Take Your Pronunciation to the Next Level – Part II

Posted on 28. Jul, 2014 by in Russian phonetics

You will need this sound to say "cheese" in Russian Image by Rob Campbell on flickr.com

You will need this sound to say “cheese” in Russian
Image by Rob Campbell on flickr.com

This post is continued from last week. We were talking about the top areas you should concentrate on to drastically improve your Russian pronunciation.

4. ы

Ы is a funny sound. It is not considered very pretty-sounding in Russian, and few native words have it. At the same time, it is widely used to form plurals and appears in such common words as ты (you sing.), вы (you pl. or formal), and мы (we). Ы only appears after hard consonants in Russian (soft consonants will be followed by и). Does that make и and ы allophones — two ways of saying the same phoneme, or meaning-distinguishing sound, depending on where it occurs in the word? Scholars aren’t sure, but perhaps it doesn’t matter for our purposes.

This sound has already come up in comments a couple of times. I remember one of my students saying muy, as in the Spanish for “very,” instead of мы. The funny thing is she wasn’t that far off. Just like у and и, it is articulated with your tongue lifted towards the roof of your mouth. However, the tongue is half way between the front of your mouth as in the case of и and the back of your mouth as in the case of у. You lips are pretty much where they would be for an “ee” sound, which is why “Say cheese” in Russian is скажи “сыр” (literally, “say cheese”). The ы gets your lips into a proper, if somewhat strained, smile.

Basically, you need to pretend like you’re going to say и and pull your tongue back. This may be awkward to try to do just from reading the explanation, so let’s listen to some examples.

мыломило (soap vs nice; incidentally the name Mila, Мила, is pronounced just like the latter)

былбил – (was vs beat; the name Bill, Билл, is pronounced like the second word)

4. Vowel reduction

Image by Robert Agthe on flickr.com

Image by Robert Agthe on flickr.com

Most Russian learners, even complete beginners, are usually aware that unstressed о and е are not pronounced the same way as they would under stress. For those who aren’t that far into their Russian studies, they pretty much sound like а and и, respectively, or that’s what you’r told. That is an important thing to keep in mind, but what often slips through the cracks is that all unstressed vowels lose their quality compared to the stressed ones.

That means that, yes, not pronouncing корова (cow) as [к о р о в а] is a step in the right direction, but you shouldn’t really be saying an open а in that first syllable, either [к а р о в а]. Unless you have a pronounced Moscow accent, of course. The а gets reduced either uh or a schwa, depending on where that unstressed syllable appears in the word. People can even drop unstressed vowels altogether when speaking fast.

Try to listen for the difference between the stressed and unstressed vowels in these examples.

борода – beard

человек – person

колесо – wheel

On a side note, there is normally only one stressed syllable in Russian words, so instead of stressing every other syllable, try putting all your oomph on that stressed syllable. This way, the rest will naturally get slurred and reduced.

I hope this was helpful. As always, let me know if there are any other areas of Russian pronunciation that give you a hard time.

Driving in Russia

Posted on 23. Jul, 2014 by in General reference article, Russian life, when in Russia

While you can drive in almost every country on Earth, the driving experience you can get in Russia could be priceless :-) . While it can be exciting to take in the unparalleled  beauty that the country has to offer, the lack of “driving necessities” may leave you stranded, lost, or worse. For example, driving in the US, you expect the interstates and freeways to be well stocked with gas stations, restaurants, easy-to-read and clearly marked road signs, and stores; in Russia you cannot take these things for granted and in many places, you’ll be lucky to see any of them. The challenges that you may face are not to be taken lightly so one must be well prepared.

System of Roads/Federal Highways

Being that Russia spans from Kaliningrad in the westernmost point, north of Poland, all the way to its easternmost point located at Big Diomede Island in the Bering Strait, and has an area of nearly 6.5 million miles, you’d expect a large system of highways, right? Think again. As long as you are in the western part of the country, there is a nice array of highways, all the way up to St. Petersburg and a bit beyond. You can quite easily travel south all the way to Azerbaijan. In the western part of the country, it can be said that “all roads lead to Moscow.” Should you wish to travel east, your choices go from few to nonexistent rather quickly. The farther north you go, well, let’s just say that you probably don’t even want to try.

Condition of Roads

Considering that Russia’s climate encompasses some very hot and equally cold temperatures, you can expect road conditions to greatly vary. With many Russians opting for chains on their tires in the winter, you can bet that this takes a toll on the roads.  The last six hundred miles of the Russian Federal Highway running from Moscow to Yakoutsk is called the Lena Highway and after the winter thaw, it is widely considered one of least hospitable in the world. Each time it rains in the spring and summer, the road turns to mud. In many places the regular maintenance is well overdue. On the bright side, roads in major cities like Moscow may be comparable to other places in Europe.

The Police/Laws

The imagination of Russian police officers when it comes to hiding and setting up radar should not be overlooked. As in other parts of the world, a car heading toward you flashing its high beams often means that you’d better check your speed. It is also recommended to carry a bit of cash when you drive because you can be stopped for any reason. Unless you are doing something horribly illegal, the cash can usually be your key to freedom.

Until recently, you did not have to have automobile insurance in Russia. Also, as long as you are not staying more than six months, your state/country’s driver’s license may also suffice. It is worth noting that Russian driving etiquette often trumps the rules of the road so get out of the way of a speeding motorist and always be on the look out for the unexpected. At night, you may see motorists throw all caution to the wind and drive however, and wherever, they wish. This is because many police officers use this time to catch up on their sleep.

In conclusion, it is worth mentioning that until quite recently, many Russians did not own automobiles due to the lack of financing opportunities. This means that those who do have vehicles are likely to cherish them because of the difficulty in procuring them. The parking practices in much of Europe that would often allow one to gently “nudge” another’s vehicle while making room to park will be gravely out of place in Russia. With public transportation being so adequate in most cities, it would be advised by this writer to utilize it and save yourself the headache.

Всего хорошего!

Take Your Pronunciation to the Next Level – Part I

Posted on 21. Jul, 2014 by in Russian phonetics

Image by Ctd 2005 on flick.com

Image by Ctd 2005 on flick.com

Does anyone here find Russian pronunciation challenging? Perhaps you are learning Russian abroad and don’t get to hear native speakers very often. Or maybe, despite hearing them, you just can’t grasp how they produce the sounds of Russian and cannot quite repeat them. Let’s hope that’s not the case. But whatever your accent in Russian may be, I often find that working on a few pain points can drastically improve one’s pronunciation. Even if you can’t sound 100% native, tackling these aspects will help make your Russian flow smoother and be easily understood by Russian speakers.

1. Х sound

X is very prevalent in many Russian words, especially since it appears in adjective case endings, like больших (genitive plural of “big”). People tend to either “under-pronounce” х by skipping it altogether or doing the quiet exhale; or “over-pronounce” it by making a dry gargling sound in their throat. The actual sound is somewhere in between. You can find a technical description on Wikipedia, but here I would like to share some pronunciations by native speakers. All recordings come from forvo.com, which I recommend you use for looking up words you have doubts about.

хан – khan

This sound also appears in words of Greek origin that had the letter chi (χ) in the Greek – техника, механика, химия. Languages like English or Spanish tend to have a straightforward “k” sound in these words, so speakers on these languages may be tempted to say it that way in Russian, too. Resist the temptation. Here is an example of a word of Greek origin.

механизм – mechanism, machine

2. Soft sounds

Soft, or palatalized, sounds are formed by lifting your tongue against the roof of your mouth. That’s the technical description, which may be hard to fathom. You can also imagine that you go to pronounce an “ee” sound after the consonant, but don’t actually end up saying it.

As you probably know, a saying a “hard” (unpalatalized) consonant instead of a “soft” (palatalized) one can alter the meaning of the word. Some examples can make this clearer.

мелмель (chalk vs a shallow)

братбрать (brother vs to take)

матмать (checkmate or Russian swearwords vs mother)

селсель (he/I/you (male) sat down vs mudslide)

Please mind that many foreign names, when said in Russian, are pronounced with a soft consonant sound. This will be reflected in writing, with the consonant being followed by ь (мягкий знак – soft sign) or the vowels ю, я, ё, е, и. For example, Luke Skywalker is Люк Скайуокер (not лук, the Russian word for an onion). Philadelphia is pronounced Филадельфия (not Филаделфия with a “hard” second л). In case of names, these are not meaning-changing differences, but they will make you pronunciation much more elegant and less jagged for the native ear.

3. Initial consonant clusters

Socialite and activist Kseniya Sobchak (Ксения Собчак) - image by Evgeniy Isaev on flickr.com

Socialite and activist Kseniya Sobchak (Ксения Собчак) – image by Evgeniy Isaev on flickr.com

Russian is notorious for having multiple consonants at the beginning of the word, such as in встреча (meeting), взгляд (glance), or мгновение (an instant). To make matters worse, even the two-consonant clusters in Russian words may be hard for learners to pronounce because their own languages either don’t have similar combinations or treat them differently.

Often, what ends up happening is that the speaker, desperate to get both consonants out, will insert a small vowel sound, an “uh,” between them. So, the name Ксения (Kseniya, Xenia) becomes Kuh-seniya, and психология (psychology) becomes puh-sihologheeya. Again, resist the temptation. It is better to skip the initial consonant altogether than to insert an extra sound, which will confuse the listener. What can help you get there is to put your lips in position for saying the first sound (п in the психология example) but to start saying the second sound right away (с in the case of психология).

I will continue my list in my next post. In the meantime, do you have problems pronouncing any sounds of Russian? How do you get around them?

Please, also see this great post on the same subject.