

Меня порядком задолбала ситуация с тем какого рода слово кофе :)сам не могу понять :)

11/29/09 @ 08:12
Comment from: Don [Member]

For a bit of historical context please consider this posting from the SEELANGS discussion group:

Date: Wed, 2 Sep 2009 00:34:50 +0100
From: William Ryan
Subject: Re: Chernoe kofe

Olga Meerson wrote: ‘The masculine norm itself is comparatively new (certainly post-revolutionary but even later), as originally what was masculine was kofij, not kofe, and kofij declined like any RUSSIAN word. …. If anyone can find a counter example, with the undeclinable masculine for kofe, I would be very glad.’

Looking for examples is not hard - why not try the older dictionaries? I have two immediately to hand: the second edition of Dal’ gives ‘kofe, neskl.’ as a head word, followed by kofei and gives an example ’shvedskii-kofe, Astragalus boeticus’; the fourth edition of Reif (1889) gives ‘kofe, sm[i.e. substantif masculin], ind[indeclinable], kofei, le cafe’. Even the Slov. Russk. Iaz. XI-XVII vv. gives ‘kofe’ (no variants) as masculine, with examples dated 1653 and 1700 (the older dictionary of Vasmer gives 1724 ‘kofii’ as earliest). Neither of the examples is accompanied by an adjective to prove it is masculine, but the 1700 example (from the Pis’ma i bumagi of Peter the Great) ‘chaiu i kofe zdes’ zelo malo’, at least shows that it was indeclinable. Shanskii’s etymological dictionary quotes eleven variants of the word in the 17th century.

A quick search for ‘kofe’ in Brokhaus and Efron on the web gave a few unambiguous examples (i.e. with an adjective), several masculine and one neuter. A web search for ‘kofe chernyi’ got 9 million hits and ‘kofe chernoe’ five million.

My hasty conclusion is that in fact masculine indeclinable ‘kofe’ was the original usage, remained standard for a long time, although with the common variant ‘kofei’, and is still dominant.

Will Ryan

09/02/09 @ 02:51

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