Russian

Russian is an Indo-European, Eastern Slavic language. Other languages that fit this category are Byelorussian and Ukrainian. The three major dialects include: Northern (St. Petersburg), Central (Moscow) and Southern.

Webber & Webber (2002) stated that Russian was the seventh most common language in the world proceeded by Chinese (Mandarin), Spanish, English, Bengali, Hindi and Portuguese.

Russian language compared to English

The following list describes some of the differences between Russian and English:

  • Russian does not have articles. Therefore, the concept of using words like a, an, and the is new to many Russian speakers learning English, and these words may be used incorrectly or omitted. For example, a native Russian speaker may say "I had the nice day" or "I had nice day" instead of "I had a nice day."
  • Russian has three genders for nouns, and native Russian speakers may therefore use pronouns when referring to objects (e.g., "I wish I had the book, but I left her at home"). 
  • Russian has greater word order flexibility than English, because inflectional endings indicate the functions of the words. E.g. “Ivan loves Masha” can mean the same thing as “Masha loves Ivan." The word endings convey the meaning of the sentence and tell the listener who is loving whom, not the word order.
  • Given information proceeds new information in a sentence.
    • Thus, word order of subjects and verbs depends on which is given information and which is new information.
  • There are few auxiliary verbs in Russian, so native Russian speakers may demonstrate omissions and errors with these words, particularly when producing questions or negative statements (e.g., a native Russian speaker may ask: "How long are you in Portland?" or say: "I not know him well").
  • Commas are used more often in Russian.

Social Language

Pragmatics

Some Russian statements can sound blunt or even rude to native English speakers. For example, if asked "Do you want to get a drink tomorrow?" a native Russian might reply: "No, I would not."  This would not generally be considered rude in Russian. Conversely, some indirect questions or statements in English may come across as rude to a native Russian speaker. For example, an indirect request such as "You want to close that window for me?" may be confusing or offensive to a Russian speaker because many Russians consider it rude to tell someone what they want to do (similarly, a phrase such as "you don't want to go there" may be perceived as rude to a native Russian speaker). 

Generally speaking, Russians favor much more direct communication than English speakers. The pleasantries and indirect requests of Americans may be confusing for native Russian speakers, who may feel as though American speakers are being duplicitous by not stating their intent directly.  

Gestures

Russian speakers come from many different cultural backgrounds with different gestures and body language. Axtell (2001) does not list any gestures typical of English communication that are overly taboo in Russian culture. A customary Russian greeting involves direct eye contact and a firm handshake. In some parts of the former Soviet Union, the O.k. sign may be interpreted as a vulgar gesture.


Names

The following information is from Webber & Webber (2002)
Russians have three names including their first name, last name, and patronymic name based on the father's first name. The patronymic is used in formal circumstances similar to Mr. or Mrs. in English and is generally not used with children. the patronymic is -ovich (sometimes -evich) for sons and -ovna (sometimes -evna) for daughters. For example, Ol'ga and Andrei, the daughter and son of Ivan, would be called Ol'ga Ivanovna and Andrei Ivanovich.
Russian-speakers may use a variety of diminutives with children and in informal situations.


Phonology

The phonology of a language can be described using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The charts that follow compare the phonology of Russian with the phonology of English.

The University of Victoria, Department of Linguistics website provides a public IPA chart with sound clips for each of the IPA symbols.

Phonology of Russian compared to English

Differences between Russian and English phonologies outlined in Wright (2005) include:

  • English has 16 vowels compared to 5 Russian vowels.
    • Native Russian speakers often have difficulty with the production of /ə˞/, the distinction between /æ/ and   /ɪ/ (e.g., bit vs. bat), and the distinction between /i/ and /ɪ/ (e.g., beat vs. bit). 
  • Russian does not use the TH sounds /θ/ or /ð/.
  • Russian does not have the phoneme /w/, so native Russian speakers may substitute the phoneme /v/ in its place
  • The /ŋ/ phoneme is not used in Russian, so native speakers may have difficulty accurately producing -ing words. Native Russian speakers may substitute /n/ in place of /ŋ/ (e.g., "brin" instead of bring)
  • Russian has more dorsal and palatal sounds than English
  • In Russian, every consonant is either soft or hard. Soft consonants are produced with the tongue high in the mouth, near the palate. Hard consonants are produced with the tonue held lower than would normally be expected.
  • More elaborate consonant clusters can be produced in Russian. 
    • The syllable structure is (C)(C)(C)(C)V(C)(C)(C)(C). Russian therefore allows one more consonant in syllable-initial clusters and the same number of consonants in syllable-final clusters, as compared to English. As with English, complex word-final clusters are often simplified in casual speech.
  • As with English, vowels in unstressed syllables are reduced, stress patterns vary, and the use of stress can alter the meaning of a word or sentence. However, a Russian English learner may not be familiar with the specific stress patterns used in English, and may place emphasis incorrectly (e.g., emphasis may be placed on function words instead of content words)
  • Fewer final consonants in Russian.
  • Final obstruents are unvoiced in Russian and either voiced or unvoiced in English.
  • Greater percentage of Russian words are multisyllabic.

Wikipedia lists the following effects of Russian language background on English pronunciations. More details can be found at the following location. Russian Phonology

  • s, d, t, n may be pronounced as dental.
  • r may be trilled.
  • r and l may be velarized.
  • h may be pronounced as a velar fricative.
  • Voiced consonants may be devoiced in word-final position.
  • Russian speakers may have trouble with vowels not in their native inventories.
  • The diphthongs may be produced with the consonant [j] sound. E.g. “high” sounds like [haj].
  • Consonants may be palatalized, and many of these palatalizations are distinctive. However, the palatalized versions of /x, k, g/ are generally considered allophones.

Alphabet

Russian uses the cyrillic alphabet. The cyrillic alphabet was based on the Greek alphabet, with some Latin letters and some unique letters. The alphabet can be heard at the following website: Russian Alphabet

The following chart (adapted from Wikipedia) shows the Cyrillic alphabet with the corresponding IPA representation for each grapheme shown below. 

А
/a/
Б
/b/
В
/v/
Г
/ɡ/
Д
/d/
Е
/je/
Ё
/jo/
Ж
/ʐ/
З
/z/
И
/i/
Й
/j/
К
/k/
Л
/l/
М
/m/
Н
/n/
О
/o/
П
/p/
Р
/r/
С
/s/
Т
/t/
У
/u/
Ф
/f/
Х
/h/
Ц
/ts/
Ч
/tɕ/
Ш
/ʂ/
Щ
/ɕː/
Ъ
/-/
Ы
/ɨ/
Ь
/ʲ/
Э
/e/
Ю
/ju/
Я
/ja/

 

Other Languages Spoken in Russia

Over 100 languages are spoken in Russia

Information on Russian minority languages

 

Original Contributor: Jenny Weber, Winter 2007

References and Resources