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Spelling and Abbreviating Bulky Words in Russian Posted by on Mar 14, 2019 in Culture

Thanks to their numerous prefixes, suffixes, and endings, Russian words can be pretty long. In addition, the “morphology principle of spelling” (морфологи́ческий при́нцип правописа́ния) dictates that we spell Russian word roots consistently, even if they are pronounced differently in related words. Think of го́род (city) vs. города́ (cities). If they were spelled phonetically, they would look something like горат and гарада. How do native or proficient speakers of Russian deal with these challenges?

journal

Photo by Cathryn Lavery on Unsplash

Abbreviations

Many people who went to primary, secondary, or tertiary school (нача́льная шко́ла, сре́дняя шко́ла, вы́сшее уче́бное заведе́ние—that’s elementary, middle/high school, and college for our North American readers) in Russia and culturally-similar regions will remember sitting in a lecture where the instructor is going a mile a minute, and you are desperately trying to keep up. From what I recall, technology did not necessarily help things as, instead of writing down the spoken words, you would often end up chasing a rapid-fire succession of slides.

So how do Russians handle note-taking? Well, audio recording is one way. A few years ago, some people would use Dictaphones (диктофо́ны). Another thing that has emerged is a sophisticated system of abbreviations (сокра́щения).

The most common pattern is writing the first few letters of the word followed by a dash and then the last few letters. Some examples of this kind include:

  • больни́ца — б-ца (hospital)
  • о́бщество — общ-во (society)
  • литерату́ра — лит-ра (literature)
  • физкульту́ра — физ-ра (physical education)

Another pattern involves writing the first few letters of a word followed by a period:

  • ру́сский — русс. (Russian)
  • гла́вный — глав. (main)
  • америка́нский — амер. (American—adjective)

Of course, people can get pretty creative with these, and each person eventually develops their own repertoire of abbreviations. That’s why one person’s handwritten lecture notes (конспе́кт) may be hard for another person to decipher.

mason jar with Russian label

Photo by Olia Gozha on Unsplash

Sound It Out

Now, what about spellings? When you’re not sure how to spell a certain word, in elementary school and beyond, you would be told to find a “verification word” (прове́рочное сло́во). That is a word that has the ambiguous sound pronounced clearly. For example, if you don’t know how to spell к?робка (box), think of ко́роб, and you’ll realize that the first vowel is о. Of course, this method only works if you have a developed vocabulary and can easily find the “verification word.”

And if you need to ask someone to spell it for you? You’re in for a surprise—Russian speakers don’t usually spell things the way English speakers do. In fact, the equivalent of spelling (something for someone to write down correctly) is “диктова́ть по бу́квам” (“to dictate letter by letter”), which tells you this is not something that’s done often.

So, if you ask someone, “Как пи́шется ‘велосипе́д’?” (“How do you spell ‘bike’?”), it’s very unlikely you will hear “вэ-е-эль-о-эс-и-пэ-е-дэ.” In fact, I had to think pretty hard just now to remember and write down all the names of the letters. What a Russian speaker will do instead is pronounce the word the way it is spelled. So, instead of the usual pronunciation [в’эласип’эт] (velasipet), they would say [в’элосип’эд] (velosiped). A frustrating corollary to this is that I have a pretty hard time figuring out spellings of English words from hearing a barrage of letter names coming at me. It’s like my brain can’t keep up after 2 or 3 letters. 🙂

Have you ever had to take notes in Russian in any real-life contexts? How did you do?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


Comments:

  1. Tommy:

    Very interesting. I would also love a piece about phonetic appending/connecting in Russian. The way they say “мыс делали” instead of “мы сделали”, which makes it harder to understand for us beginners 🙂

    • Maria:

      @Tommy Thank you, Tommy! Excellent suggestion. Russian does, indeed, link words together in a manner reminiscent of the French liaison. My hunch would be to go with which expression is more probably. Мы сделали is far more frequent than мыс делали.

  2. Mark:

    I had an Army job back in the 80s listening to Russian army units and transcribing the radio conversations in real time. We used a mix of symbols and abbreviations. Пехота was пех or X (the crossed rifles the US used to symbolized infantry), an oval (for the treads) of armor units, a combo of X and oval for motorized infantry, a simple / or арт for artillery, 333 for “moving out”, which was a Sov radio code for наступать, НП for наблюдательный пункт, и т.д.

    • Maria:

      @Mark Very interesting! Having a system of symbols definitely helps. I had a classmate who used arrows, math symbols, and so on when taking her notes.