The official language of the Russian Federation and, in the past, the Soviet Unionnote , with it also being spoken in the Baltics, parts of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Mongolia. And in fiction, often the language of the Commie Land. To an English speaker, its grammar is more alien than German, but, since it is still part of the Indo-European family, less alien than Japanese. However, if you are 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.
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.
The Form of the Language
Proper Russian is called "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. It is the most proper form of the language, similar to the Queen's English. Speaking this way is a sign of an educated, sophisticated and polite person. Needless to say, most people don't speak this way, just as most English speakers don't speak perfect English. However, Classical Russian and colloquial Russian are sufficiently close that someone studying Classical Russian (which is standard) will have little trouble understanding colloquial Russian - no more so than understanding slang in any language.
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 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.
And of course, there is also mat, a dialect consisting mostly of obscenities and words derived from them. Yes, the Russians invented an entire dialect just so they could curse more effectively. Russian obscenities are extremely creative and rich, and trash-talking Russians can convey complex messages through sentences which consist only of various Cluster F Bombs. 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 or fenka. (In fact, they traditonally consider the use of sexual pejoratives extremely Serious Business.)
It should also be pointed out that swearing (using mat) in Russian is considered a much bigger deal than in English. When Russians translate English movies, "fuck" and "shit" are translated to the Russian equivalents of "darn" and "crap" - Russians don't consider them anywhere near as bad as their own words. This is also because the usage of mat in the media is an extreme taboo - it used to get bleeped out on TV even after watershed, and a new law prohibits it in media completely. There is even a law (albeit rarely enforced) that prohibits speaking mat in public. This isn't to say Russians don't swear a lot. They are just a lot more conscious of the company they are in when they do it. Males in particular, if they want to make any meaningful Russian friendships, will want to learn at least a little mat,note if only to understand what the fuck everyone around you is saying. Funnily enough, Russians are torn between being extremely proud of the richness and complexity of mat, and denying that it is a part of Russian at all (claiming it's all foreign words that contaminated the "holy" Russian language). See the folder for more info.
- 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 inflection. 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 inflection (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 makes a word a swearword? Answer is simple: the root. There are exactly four roots which have the taboo mat status (and several others which are considered obscene, although never as severe as mat, and may be falsely mistaken to fall into that category even by native speakers). 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 neologism. Remember that prefixes, suffixes and inflections 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. Before the revolution, this was not the case. There were plenty of local dialects, but when the Soviets came to power they stamped them out, imposing one form of language (through centralized radio and later television). Seventy years of major population transfers, rapid urbanisation, standardisation of education and a highly centralised media also contributed to the dilution of regional differences. A few basic dialect groups remain, 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). Different dialects exist outside of Russia (such as in Ukraine), but these are not considered properly "Russian" anymore, and are called by different names. By the way, normative Russian language is the language as is was spoken by TV and radio hosts of Leningrad.
Unlike in English, where the unholy combination of Germanic, French, and Latin renders "sounding out" words by how they are written all but impossible, the sound that each Russian letter produces is largely consistent. 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 words is simply a matter of practice. note 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 and nya/nyu/nyo, 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 the front of a vowel. 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 always-hard short consonant /ʂ/ (like in "shout" but a bit harder) and always-soft long consonant /ɕ:/ (like in "Shinji" but llonng)).
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 and ы; 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 for 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).
Stress also not uncommonly changes in the same word depending on its grammatical inflection, for nouns and verbs. Either for something semi-logical (when changing the number: стол (stohl), "a table," but столы (stuh-LY), "tables") or for seemingly no reason at all (the singular form of голова (go-lo-VA), "head" is always stressed on the last syllable, except for the accusative case where it suddenly jumps to the first syllable).
Vowels also sound different depending on whether they are stressed or not. For example, the letter "o" sounds like "oh" and the letter "a" sounds like "ah" when stressed, but both reduce to "uh" when unstressed. There is a "stress mark" you can place above letters to show where the stress falls, but you will only see those in dictionaries. All this can result in massive levels of My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels among new learners. While it is possible to guess on which syllable the stress falls (Russian tends to favor the penultimate one), the stress tends to jump around enough to still be a major pain. Luckily 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."
Russian loves inflections, and the rules governing them are not always straightforward. Inflection in this case doesn't mean a change in voice intonation (the sense in which it is most often used in English). Rather it means grammatical inflection: a word changing its form to express a grammatical function. 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.
Verbs are possibly the most complicated aspect of the Russian language. Thankfully, Russian verbs have only 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 conjugated into present tense at all: any conjugation automatically implies past or future. More on them in a moment. 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. This is about average for a European language. But if the most frustrating thing about Russian pronunciation is where the stress falls, then the most frustrating thing about Russian verbs is their aspect.
At its most basic, almost all Russian verbs come in an aspectual pair: 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.)
In reality, this is an explanation for beginners. It's actually more complicated than that, and the intricacies of it can sneak up on you. It's not to say the above explanation is wrong (it's functional enough for simple sentences), but once you start getting into future and past tense, negation, imperative forms, things happening sequentially or simultaneously, adding prefixes etc., then it begins to fall apart. It's quite possible for imperfective verbs to express meaning that has (to an English speaker) a one-time character, and perfective verbs may be used in a way that suggests a process. For example, the perfective verb "Зачитал," can mean, "He started to read." The implied action is tied up wholly in the single moment when he started reading. Therefore the action is "complete," even though he is still reading. Another example: if you wanted to say, "I didn't read the book," you might decide to avoid the imperfective aspect (не читал) because you think that would mean, "I wasn't reading the book." So you choose the perfective aspect (не прочитал). Unfortunately, using the perfective aspect makes it sound like you started reading the book but didn't finish. If you wanted to say you haven't read the book at all, the imperfective aspect is the one you wanted after all.
Simply put: it's complicated, and evades simple explanations. Russians themselves are particularly bad at explaining it, as which to use and when is something they feel instinctively. Russian grammatical concepts such as tense, mood and aspect do not generally have nice one-to-one equivalents in English.
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 (sometimes male but declined similarly), and words ending in "о" or "е" are neuter. The only exception is words ending in "ь," which can be either male or female, though even then a few rules of thumb make it easy to guess. 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 only has three unique case 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 you went (the former more suited to answer the question "Where have you been?", and the latter - "What were you doing?").
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 (simple example: when asked "How was your weekend?", a man may answer "Порыбачили." In that single word is included the information that he went out fishing, was not alone, that his trip is now over, and that it wasn't very long). note
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. Another form being so obsolete that even Russians themselves sometimes get it wrong is sut' , third person plural. Modern Russians trying to sound archaic sometimes use it for singular, to embarass themselves if someone notices.
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 "person" is masculine as well. Note however it does not mean "man" as in a human male. There is another word for that (which confusingly has a feminine ending). Also interesting to note that Russian does not distinguish between "person" and "human." They are the same word.
Even terms for inanimate objects are also often masculine ("nozh" — a knife) and feminine ("vilka" — a fork)note . Most profession names except for "traditionally female" ones are 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. note
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"). Fortunately, Russian punctuation is strictly formalized in an iconic work of a famous linguist Dietmar Rosenthal. Unfortunately, not many Russians know even the basic set of rules nowadays.
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" class.
Apart from article misuse, there are other characteristic traits of a Russian accent. Most of them come from the use of Russian pronunciation: 'R' in Russian is trilled and vowels in unstressed positions are usually 'reduced' to very short and more open-mouthed vowels. Some English vowels are indistinguishable for the Russian ear (for example, it is difficult for them to distinguish "man" and "men" or "bat" and "bet") note . Also, Russian does not have "long" vowels, so they do not distinct them from short ones neither hearing, nor pronouncing ones (and even those who do, usually stress long vowels too much, for Russian stress is performed via both length and tone).
Ending consonants are often pronounced unvoiced; this, paired with the fact Russian does not have an 'ng' sound, results in words like "strong" being pronounced "stronk." There is also no "th" sound in Russian, a trait it shares with many other European languages, so mispronouncing "th" as "s" or "z" (rare options include "f", "v" or even "d"), is also a part of Russian accent. Same thing with "w". Russians, like Germans, tend to pronounce it as "v" or sometimes "oo". And "h" is replaced by "kh" (sound closer to "ch" in "loch") or sometimes "g". In Russia, "Harry Potter" is known as "Gary Potter" ("Гарри" pronounced "Garree" being the Russian transliteration of the English name).