There is a concept of animateness in Russian. If to say figuratively, in the Russian language some objects are considered to be more animate than the other. It can seem to be odd but let's try to analyze and examine the term at first. If you already know the principles of word-formation in Russian, you will easily find the root of a beautiful word "одушевленность" [adushivlyonast’] (animateness). The root is "-душ-" [dush]. Cognate words: душа [dusha], душевный [dushevnyy].
"Душа" (soul) is a life. Animate nouns denote those objects which are alive, have pulse and can breathe. For example, a human, child, cat, bird - biologically animate objects, thus they are animate. A student, musician, librarian, politician - are animate nouns as well. A dolphin, bear, parrot - animate.
A table, coffee, tree, city, brick - inanimate nouns.
We ask question "кто?" [kto] (кого? [kavo] кому? [kamu] кем? [kem]) to animate nouns.
- Я слышал как хлопнула дверь. Кто это? - I heard how the door had been slammed. Whos was there?
- Это пришла мама. - Our mom came.
We ask question "что?" [chto] (чего? [chivo] чему? [chimu] чем? [chem]) to inanimate nouns.
The knowledge of animateness and inanimateness of nouns helps to understand the Russian cases. We usually pose questions to nouns to define their case.
Nominative case - кто? (who) что? (what)- мальчик (a boy), книга (a book)
Мальчик катается на велосипеде, книга лежит на столе. - The boy is riding a bysicle; the book is lying on the table.
Genitive case - кого? (whom) чего? (what) - мальчика, книги
Мальчика нет дома, до книги никому нет дела. - The boy is not at home, nobody is ineterested in book.
Dative case - кому? (whom) чему? (to what)- мальчику, книге
Мальчику не интересно чтение, а книге, должно быть, очень скучно. - The boy is not interested in reading, the book is probably bored.
Accusative - кого? (whom) что? (what)- мальчика, книгу
Яркая обложка привлекла мальчика, он обратил внимание на книгу. - Colorful cover catches boy's interest, he's turned his attention to the book.
Instrumental - кем? (whom/by whom) чем (what/by what)? - мальчиком, книгой
Раньше с мальчиком такого не случалось - он увлекся книгой ни на шутку. - It has never happened to the boy, he's got carried away with that book.
Prepositional - о ком? (about whom) о чем? (about what) - о мальчике, о книге
В истории о мальчике и книге многие узнают себя в детстве. - This story about the boy and the book reminds most people of their childhood.
As you can see, there is a difference between genitive and accusative cases which confuses many learners.
The main thing you should know about the concept of animateness is that in colloquial language animateness and inanimateness almost match the concepts of live and lifeless.
Looking at the bird sitting on a branch, we say:
- Кто это? - Who is it? (*Here and in the following examples we use literal translation in order to show you the difference)
- Это зяблик. - It is a chaffinch.
Or about the fish swimming in the river:
- Это кто? - Who is it?
- Это форель. - It is a trout.
At the same time, animals which then belong to the category of food – become inanimate, thus this trout becomes not "кто" but "что".
- Что за рыба лежит в холодильнике? - What's the fish in the fridge?
- Это форель. - It is a trout.
There are some exceptions when lifeless objects belong to animate. Here they are.
- nouns "покойник" [pakoynik[ (a decedent) and "мертвец" [mirtvets] (a dead man) (it’s historically related to the belief in afterlife); however, their synonym – the noun "труп" [trup] (a corpse) belongs to inanimate;
- chess pieces: castle, queen, pawn and others; they "ходят" [chodyat] (go) and "бьют" [b'yut] (beat), the names of their actions can be compared with the actions of animate objects – that's why they also answer the question "кто" (who).
- the same concerns dolls and toys because they imitate live animate objects.
I would like to add some grammar information on the subject. Animate nouns have the same plural form in accusative case as in genitive one. Inanimate nouns have the same plural form in accusative case as in nominative one. You can take any animate and inanimate nouns and practice their cases using the questions written in this article.