The official language of the Russian Federation and, in the past, the Soviet Unionnote
. And in fiction, often the language of the Commie Land
. To an English speaker, its grammar is more alien than German
, but, since it's still part of the Indo-European family, less alien than Japanese
. However, if you're used to the grammar of languages such as English, French, German, or Spanish, then it can come as a bit of a nasty shock. It can be highly logical and literal while simultaneously being esoteric and indirect. It will have more familiar features (such as genders, inflections, and some grammatical aspects) for those who are familiar with Classical Latin
, as well as those who know other Slavic Languages.
For some useful Russian expressions, see Russian Proverbs and Expressions
. See also Russian Literature
The modern Russian alphabet, an evolution of the original Cyrillic, consists of 33 letters. Four letters were obsoleted by the spelling reform of 1918, and are not used today except in ironic Internet usage and writings trying to evoke an "archaic" style, often without regard for their actual usage rules (similar to Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe
The modern "Latinized", simplified shapes of the letters were introduced by Peter I in the early 18th century, as part of the "civil script" that replaced the old "Church Slavonic script". To foreigners, this is not without its drawbacks, as Cyrillic letters often denote completely different sounds than the Latin letters they resemble — for example, Cyrillic "P" and "C" denote the "R" and "S" sounds respectively, and И and Я, the infamous "backwards N" and "The Backwards R
", are actually "ee" and "Ya", respectively. Hence Россия "Russia" = "ross-ee-ya", and the O actually sounds like A due to its unstressed position. See The Backwards R
for more on this.
The Church Slavonic script is still sometimes used today, not only by the church
, but also for evoking archaic style and/or all-Russianness, similar to Gothic Fraktur in Germany or Hentaigana in Japan.
Also, Ю is not the Enterprise
. It's "yu". No, not you
, but sounds exactly like "you".
The Forms of Language
Basically, there are two forms of Russian. The first is the aptly-named "klassicheskiy literaturniy yazik" (classical literary language), which is the language the famous nineteenth-century Russian novels were written in, and still used today with few or no changes other than the 1918 spelling reform as the formal, most proper form of the language (the closest thing Russian has to Keigo
). Speaking this way is a sign of an educated, sophisticated and polite person. The second is your garden-variety Russian spoken by most people. There are a lot of subtle differences between these forms of Russian beyond simply different words, such as differently placed stress in words (stress being the particular horror of anyone studying Russian). The most well known shibboleth is the word "zvonit", which is the third person singular of the verb to ring
: in classical Russian it is "zvo-NEET", in common Russian it is "ZVO-nit". Another shibboleth is the word "kofe" (coffee): it is masculine in classical Russian but neuter in common language.
- As of 1st September 2009, "кофе" (coffee) was changed from masculine to neuter. It was masculine as the word used to be "кофей", which IS masculine.
The bureaucratic class has also created its own form of Russian, which is a mishmash of common Russian, loanwords and legal gobbledygook. Such a manner of speech (nicknamed "kantselyarit" - literally "office-itis" or, alternatively, "officeit" if one chooses to associate the word with dead/formerly dead languages like Sanskrit or Hebrew, called ivrit
in Russian) is considered particularly obnoxious today, especially by linguists, and it's now the hallmark of Obstructive Bureaucrats
and cops. The infamous form of address "grazhdanin" (citizen), used to address perps and prisoners, is part of this style of Russian. Overdone kantselyarit
can also sound funny to Russians, and it is sometimes used for comedic value in Russian-language works. The closest English linguistic phenomenon would be Spock Speak
Besides these forms, there is also the pre-Pushkinian Russian, which is basically a particularly obscure kind of Antiquated Linguistics
as spoken in Catherinian times and before that. It's not used today. Russians will understand if you speak to them this way, but they will stare at you.
And of course, there is also the mat
(Not to be confused with "mother", mat^
), a patois consisting mostly of obscenities
and words derived from them. Yes, the Russians invented an entire dialect just so they could curse more effectively. If classical Russian is the equivalent to Keigo
, then mat
would be a separate politeness level even below Joutai
(plain speech), a negative politeness level, if you will. Trash-talking Russians manage to convey complex messages through sentences which seem to consist only of various Cluster F Bombs to a foreign ear. Sometimes sounds like a form of Buffy Speak
in which "thing" and other placeholders are replaced with a variety of obscenities. This is a language form of choice for the most uncultured Russians, such as blue collar workers, homeless persons and petty criminals. Note the emphasis on "petty": The Mafiya
has its own distinct style of thieves' cant, known as fenya
- The usage of mat in the media is an extreme taboo - it gets bleeped out on TV even after the watershed, and the few movies that do employ obscenities tend to limit them to Precision F Strikes, rather than showing off the more complex mat structures in all their twisted beauty. Also, official Russian dubs of foreign movies tend to get notoriously Bowdlerised because of this, though some unofficial dub writers, such as Dmitry "Goblin" Puchkov, release more authentic translations. Goblin is also famous for making gag dubs that translate perfectly innocent dialogue from films like The Lord of the Rings into a mix of mat and fenya.
On the other hand, the post-Soviet times saw the elevation of former scum of the society to high standing (the New Russians of the jokes, also golddiggers
). And it's a very zeitgeist-y identifying mark of The New Russia
to see elegantly, expensively dressed people speaking mat
- One can wonder about communicating by F-words only. The explanation is simple: Russian grammar. Morphologically, most words in Russian have a four-part structure: one or several prefixes, a root, one or several suffixes and an inflexion. Some parts of this structure may be missing or empty, there are some cases that don't fit here, and of course prepositions and other small words do not have this structure, but it's a good general idea to start with. The root conveys the "base meaning" of the word, the inflexion (indirectly) defines the word's place in the sentence's syntax, and prefixes and suffixes are used to alter the meaning of the root in a very wide range. For example, "выйти" and "войти" ("to walk out" and "to walk in") have different prefixes. There are several ramifications. First, you can stuff a lot of meaning into one word. More than that, sometimes roots get strung together: "волкодав" (wolfhound) has two roots - "волк" for wolf and "дав", as in "давить" - to stomp. You can even go further: string together "пар" (steam) and "ход" (walk) to get "пароход" (steamship, literally "steam walker"), then add a suffix to get пароходство" (steamshipping company). There's actually no theoretical limit for the number of roots within one word, but thinking of a word with three or four roots is a kind of a challenge. Second: you get a very flexible language. The popular saying calling Russian a "great and mighty" language (known to every Russian) is not entirely false, as you can see. Third, compared to English, words tend to be longer both in letters (which makes a major pain in the ass when you're translating comics) and in syllables (which makes a lot of trouble when you're dubbing). So, what does make some word a swearword? Answer is simple: the root. There are several roots (seven or so) which have the taboo mat status. Any word containing one of these roots is automatically a mat word. An example in English might be, "Abso-fucking-lutely," or "Fan-fucking-tastic", except in Russian this is a legitimate way to form words rather than clumsy colloquial neologisms. Remember that prefixes, suffixes and inflexions are still there, so you can still stuff a lot of meaning around the obscene root. You can even have two roots in a word, of which only one is a mat one, and your word still counts as an F-word. Bonus points if you can stuff two mat roots in one word, and even more bonus points if all roots in your sentence are mat roots.
Compared to most other major world languages Russian has very little regional variance, somewhat surprisingly for a language covering such a gigantic territory. This may have a lot to do with the fact that, until very recently
, Russian was the official language of just one state, unlike English or Spanish. Because of this there is only one standard version of the language and most Russian language teachers believe that there is only one correct way to pronounce or to write a word (and older language teachers from Russia seem to think that all languages work like that, so an English teacher might mark you down if you pronounce some words in the American way). Also, the seventy years of the Soviet Union involved major population transfers, rapid urbanisation, standardisation of education and a highly centralised media, all of which contributed to the dilution of regional differences. A few basic dialect groups can be distinguished, but they are highly mutually intelligible, so there is no equivalent to Okinawan, Swiss German or the Scots dialect/language in Russia itself (although more than a hundred other native languages
are spoken in Russia, they are not related to Russian). However, Russian-speaking populations in neighboring countries do, in fact, speak Scots-equivalents (Surzhyk and Trasyanka, see below). Interestingly, before the Revolution, the situation was quite different. There were plenty of local dialects (the factors above largely destroyed them, but some older people still speak them), often differing from each other more than Russian from Ukrainian.
- Southern. Features include pronouncing both unstressed o and a as "ah", as opposed to "uh" in standard Russian (see below) and pronouncing г (g) as something between "g" and "h", similar to the Dutch g. Dialects of most Cossacks are southern. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke southern Russian.
- Northern. Pretty much the opposite of southern, with o pronounced as in "or" even when unstressed and g pronounced as a solid g. Its grammar is also quite distinct, with a more complicated tense structure and a rudimentary definite article ("to" or "ta" post word, a la Bulgarian). The northern dialect is associated most strongly with the city of Vologda, as well as with the Pomors, a coastal population of northern Russia, notable for fishing and overseas trading. Ethnic Russian enclaves in largely aboriginal Northeastern Siberia also offer particularly pure examples of Northern dialect. Mikhail Lomonosov, Russia's most famous polymath, was a Pomor. Upper Volga appears to be the dividing line between Northern and "newscaster" Russian: the rural populations here speak a local Northern dialect, while urbanites from the same areas speak newscaster.
- Moscow and St. Petersburg. Both are very similar to standard, with Moscow leaning slightly southwards with the o/a pronounciation, as well as having a bit of a drawl. Many small differences in vocabulary - the two cities even have something akin to the English "pavement-sidewalk" split with the word for "curb" being bordyur in Moscow and porebrik in St. Petersburg. Also, for some weird reason the Middle Eastern dish shawarma (a type of doner kebab) is called "shaurmA" in Moscow, but "shavErma" in St. Petersburg.
- Exaggerated Moscow pronunciation is a "city girl squawk" sub-dialect, considered effeminate and obnoxious, and associated with glamor pusses. If a male speaks like that, he's likely to be Camp Gay.
- Odessa. This Ukrainian but mostly Russian-speaking city has been a melting pot of Russian, Ukrainian, Ashkenazi, Greek and many other immigrant cultures, producing a unique dialect with a strong Yiddish influence, similarly to New York English. The New York connections do not end there, as the Odessa dialect is strongly associated with organised gangsters and (mostly Jewish) comedians (for example, Yakov Smirnoff happens to be from Odessa). And also, there is a reason why the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Brighton Beach, the most well-known Russophone community in the US, is referred to as "Little Odessa" rather than "Little Moscow".
- Currently, Odessa is more or less a historical dialect, used either in period works or for comedic effect.
- Even though nowadays the status of Ukrainian as a language in its own right is not disputed by anyone except hardline Russian nationalists, 30% of Ukraine's population speak Russian as a first language. These people speak a form of Russian that is slightly influenced by Ukrainian phonetics and vocabulary, and it sounds similar to Southern Russian, especially to extreme Southern Russian from the Kuban river valley, which was originally settled by Ukrainian cossacks. In the rural areas of eastern Ukraine there is also a mixed language, known as Surzhyk, which is a result of Soviet marginalisation of the Ukrainian language and its Russification. Nowadays Surzhyk is often used for comical effect in Russian and Ukrainian media, sounding inherently funny to speakers of both standard Ukrainian and standard Russian. There's in fact a very gradual transition of language when you travel from Southern Russia to Ukraine, and you won't hear pure, correct Ukrainian until you're halfway through that country.
- The Russian influence on Ukrainian was a double-edged sword. While the central government undeniably pushed Russian as a primary language, it, following the official national policy of the Soviet Union, poured enormous funds and effort into development of Ukrainian (and other national languages) as a secondary, but genuine literary language in its own right, unlike the Tsarist one, that didn't even consider it a language, but a particularly rustic dialect of Russian.
- Belarus has a similar situation, except its Russophone population is more than 70% of the total, the Russian spoken by urbanites is not influenced by the local language as strongly as in the Ukraine, and its equivalent to Surzhyk, Trasianka, is not as region specific and is spoken pretty much in all rural areas.
- Church Slavonic accent, a.k.a. the priests' accent. Sounds similar to Northern, with pronounced "okanye" (pronouncing "o" always as "or"), and also loanwords from Church Slavonic and stress put like in that language. Currently more likely to be heard in a joke about priests and religion than from an actual priest.
Unlike in English, where our unholy combination of Germanic, French, and Latin renders "sounding out" words by how they are written a lesson in futility, the sound that each Russian letter produces is largely consistent, and will remain the same irrespective of which other letters it is placed next to. Aside from a few rules and some exceptions, which are also 90% consistent, once you know what sound each Russian letter makes, knowing how to correctly pronounce the words is simply a matter of practice. There may also be some consolation in the fact that in Russian, like in Japanese, loanwords are always spelled phonetically, so you do not have to worry about other
languages' spelling conventions. For example, the French loanword mauvais ton
is spelled "моветон" ("moveton"), not "мауваис тон".
The sound set itself is probably not all that difficult to master, except for the concept of palatalization, which is alien to English. If you have heard Japanese speech, you know the distinction between na/nu/no
, but in Russian, palatalization is a feature of consonants (even if it's not written this way) and can occur with any vowel, or even without one. Palatalization could best be described in plain english as adding a "y" sound to a consonant. This is what the soft sign letter. yeri, ь
is mostly used for — to indicate that the previous consonant is palatalized, although after ш
"sh" and щ
"shch" it merely denotes the grammatical gender (as the two letters denote a palatalized and non-palatalized form of the same sound).
The hard sign, Ъ (Yer), used to be used as a means of identifying where a prefix joined a word, as well as a way of indicating palatalization. As with the soft sign, Yer (ь), it has no sound of its own and only exerts influences upon other sounds It marks the difference between съёмка (ssyomka) ([ˈsjomkə]): "filming" and Сёмка (syomka) ([ˈsʲomkə]): diminutive form of the male name Семён (Simon). Just like the soft sign, the Bolsheviks curbed much of its usage in the spelling reforms of 1918. Partially to simplify the spelling, and partially because it would save quite a considerable amount of ink and paper if they didn't have to print out vast numbers of additional characters. Yer is pretty much vestigial for the most part.
There have been multiple attempts to just be rid of it already. None of them have succeeded.
Of particular note are the vowels е
; the former denotes the soft e
sound, pronounced like "ye" as in "yes," and the latter denotes the hard i
sound and is not found in English. Furthermore, the soft e
is the default in Russian, and the hard e
(denoted by э
) occurs almost exclusively in loanwords; so a Russian is more likely to transcribe the word "нет" (no) into English as "net" rather than the Hollywood standard "nyet". The ы
sound is out of necessity transcribed as the Latin letter y
(сыр "cheese" = syr
), after standard Polish
spelling, Polish being both a Slavic language that has the "hard i" sound, and
using Latin script.
The nastiest thing is the stress. In French, stress falls on the last syllable. In Hungarian, it's the first. In Polish, a West Slavic language (Russian is East Slavic), it's the penultimate one. In Russian, there is NO rule where to put it. You simply have to remember it in every single word.
For example, there are three words differing only in first letter: Zoloto ("Gold"), Boloto ("Swamp"), Doloto ("Chisel"), but the stress is illogically placed each time at a different syllable (Zoloto - 1st one, Boloto - 2nd, and Doloto - 3rd)
To make things harder, vowels sound differently depending on are they stressed or not. For example, the letter "o" sounds like "oh" if stressed but "uh" if not. To make things even harder, the unstressed "a" also sounds like "uh". Russian technically
has a stress mark to show where the stress falls in a word, but good luck finding any, as Russians, being native speakers, already know how to pronounce their own words and don't use them. Basically you will only see stress marks in dictionaries. All this can result in massive levels of My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels
among new learners. However on the whole stress is not that bad. You can often guess instinctively on which syllable the stress falls (Russian tends to favor the penultimate one), and if you fail, most of the time the worst that'll happen is you'll sound silly, but still be understood. Perilous words do exist, however. Placing the wrong stress on писать (pee-SAHT), "to write," can make you end up saying писать (PEE-saht), "to piss."
inflections, and the rules governing them are not always straightforward. Interestingly, many Russians don't see it as a drawback and refuse to see their language as anything other than absolutely perfect — or, as unoriginal people repeat after Ivan Turgenev, "great and mighty" ("velikiy i moguchiy", великий и могучий). This is often used in ironic contexts, such as the short poem ending with the phrase "velik moguchim russkiy yazyka" (велик могучим русский языка), in which every word is inflected incorrectly but the meaning is preserved. However, if translated into English in the most precise manner, rather than meaning "the great and mighty Russian language" the phrase could become something like "the Russian of the language is great with the mighty one"; the reason why such a mix-up of the word order is possible is explained below.
At its most basic, all Russian verbs come in two forms: a "Perfective" form (implying a one-time, future, or completed action) and an "Imperfective" form (implying a repeated, current, or on-going action). Verbs of motion
however have three forms: two imperfective and one perfective (one imperfective form implies back-and-forth movement, the other implies an on-going process, but only in one direction.) On top of this, there is a whole host of prefixes that can be attached to basic verb forms to change the meaning.
Verbs are possibly the most complicated aspect of the Russian language. Prefixes and inflections can change word meanings dramatically. Verbs have two tenses, past and present, and another "half-tense," future, which is formed out of present tense. Imperfective Verbs must be modified with another verb, быть, to make them "future tense," and Perfective Verbs cannot be declined into present tense at all: any declension automatically implies past or future. Verbs are further inflected by gender and by number, with variations similar to German. All in all, verbs have an infinitive form, six inflections in present/future tense, four in past tense, two imperative forms, and up to six adjective-like participles accounting for active, passive and adverbal forms in the past and present, leaving us with verbs potentially having up to 19 different forms and often no less than 16 - and if you count the Perfective and Imperfective forms as "one verb," you can double it.
Note that this is a highly simplified
situation — Old Russian used to have six tenses much like Latin (Perfectnote
, Present and Future).
Nouns vary among six cases: the German four, plus instrumental — "by/with X" — and prepositional. note
Nouns also differ between singular and plural, and always belong to one out of three genders. Thankfully, unlike in German, the gender of nouns is obvious. Words ending with a consonant are male, words ending in "а" or "я" are female, and words ending in "о" or "е" are neuter. The only exception is words ending in "ь," which can be either male or female. Those you just have to memorize (though you can sometimes guess: words that end in "ость" tend to all be female for example). There are also a few one-off words that buck the trend, but they are exceedingly rare. note
Also unlike in German, you don't have to worry about articles (like der, die, das, etc.) because they don't exist in Russian. Adjectives correspond to their nouns as they change, meaning adjectives must inflect for case, number and
gender — which means memorizing a 6x4 matrix of word endings (six cases multiplied by masculine/feminine/neuter/plural). However don't worry too much, as masculine and neuter almost entirely overlap, and the feminine case only has three unique endings.
What all this complexity and specificity means is an allowance for great variations in word order
— although the most common one is still Subject Verb Object. Hypothetically words can be in almost any order in a sentence and so long as they are inflected correctly, the sentence is still entirely grammatically correct and understandable. This also forms a practical system of emphasis, with the last word in the sentence being the most important. For example, the sentence, "Я ходил на рынок," ("I went to the market") emphasizes where
you went, whereas "Я на рынок ходил" ("I to the market went") emphasizes that
What this also means is that, as in Japanese, some parts of a Russian sentence, most notably the subject, can be dropped if it is clear from context; the verb ending will automatically tell you to whom it is referring. Also, rather unusually for an Indo-European language, the copula "to be" is always
dropped in the present tense. Thus a Russian doctor would say "Ya vrach
" ("I (a) doctor"), not "Ya yest' vrach
" ("I am (a) doctor"), unless he wants to make it sound emphatic or archaic. Technically, yest
is third person singular, and the correct first person form for the copula is yesm
, but it's very
archaic. Since the Old Church Slavonic language notably retains this copula, "yesm" is associated with the Bible among most Russians.
Russian is notably a gender-specific language, and many Russians take it as the norm and label any criticism of the language's sexism "political correctness propaganda
". For adjectives, the masculine gender is considered the "base form". While there are no gender- or age-specific first person pronouns like in Japanese (я
"I", like in English, carries no connotations
except "this person now speaking"), one cannot say a sentence in the past tense without revealing the subject's gender. On official forms, this results in all kinds of clumsy constructs involving parentheses for feminine constructs, like родился(ась)
"was born". There are no gender-neutral third-person pronouns, and Russians don't normally bother even with the English-style cop-out "he or she" and just use "he" for people or animals of indefinite gender. Yes, animals too — animals are "he" or "she", not "it", and some species names are grammatically always female (белка
"squirrel") or always male (ястреб
"hawk") with no way to form the opposite gender. The word человек
"human, person" is masculine as wellnote
, as are most profession names except for "traditionally female" ones, awkwardly forcing women to use masculine forms of adjectives. Notably, while there do exist ways to make feminine forms of some profession names, their usage is decreasing, and indeed women may find it derogatory and instead use the masculine forms, seen as more gender-neutral.
Russian, like many languages, has different words for you-singular/informal(ты) and you-plural/formal(вы). You-plural is almost never used within family or between close friends and is usually used in formal situations. It is also a default for talking with a boss or simply an unknown person. The correct linguistic term for such disambiguation is T-V distinction
, and the related phenomenon of Royal "We"
is called pluralis majestatis
You also have to look carefully at commas when reading Russian texts. Commas are used to distinct logic blocks in sentence and their moving may change the meaning of the sentence, even to the direct opposite one. The iconic example of this is the phrase "Казнить нельзя помиловать" (lit. "Execute cannot pardon"), where the comma can be put in two positions, radically changing the meaning ("Execute, cannot pardon" vs "Execute cannot, pardon").
Why Fake Russians Sound Like They Do
You will often hear Russian characters not using articles in sentences, for example: "large rocket ship blows up hotel with missile". This is because Russian does not have articles at all, unless you count the "to"/"ta" in local Northern dialects. "Large rocket ship" is a translation of Bol'shoy Raketny Korabl (BRK), an official Russian designation for a missile-carrying destroyer like the Project 956 Sarych "Sovremennyy
Apart from article misuse, there are other characteristic traits of a Russian accent. Most of them comes from use of Russian pronunciation: 'R' in Russian is always hard and vowels in unstressed positions are usually 'reduced' to very short vowels, Russian does not have 'ng' sound (it is pronounced as n-g) and some English vowels are indistinguishable for Russian ear (for example, it is almost impossible to distinguish "man" and 'men' for russian ear). Ending consonants are often pronounced unvoiced; this, paired with the "ng" hurdle, results in "drinkink" and "skiink". There are also no "th" sounds in Russian, a trait it shares with many other European languages, so mispronouncing "th" as "f", "v", "s" or "z" is also a part of Russian accent. Same thing with "w", Russians, like Germans, tend to pronounce it as "v" or sometimes "oo".