by Don  

The basic verb in Russian that means “to eat” is есть/съесть. Notice that the second letter of the perfective forms is a hard sign, not a soft sign. This is one of the four most irregular verb stems in the language. (The others are the stems of дать, хотеть and бежать.)

to eat
Imperfective Perfective
Infinitive есть съесть
Past ел
Present ем
No such thing as
perfective present
in Russian.
Future буду есть
будешь есть
будет есть
будем есть
будете есть
будут есть
Imperative ешь(те) съешь(те)

There are a couple potentially confusing points here. Notice first of all that the imperfective infinitive is spelled the same as есть, that quirky present tense form of “to be” that appears in “there is/are” and “have” sentences.

The next trick is that есть is actually pronounced differently from ест. In both words the first sound is a y sound as in yes, but the vowel quality is different:

есть In this word the с and the т are soft, and the е is pronounced as a closed vowel, which means it almost sounds like the a in fate.
ест In this word the с and the т are hard, and the е is pronounced as a lax vowel, which means it almost sounds like the e in yes.

Here are a couple sentences where you can hear the difference:

У тебя есть братья?
Do you have any brothers?
sound link
Оля не ест мясо.
Olya doesn't eat meat.
sound link

As to the grammar of the verb, the thing that you eat shows up in the accusative case:

Ты уже съел батончик шоколада? Did you already finish eating that chocolate bar?
Когда я ем мясо, у меня болит живот. When I eat meat, my stomach feels bad.
Когда мы были в Африке, мы ели кузнечиков. When we were in Africa, we ate grasshoppers.
Иоанн же носил одежду из верблюжьего волоса и пояс кожаный на чреслах своих, и ел акриды и дикий мёд.* (source) And John wore clothing of camel hair and a leather belt on his loins, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

In English we often say things like “I ate breakfast/lunch/dinner,” and in Russian theoretically it's grammatical to say things like «Я (съ)ел завтрак/обед/ужин.» But frankly the Russians rarely say that. Instead they subsitute the verbs that directly address those meals: «Мы (по)завтракалали/(по)обедали/(по)ужинали».

* The careful student may notice that in this sentence the accusative plural акриды copies the nominative plural, which is atypical for modern Russian. Animate accusative plurals did not always automatically copy the genitive. This change began hundreds of years ago with words referring to male human beings, and then it eventually spread to other noun classes. That process is nearly complete in modern Russian, although there are still a few constructions where animate nouns sometimes occur in the accusative plural in a form that copies the nominative.



Comment from: anonymous [Visitor]

Since съесть contains a hard sign, this is as good a place as any to point out an error in a major dictionary:


Note the definition says that hard sign is “not in official use since 1918″ (!). This is certainly news to me. Among other things, it occurs no less than 20 times within the list of the 5000 most common Russian words on your website.

Dictionary.com cites their source as the Random House Dictionary, and when I checked a print edition of their unabridged dictionary it had the same misinformation. It was an old edition from the 1980s, though, so maybe they fixed it more recently? One can but hope.

I personally haven’t tried to contact Random House, but here’s a page of contact information, in case anyone’s interested: http://www.randomhouse.com/about/contact.html

Don responds: What an interesting error! Thanks for pointing it out. I regard their error as essentially typographical. They meant to say “not in official use at the end of words since 1918.” The hard sign continues to be used in compound words that are made up of a prefix that ends in a consonant when followed by a stem that begins with jot (the palatal glide which is the y sound in yoke.)

It’s worth noting that there is one instance (and only one, so far as I know) where the presence/absence of the hard sign distinguishes words: сесть “to sit down” versus съесть “to eat up.”

01/01/11 @ 20:19
Comment from: Dmitry [Visitor]

“Съешь ещё этих мягких французских булок, да выпей чаю. ” - это стандартная фраза для демонстрации шрифта в русской версии Windows XP :) в ней есть все буквы русского алфавита :)

11/29/09 @ 07:44

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