Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Secrets of the Cyrillic Alphabet, and How To Sound More Russian

Many people new to learning Russian see mastering the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet as a cumbersome task.  However, with only 33 letters (compared to the thousands of characters needed to read most materials in Chinese), it is completely possible to learn all of the Cyrillic letters in a week's time.  It helps even more that the Cyrillic alphabet was based on the Greek alphabet, so knowing the Greek alphabet, and even the English (Latin) alphabet will give you an advantage.

Now, this post is not meant to teach you the Cyrillic alphabet - there are hundreds of articles, videos, and other materials out there that can teach you the basics very quickly.  This post is for those who already know their way around the Cyrillic alphabet but are still wondering why their accent doesn't match that of a Russian's.  This post will not cover every single nuance of Russian phonology - for a more detailed look at everything, look at this Wikipedia article on Russian phonology. 

Also, in this post, I am going to be including many links to Wikipedia entries on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).  If you don't already know how to read IPA, I strongly recommend that you learn - it will totally change the way you hear sounds in languages (both ones you already know and ones you don't know).  Even if you're not pursuing linguistics, knowing the IPA will improve your accent in any foreign language you speak, and it will also make you a lot better at imitating foreign accents in English.  The Wikipedia entries for each sound list examples of languages that have words containing the sound, and some pages even have audio clips.

Or, if you don't care much for Wikipedia, check out this Flash-based IPA chart (with audio) created by Eric Armstrong of York University.  It's a great way to quickly get acquainted with all types of sounds.

Different Types of Sibilants:  Ш, Щ, Ж, Ч

I would like to dispel some myths that are present in many books that people use to learn Russian. 
The first myth involves two sounds that are very close - ш and щ.  What I am going to say here may come as a surprise to some people, but the English sh sound (IPA: ʃ) does not exist in Russian.  That is, Russian phonology simply does not contain this sound.  You're probably thinking, "But wait!  What about all of those Russians that have sh in their names?  Like Pushkin, Shostakovich, Khrushchev, and Zoshchenko!"  The truth is that these names have sounds that don't exist in English, but are closest to the English sh sound than anything else.  There are two letters in Russian that fall into this category - ш (sha) and щ (shcha).

First, let's address ш.  This is the sound that usually gets transliterated as sh, as in Pushkin (Пушкин) and Shostakovich (Шостакович).  This is a retroflex consonant, which are not usually found in English, but exist in other Slavic languages, Mandarin Chinese, and many languages on the Indian subcontinent (try listening to someone imitating an Indian accent, and listen to how they pronounce their t and d.  If they are doing an accurate impression, it should sound retroflex!) 

Now for щ.  This sound often gets transliterated as shch, as in Zoshchenko (Зощенко) or Khrushchev (Хрущёв).  This is a voiceless alveolo-palatal sibilant (IPA: ɕː).  It is also held longer than ш.  Some books for learning Russian say that this letter should be pronounced like "fresh cheese".  This is based on a much older pronunciation and no longer reflects how the majority of Russian speakers nowadays pronounce this letter.  

Perhaps all of this linguistics/phonetics talk is a little too much, though, and it's not actually helping you master the sounds.  I think a good trick to learn the sounds without getting to technical is to avoid thinking too much about what your mouth and tongue are doing, and instead focus on the pitch of the sound you are making.  Start with the English sh sound and listen to the noise itself.  Now try to make that same noise, but at a lower pitch.  Your mouth and your jaw will automatically get into position to make the ш sound.  Now just remember that position and practice it to the point where it is instinctive.  The process for pronouncing щ is similar, except the "shushing" noise should be at a higher pitch than the English sh sound.  Don't forget, щ also needs to be held longer. 

The letter ж should also be addressed.  Many books will tell you that this letter should be pronounced as the "s" in "pleasure", or like the French "j" (IPA: ʒ), but this is not completely accurate.  Like what I talked about with ш and щ, the "s" in "pleasure" is just an approximation for a sound that does not exist in English, the voiced retroflex fricative (IPA: ʐ).  If you can pronounce ш correctly, you just need to voice it to pronounce ж.  The voiced form of щ exists (IPA: ʑː), but it doesn't have its own separate letter - it's heard in the digraphs жж, зж, and сж.  Some speakers pronounce it as a lengthened [ʐ], but [ʑː] seems to be much more common. 

Lastly, ч.  It's the sound found in Chekhov (Чехов) and Gorbachev (Горбачёв). The English ch sound (IPA: t͡ʃ) is actually an affricate, meaning that it's a combination of two different sounds - a stop (plosive) and a fricative.  The Russian ch (ч) is also an affricate, but instead of the fricative being [ʃ], it is [ɕ].  Like щ, but not held as long.  So the result is [t͡ɕ].

Labialization and Velarization

I also want to draw attention to labialization and velarization, two important phonological processes in Russian.

Here's an experiment.  Say the name "Ben".  Now, ask one of your Russian friends to say "Ben".  If your friend hasn't yet mastered the nuances of English phonology, you'll probably notice a sharp difference between your pronunciation and the Russian's.  Make note of this!  This is an example of velarization - the English b sounds quite relaxed, while the Russian Б in Бэн sounds much more forced and emphasized.

If you happen to know Arabic, or if you've studied Arabic, there's a similar process occurs in Arabic with the so-called emphatic consonants.  Except, in Arabic, it's not velarization, but pharyngealization, which means the effect comes from much further back in the throat, and gives the resulting consonant a deeper and heavier sound.  Velarization also apparently exists in Irish Gaelic; "broad" consonants are like Russian hard consonants in that they are velarizaed, while "slender" consonants are like Russian soft consonants in that they are palatalized.

As for labialization, this can be heard when the back vowels о and у immediately follow a consonant.  Ask a Russian to slowly enunciate Чтоооо?, and you may hear the slight [w]-like sound after the т

Е in Foreign Words:  Is it pronounced "In-tyer-nyet" or "In-ter-net"?


In Russian, the word for Internet is интернет.  It is pronounced not in-tyer-nyet, but in-ter-net, with the stress on the final syllable.  (To be technical, the first e is a schwa-like sound, the second is e as in English bed (IPA: ε)).  Basically, you pronounce this word as if it were written as интэрнэт.  Now, why isn't it just written that way using э rather than e?  I don't know the exact reason why, but Russians tend not to use э anywhere other than at the beginning of a word.  There are, of course, exceptions, and there are certain words that are commonly spelled with either the e or э, depending on the speaker's preference (for example, сленг vs. слэнг).  But the most common place you will see the letter э is at the beginning of a word. 

I should also mention the amusing situation of transliterating my last name, Wayne, into Russian.  The transliteration that I use is Уэйн, since it's the closest to how my name is pronounced in English.  But some people write my name as Уейн, which according to official rules should be pronounced Uyeyn, but because my name is such a common American name, people just "know" that it should be read as if it were written Уэйн.  It's funny, because I've been to Russia twice now (the first time was in St. Petersburg, the second time in Irkutsk).  For both trips, I needed visas, of course, so on each visa they had to print my name in both English and in the Cyrillic alphabet - on one visa they transcribed it as Уэйн, on the other it was written as Уейн!

Unfortunately, there isn't a hard and fast rule for knowing which foreign words containing е should have the palatalized е pronunciation, and which ones should have the э-like pronunciation, so it's best to listen carefully to how Russians pronounce these kinds of words.  I will say this, though.  Foreign words ending in -ель tend to use the hard (non-palatalized pronunciation). Examples:  модель, бордель, отель all sound like мадэль, бардэль, атэль.

(Of course, after the hard-only consonants like ш/ц/ж, only е can be written, though this written е will either be pronounced as э (if stressed), or as a very short schwa-like vowel - see the section at the bottom about ы for more info on that.)

There are also some rare examples where the sounds are written as hard, but pronounced as soft.  For example, the word фольклор (folklore).  Some Russian speakers say this word as if it were written фольклёр.

Vowel Fronting

The pronunciation of vowels in Russian is, for the most part, straightforward.  There is one thing I don't see many people talking about, though, and that is vowel fronting/raising. Compare the pronunciations of the initial vowel in the words это and эти.  (You can also compare the vowels in интернет and в интернете.)  The sound of the э in the first example should sound like the vowel in the English word end (IPA: ε).  The э's sound in the second example, however, should sound like the é in French beauté or the ee in German Seele (IPA: e).  This sound doesn't exist in most dialects of North American and British English, but it does exist in Irish and Scottish English.  The closest approximation of this sound in North American English is the diphthong [eɪ], heard in words like day.  You can also hear this vowel fronting, to a lesser extend, with other vowels followed by consonants.  For example, words like знать and сколько almost sound like знайть and скойлько, with a very faint й.

A more evident example of vowel fronting occurs when the soft vowels я, е, ё, and ю are situated between two soft consonants.  With я, the original vowel, an iotated [a], ([ʲa]), already a near-front vowel, becomes a little less open and a little more frontal as it shifts frontward to the vowel in cat (IPA: æ)The letters ё and ю are the iotated back vowels [o] and [u] respectively, and they slightly shift in the frontward direction, putting them in the center:  Ё is realized as [ʲɵ], and ю is realized as [ʲʉ].  These sounds are hard to describe in reference to English words, so it's best to listen to words that contain these sounds and pay close attention.  Also, the [ε] to [e] shift occurs when e is situated between two soft consonants, similar to the это/эти contrast mentioned above.

Lastly, I want to note that я ё and ю are commonly used to transcribe fronted vowels in other languages like German, French, or Finnish.  Мсьё is sometimes used in Russian literature in place of French monsieur, for example.  

The Alveolar Trill and Other Realizations of the Russian "R" 


Textbooks often describe the proper pronunciation of the letter (р) as being an alveolar trill (IPA: r) or "rolled R".  This is the fully trilled sound present in Spanish perro or rápido.  But if you listen to Russians talk, they do not always pronounce this letter as a full trill - in fact, for most people it would be cumbersome (not to mention weird-sounding) if you pronounce р as a full trill whenever the letter appears in a word.  Some famous Russian singers such as Yuri Shevchuk (the lead singer of the Russian/Soviet rock group ДДТ) and Vladimir Vysotsky (the man most commonly associated with Russian bard music) are notorious for overexaggerating their alveolar trills, but the way these people sing isn't reflective of how the average Russian speaker speaks.  The sound most reflective of the letter р is the alveolar tap (IPA: ɾ), like Spanish para.  It's also very similar to the alveolar flap which is heard in American English batter, ladder, meter, leader, etc.  In fact, the phrase "She's got it", spoken with an American English accent, sounds roughly like шизгарыт to Russian ears.   I would say the trill is more prominent in very careful speech, when someone is trying to enunciate something slowly. 

This sound presents difficulty for some native speakers of Russian.  If you've spent a lot of time talking to different people from Russia, you've more than likely come across speakers who have a картавое эр, a term used to describe the uvular rhotics seen in languages like French, German, and Hebrew. 

Also note that this letter also can be soft when it is written like рь.  If you pronounce this sound as the hard р instead, it may sound to the Russian ear like a Belarusian accent (in Belarusian, р is always hard). 

The Strange Sound of  Ы (Yery)

This is the sound that newcomers to Russian are most likely to pronounce incorrectly.  I think that phonetics classes tend to spend too much time instructing students on how to pronounce ы (IPA: ɨ) in isolation.  Pronouncing ы in isolation is unnatural, because there are very few times where ы appears at the beginning of word.  Exceptions are the verb ыкать (to make the ы sound), and transliterations of certain non-Slavic names like the Korean name Ын (Eun) or the Kazakh name Ыскак (Ysqaq / Ысқақ).  And, of course, instances where you may be required to name the letter in isolation, like when talking about the very well-known Soviet comedy Операция Ы.

 Another thing to note is that ы does not retain its strange sound when in unstressed position.  When unstressed, it becomes much more centralized, almost like that of a schwa.  Also note that this reduced ы sound is the sound of a reduced э (or e if it comes after a hard-only letter like ш/ц/ж, or if it is in one of the foreign words that changes the e sound to an э).  For example, the word детектив (which is of foreign origin) has two unstressed e letters.  Because it's a foreign word, these е letters don't retain their usual "Russian" pronunciation of "ye" (and if it were not foreign, it would still be reduced to a short и sound!), so they become two unstressed э sounds, which sound like two unstressed ы sounds, which are centralized, schwa-like sounds.  It's a bit complicated, but these examples aren't all that common anyway.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Book Review - Dermo! The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used (Edward Topol)

When people decide to learn foreign languages, they often take an interest in learning obscene expressions and other fun, colorful phrases.  I don't blame them!  I, too, find these phrases fascinating, even though I try to avoid using them in speech.  My stance on all this is as follows:  no matter how much you may dislike offensive language, it's better to learn these words and be able to recognize them, than to ignore them and pretend they don't exist. 

In fact, if you really don't like using foul language, and you want to make sure that nothing you say will offend the wrong person, then you should definitely study the lexical units that make up the body of русский мат.  Without this knowledge, you may get into an awkward situation. 

Let's say a close Russian friend of yours who likes teach you a new way of saying "Awesome!".  That word for awesome happens to contain one of the four lexical units that make up the body of русский мат.  This means that even though it's a phrase meant to express positive emotions, the root makes the word automatically offensive.  This basically means that if you don't take a closer look at the words people (especially your younger friends) teach you, you risk unknowingly using rude language and potentially offending someone. 

In this blog post I will refrain from typing out any explicit examples of мат, but for those who want to acquaint themselves with the necessary lexical units, look at this page and make note of the first four major bulleted entries.  The other words on the page are also fair game in terms of rudeness, but the first four are the ones to focus on. 

Now, why am I talking so much about мат?  It's because I'm reviewing Edward Topol's book on Russian slang, titled Dermo! 

In short, I wasn't impressed by this book.  From the style of writing, it seems like more of a fluff-filled book intended to humor people rather than a legitimate reference on Russian slang.  What's disappointing is that the book could have been a lot better if certain things about the transliteration system were improved (more on that in the Negative Aspects section), but without those things being fixed, the contents are basically useless as far as language-related information.  Topol touches a bit on various cultural nuances, but I found his "advice" dubious.  Now, it's very possible that Topol wrote most of this book in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but not every Russian learner who buys this book will pick up on that.

If you're seriously interested in Russian slang and want to buy a book on it (one that is written in English), get a copy of Barron's Dictionary of Russian Slang, by Vladimir Shlyakhov and Eve Adler.  The latest version is from 2006, and you'll get more out of the Barron's book than Topol's book. 

Publishing Information

The full title of this book is Dermo!  The Real Russian Tolstoy Never Used, and it was written by Edward Topol.  Topol is a Russian novelist who primarily writes in Russian, and this book is one of the few (or perhaps the only one) that he's written in English.  

Looking at the inside cover, one can see that this book was published in 1997.  That is, 16 years before the time of this post. 

In most cases, I wouldn't consider this to be a big deal, but we're dealing with slang and colloquial expressions.  16 years can make a huge difference.  There are, of course, many expressions that survive the test of time very well, but I wouldn't be surprised if many of the words and phrases in this book now sound quite dated. 

Book Structure

The book contains an introduction, ten chapters, a 15-page glossary (Russian to English), and a brief 2-page glossary (English to Russian).  The chapters are arranged by theme (insults, business, sex, general phrases, etc), and all contain word lists (the Russian word, its transliteration, and an English translation).  Some chapters have examples of Russian poetry, commentary about Russians by Topol, personal anecdotes, or other musings on Russian culture.  The Russian-to-English glossary is in alphabetical order and covers most of the Russian words mentioned in the book.  The English-to-Russian glossary is far shorter (only two pages) and is more like a "cheat-sheet" for quickly translating English swearwords into Russian. 

Positive Aspects

I criticize this book pretty heavily in this post (partly so that future writers of such books can learn from these errors!), but I do think it's good that people write more about Russian slang, especially in English.  The informal, almost silly tone of this book has the potential to kindle interest in slang among casual learners, and they may delve into more serious resources afterwards. 

Another redeeming quality of this book is that Topol does in some cases include literal translations of certain phrases, which I think is important.  Not all books do this, so it is a plus!

Negative Aspects

The transliteration system leaves much to be desired.  This book includes a "Translator's Note" at the beginning, including a sentence that reads: Russian words presented in the Roman alphabet have not been transliterated according to any of the standard transliteration systems; priority has been placed on ease of pronunciation.

I'm not sure what to make of this.  Ease of pronunciation?  I notice that the first page of the book contains the word *трехэтажным. It's supposed to be трёхэтажным, but the ё somehow got omitted even in the transliteration.  (In the book, it reads *trekhetazhnim rather than tryokhetazhnym.  If the person reading this book didn't already know this word, he might have never thought there was supposed to be a yo sound).  Let's look at this word again... uh-oh! It looks like the ы was also not properly transliterated.  This is just from looking at the first page, but it gives you an idea of how inconsistent this book is about showing how things should be pronounced.  Not to mention that there are also some places where the transliteration is just plain wrong - разэдакий is transliterated in the book as *razyedakiy.  The letter э is never transliterated as ye, and there is no ye sound in the word, so why is there a ye in the transliteration?

Now, one could say that I'm making too big of a deal here.  One could say that these flaws are not all that serious - anyone who's studied Russian for a couple of years would know the basic sounds of all the letters, would know about о and е reduction, and probably wouldn't need the transliteration at all.  BUT, there is one enormous pet peeve that I haven't mentioned yet.  There is a complete absence of stress marks.  That is, there are no signs whatsoever, neither in the Cyrillic, nor in the transliterations.  This is, hands down, the biggest problem I have with this book.  I mean, let's say that you do want to use offensive language for some reason and you decide to  write down phrases from this book and pronounce them as you think they should be pronounced.  Unless you're already near-native, you'll probably make a load of mistakes.  (Though, even if you manage to pronounce them all the way they were meant to be pronounced, you'll probably end up sounding like you're from 1997.)

Another problem with this book is that Topol does not always show which words are мат and which are not.  Sometimes it's already obvious, like when the English translation also contains harsh language.   But, as I mentioned in the intro, it's not so obvious when the word has been translated into English as something not explicitly obscene.  The book also happens to have sections containing ordinary, non-slang phrases like доброе утро, спасибо, and the like, and мат-based words and other rude expressions are mixed in with these benign phrases.  So, if I were Topol, I would have included a system of symbols to go with each word (for example, (!!!) means мат, (!!) means rude language that isn't considered мат, (!) means informal/colloquial language that isn't considered rude, etc.)

The last thing I want to mention are Topol's commentary on Russians, life in Russia, doing business in Russia, etc.  Some of Topol's personal anecdotes might be amusing for some, but I would take any of his cultural marks about Russians with a grain of salt.  If you want a good reference on Russian culture and traditions, get The Russian's World: Life and Language by Genevra Gerhart - it's a very informative book. 

Who should use this book?

I can't strongly recommend this book to any type of person in particular.  An advanced learner of Russian who's curious about Russian slang that may be outdated may get something out of this book, but I say if you're already at an advanced level and want a serious look, get the Barron's book and/or find some Russian-language publications on the subject.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Book Review: Roots of the Russian Language - An Elementary Guide of Wordbuilding (George Z. Patrick, Ph.D)

Expanding your vocabulary in any foreign language is a challenging task.  Fortunately, there are many materials out there that makes this task a lot easier for those who study Russian.  George Z. Patrick's Roots of the Russian Language is one book that I consider valuable to any learner of the Russian language who wants to examine the morphology of Russian words.

Publishing Information


The original publication of this book took place in 1959.  This review will deal with the 1989 version of the book, published by Passport Books (part of the NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group).  Mentions of specific pages are in reference to the 1989 version with the dark red cover as seen in this picture.  

Book Structure 


The first thirteen pages of the book are devoted to morphology.  In this section you will find a brief explanation of stems, roots, prefixes, and suffixes, as well as a list of the most commonly used prefixes and suffixes.  There is also some discussion of consonant changes within roots (such as к/ч, г/ж, х/ш, ск/щ, etc.) in this section.  

After this is the second section, which is the main focus of the book.  The roots are presented as a header - the Russian root (and any of its variations) are underlined, and its main English translations are written next to the root.  Below this header are two columns.  The left-hand column contains vocabulary words and their English translations.  The right-hand column contains an example sentence (one per vocabulary word), and a rough translation of the sentence.  The sentences are translated more for their meaning as a whole rather than a literal breakdown of the words, though a literal translation is included in a few places.  Some of the roots have only three or four word-sentence pairs listed underneath, while others have as many as fifteen (generally, roots that appear in a large amount of frequently used words will have more pairs listed underneath them). 

The third section, only five pages long, contains practice exercises very much like those found in morphology textbooks in Russia.

The fourth and final section is the index, divided into an index of words and an index of roots, so that both can be looked up according to page number.

Positive Aspects


Whenever a Russian word is used in this book, the correct stress is marked with an acute accent, ensuring that those who learn new words from this book will pronounce them correctly.

Some of the example sentences used are pretty interesting.  Occasionally a popular phrase will be used, such as Бедность не порок (Poverty is not a crime).  It's good to know such phrases if you plan on learning about Russian culture as well as the language.

Negative Aspects


­This book contains a few minor orthographical errors.  On page 65, there are two example sentences where the particle ли is incorrectly attached to the preceding word with a hyphen (two sentences at the bottom of the page begin with *читали-ли and идели-ли).  The rules of Russian orthography state that the particle ли is to be written separately from the preceding word and without a hyphen. 

Also, the short "practice exercise" section in the third part of the book is unnecessary.  No answer key is provided, so it's not possible for a person doing the exercises to quickly "check" his or her answers afterwards.  The book is more of a reference book than a textbook, so it is strange that the author even decided to include exercises.

Who should use this book?


I recommend Roots of the Russian Language to intermediate or advanced learners of Russian.  If you already have a sizable vocabulary under your belt, you'll get the most from browsing the lists.  For example, you may be at the point in your Russian studies where the words иметь, приятный, and снимок may already be second nature to you.  But would you have guessed on your own that these three words all share the root ем-/им-/я-, meaning "possess, have"?  Probably not.  That's where this book comes in - it allows you to examine what you already know, and then make educated guesses about the roots of words you don't know.  The morphological breakdown of each listed word (e.g. при-н-им-ать) helps a great deal with this process. 

That said, if you are at the level where you are writing academic papers on the topic of Russian roots, this book will probably be too oversimplified for you.  While the list of roots is a fairly extensive list, it is still just that - a list.  There is no discussion of the etymology or additional commentary within the lists.  If you want an in-depth source for the etymology of Russian words, go look at Vasmer's Etymological Dictionary.  The Yandex online dictionary is also not a bad alternative, since it draws from reputable sources such as the works of N. M. Shanskiy.  The site is in Russian, but I would expect that people interested in the specifics of Russian etymology would already have a high reading proficiency.

If you are a complete beginner to the language and aren't interested in taking a precursory glance at the morphology, save this book for later and pick up The New Penguin Russian Course in the meantime.  Roots of the Russian Language is not a textbook for learning the language, and it is not meant to be perused from cover to cover.  If you aren't very familiar with Russian, browsing the lists in this book will not be much more interesting than browsing the entries in a Russian-English dictionary.  Of course, if you are proficient in another Slavic language and can read Cyrillic, you may enjoy this book even at a beginner's level in Russian.  Same goes for those who can read Cyrillic and just like examining Slavic languages from a linguistic point of view.

All in all, I think that this book is something fun to look through from time to time.  If you like thumbing through dictionaries from time to time, or if you tend to be curious about how words are linked together in Russian,  go ahead and buy this book.