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.

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