Useful Notes: Russian Language
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 Alphabet 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 "Р", "С", "В", "Н", "У", "Х", "Ш", "З", and "Б" denote the "R", "S", "V", "N", "U" "H", "SH" "Z", "B" sounds respectivelynote . Luckily, "O" "M", "A", "T", "E", "K" are generally pretty close to their Latin equivalents. The И and the Я, the infamous "backwards N" and "The Backwards Я", are actually "ee" and "Ya", respectively. Hence Россия "Russia" = "ross-ee-ya", and the O actually sometimes sounds like A due to its unstressed position, apart from certain accents where it's always stressed. See The Backwards Я 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 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. Basically the difference between the two is the difference between speaking the Queen's English (with perfect pronunciation, grammar, and so on), and speaking like, well, a normal person. It basically comes down to language simplification (or "debasement") such as differently placed stress, dropped syllables, and so on (sort of like an American might say, "'zactly," instead of enunciating, "Exactly"). 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". Though these may be said to be different forms, Classical Russian and colloquial Russian are sufficiently close that one studying classical Russian (which is standard) should have little trouble understanding colloquial Russian (no more so than understanding slang in any language). It is nothing like, say, Arabic - where the "polite" form and the colloquial form are basically different languages.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (low) dialect of Russian note
- 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.