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Language Review: Russian

06/23/10

  02:48:53 am, by Nimble   , 707 words  
Categories: Distractions, Thoughts, Languages

Language Review: Russian

Russian [1 - see footnote]:

Alphabet

Difficulty: Medium

Much of the issue with the Russian alphabet is that there are distracting similarities to the English alphabet. The letter that looks like a C (с) is pronounced like an S. The 'P' (р) is pronounced as an R, etc.

That said, knowledge of the Greek alphabet really helps, because it is similar in spots. The Russian 'P' sound looks like a π (pi), for example.

Pronunciation

Difficulty: Medium-hard

There are streams of consonants in Russian. A polite greeting, здравствуйте, is pronounce z-d-r-a-v-s-t-v-oo-ee-ty-ih.

There is also a similar concept to narrow and broad sounds in Irish, called soft and hard consonants. Soft consonants are pronounced like you are trying to say a 'y': your mouth would be wider and your tongue tenser and closer to the front roof of your mouth or even in contact. The difference is pretty important in Russian.

There is also a 'kh' sound (х) which sounds like a really rough 'h'. Scottish, Arabic, German and Hebrew speakers will recognize the sound.

Many Russian speakers will use this sound in English words that have 'h' in them because Russian has no plain 'h', and that can make their English pretty distinctive, on top of making consonants 'soft' where they would not be in English (e.g. okay -> okyay or okyiy).

Keep your jaw loose, your face loose and your tongue tense. It is a little hard to smile while speaking it - something I've experienced from speakers and from trying to speak it.

Recitation

Difficulty: Medium-easy

Once you know the alphabet and general pronunciation, you can usually pronounce a word from how it is spelled. There are minor variations - the 'о' is pronounced "ah" everywhere except the stressed syllable and 'го' is pronounced "vo" instead of "go" in some places, but it is otherwise pretty reliable to render.

Grammar

Difficulty: Medium-hard

There are three 'genders' of words in Russian: feminine, masculine and neuter, and these affect the forms of adjectives (descriptive words), the word for 'it', etc. Fortunately, in Russian, it is not as hard to identify the genders as in some other languages, and that includes French.

There are different cases, too - depending on how something is being referred to or used. Russian has different cases for direct objects (the X in I give X to Y), indirect objects (the Y in I give X to Y), belonging, used with a preposition, and just used. It is just about as bad as Latin is, by reputation and actual fact.

The verbs get a little hairy. Not only are the verbs inflected - that is, changed - by person and number the way French would be, but there is a somewhat strange system of complete (e.g. written) versus incomplete verbs (writing). These are somewhat separate from tense - something can be complete in the future, for example. There is a good handful of prefixes on the complete form, but occasionally the complete form is shorter, or even a totally different word, and it is not very predictable.

Even the numbers are odd. When used to count things, you have to modify that thing depending on whether the amount is 1 (to be expected), 2 through 4, or 5 and up.

Vocabulary

Difficulty: Medium to medium hard

There are some "cognates" - that is, words that have a similar base to that in English - but they are far fewer than one might expect, or are a little tricky. Telephone to телефон is pretty easy, аппарат (apparat) for 'apparatus' as well. Common vocabulary is pretty different, though, much more so than in West European languages.

A lot of the words are also a mile long, and it looks like it takes a lot of study before being able to make mental links between words.


[1] I have a few languages under my belt, but I am only at the couple-of-phrases level - if that - in most of the languages on my bookshelf.

That said, I've surveyed enough languages that I have a feel for what's hard, interesting, oddball or surprisingly easy amongst languages.

I am going to "review" a few languages in a comparative sense - is the alphabet hard? Is it hard to pronounce? Are there any features that might indicate a native speaker?

It will take me a few tries to get the format down, but bear with me :)

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