some peculiarities of Russian

This post is based on a presentation prepared by Tamara for her Spanish class.

Many people believe that Russian is a difficult language to learn. While it isn’t difficult for me, and shouldn’t be that difficult for speakers of any Indo-European language anyway, there are several important differences the Spanish (as well as English) speakers should be aware of. She also used some examples from Finnish, just to put things into perspective.

а. Alphabet

Modern Russian uses a variant of Cyrillic alphabet with thirty-three letters. These include ten vowels, twenty one consonants, hard sign ъ and soft sign ь. It looks like this:

Even though it may appear a bit frightening, I recommend to learn the Cyrillic alphabet as soon as you start learning Russian. Reading Russian in transliteration will only confuse you. For example, the character y is often used instead of two rather different letters (and sounds): the vowel ы and the consonant й. It is also used to indicate the “softening” of consonants (see below). As a result, the words you pronounce won’t sound anything like Russian.

б. Sounds

Some sounds in Russian present a difficulty for Spanish and/or English speakers.


  • Е: after a consonant, pronounced as /e/ or /ɛ/; in all other cases (at the beginning of a word, after a vowel, after the hard and soft signs) pronounced as /je/ or // in Spanish yerba /ˈjeɾ.βa/ or English yes /jɛs/.
  • Ё: after a consonant, pronounced as /ö/, like in German mögen; in all other cases pronounced as /jo/, as in Spanish cuyo /ˈ or English yolk /joʊk/.
  • Ы /ɨ/. There’s nothing like this sound in either Spanish or English. Just listen: 🔊. A commonly suggested trick to reproduce the sound of ы is to bite a (clean) pencil or pen so to spread the corners of your mouth while saying //, as in cheese /tʃiːz/.
  • Э: /ɛ/ like in English pen /pɛn/.
  • Ю: after a consonant, pronounced /ü/; in all other cases pronounced /ju/ as in Spanish yuca /ˈju.ka/ or in English yoo-hoo /ˈjuːˌhuː/.
  • Я: after a consonant, pronounced /æ/; in all other cases pronounced /ja/, as in Spanish cuya /ˈku.ja/ or English yard /jɑːd/.
  • Spanish has only five vowels, /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/, which always sound the same, stressed or not. There are more vowels in Finnish but they also always pronounced the same way, irrespectively of stress. As for English, they do not even know how many vowels there are, let alone which ones to use. The only thing everybody seems to agree is that most unstressed vowels in English are reduced to schwa /ə/. Vowel-wise, Russian is somewhere in between these two extremes. The stressed vowels always sound as expected. Unstressed а and о are usually pronounced as something between /a/ and /o/; unstressed е, и, э and я, between /e/ and /i/; unstressed у and ю, between /o/ and /u/. The good news is that even if you pronounce all vowels Spanish (or Finnish) way, you still will be understood.


  • Б and В: /b/ and /v/, respectively. Unlike Spanish, there is always a clear distinction between these two sounds.
  • Г: normal /ɡ/ as in Spanish guerra or /ˈɡera/ or in English get /ɡɛt/; in Southern Russian dialects, often pronounced /ɣ/ as in Spanish lago /ˈla.ɣo/.
  • Ж /ʐ/, similar to /ʒ/ in Portuguese janeiro /ʒaˈnejru/, French jour /ʒuʀ/ or English measure /ˈmɛʒə(r)/.
  • З /z/, same as /z/ in English zoo /zuː/ but not Spanish zurdo.
  • Р /r/ (rolled r), same as /r/ in Spanish perro /ˈpero/.
  • Х /x/, same as /x/ in Spanish ojo /ˈoxo/ or in Scottish loch /lɔx/.
  • Ц /t͡s/, as /ts/ in English nuts /nʌts/ or in Italian pizza /ˈpit.tsa/. This sound is not normally found in Spanish.
  • Ш /ʂ/, similar to /ʃ/ in Portuguese caixa /ˈkajʃa/, French chic /ʃik/ or English sheep /ʃiːp/.
  • Щ /ɕɕ/, which is not a combination of š and č in spite of being often transcribed as shch. It is similar to /ʃˈʃ/ in Italian uscita /uʃˈʃita/.

з shouldn’t be a problem for English speakers, ditto р and х for Spanish speakers.

  • Most Russian consonants come in two variants, “hard” and “soft”. The “softening” of Russian consonants before vowels е, ё, ю, я is often transliterated in English with letters y or i, which makes learners to pronounce, say, a phrase “Юля, я тебя люблю” (“Julia, I love you”) as /ˈjulja ja tiˈbja ljubˈlju/ instead of /ˈjulæ ja tiˈbæ lübˈlü/. The “softening” achieved with the soft sign ь alone is practically impossible to transliterate. You just have to listen and speak!
  • The consonants ж, ц and ш are always hard (even if followed by soft sign), й, ч and щ are always soft.

On the other hand, Russian does not have /ð/ and /θ/ sounds so common in English and in Peninsular Spanish, as in Madrid /maˈðɾi(θ)/. And there is no /w/ sound, so when transliterating English names, one has to decide whether to use в or у. For example, “Watson” could be transliterated as either Ва́тсон or Уо́тсон.

в. Declension

  • Modern Russian has six grammatical cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional. This sounds like a lot, as neither Spanish nor English have cases. But this is only two more cases compared with German (with which Russian shares four cases) and same number as Latin. Compare that with Finnish (15 cases), Hungarian (18) or Tsez (64) and stop complaining. Here’s how the word дом (house) will change in all six cases:

    case singular plural
    Nominative дом дома́
    Genitive до́ма домо́в
    Dative до́му дома́м
    Accusative дом дома́
    Instrumental до́мом дома́ми
    Prepositional до́ме дома́х

    And here’s what Finnish can do with their house (I didn’t bother with the case names):

    talo house
    talon of (a) house
    talona as a house
    taloa house (as an object)
    taloksi to a house
    talossa in (a) house
    talosta from (a) house
    taloon into (a) house
    talolla at (a) house
    talolta from (a) house
    talolle to (a) house
    talotta without (a) house
    taloineni with my house(s)
    taloin with (a) house
  • Russian has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Cf. Spanish (masculine and feminine), and English (traces of).
  • Russian nouns, pronouns, adjectives, present and past participles, and numerals are subject to declension: they change their endings to indicate number, gender and case.
  • In Russian, there are three noun declensions conveniently named “first”, “second” and “third”.
  • Adjectives, present and past participles, and ordinal numerals have to agree (in number, gender and case) with nouns and pronouns.
  • Russian cardinal numerals два (two), три (three) and четыре (four) make the count noun to change differently compared to plural, as if they were “not quite” plural:

    singular один дом one house
    “few” два до́ма two houses
    “few” три до́ма three houses
    “few” четы́ре до́ма four houses
    plural пять домо́в five houses

г. Verbs

  • In Russian, there are only three tenses: past, present and future. (Some linguists go even further and say that Russian has only two grammatical tenses: present-future and past).
  • In the present and future tenses (or present-future), there are two conjugations; like in Spanish, each has six different forms: 1st singular, 2nd singular, 3rd singular, 1st plural, 2nd plural, 3rd plural.
  • In the past tense, there is no difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd, but the verbs are number- and gender-specific.
  • There are no such things as perfect, imperfect or pluperfect tense. Instead, most verbs come in two flavours, imperfective (несовершенный вид) and perfective (совершенный вид).
  • There is only one type of verb “to be”: быть (unlike Spanish ser and estar). This verb is hardly ever used in present tense, so some apparently complete sentences do not contain a verb, for example «Я — русский», “I (am) Russian”.

д. Articles

  • That’s easy: Russian does not use articles. (Nor does Finnish.)

the present simple is not that simple

The only simple thing about the present simple is that we use one word (e.g. use) rather than two (e.g. has used or is using). That the verb form, except when one uses third-person singular, is the same as the infinitive, does not make it any simpler. Nor does the present simple always refer to present. To use another frequency adverb, it hardly ever specifically refers to present. (I didn’t realise that until I started to prepare my lesson on present simple last week.)

The main use of present simple is to describe habitual actions, such as daily (weekly, monthly etc.) activities. When we say “Ritchie plays guitar” that does not refer to Ritchie’s activity at this exact moment. Right now he may be fast asleep. The grammar books often contrast present simple with confusingly named present continuous (“Ritchie is playing”). Why it is called continuous? All physical processes have some continuity, i.e. take non-zero time. Still, I’d say the tense expressing habitual actions has more right to be called continuous, for they continue for longer time.

Sure enough, present simple is also used to state “general truths”, such as “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases”. By definition, general truth is generally true for the present just as it is for the past and the future.

Perhaps the only scenario when the present simple really deals with the events in present is a live commentary. We heard a lot of it during the last World Cup — insert your favourite quote here.

much less than quite a few

Yes, you have guessed right. The title gave me away. Few things annoy me more more than insistence on using fewer when less is as good (or better). I mean, it all was discussed ad nauseam already. But here we go again, another grammar quiz, another grammar discussion, another series of moans that the English language is going to the dogs. What, Scarlett Johansson dares to say “Less sugar, less bottles”? In the Super Bowl Commercial? Oh dear.

While few (or many) is used with count nouns and little (or much) is used with mass nouns, the “rule” that comparative less and superlative least cannot be used with count nouns is debatable. Five years ago, Tesco (in)famously changed their “Ten items or less” checkout sign after complaints from some language purists. But this rule goes against both historical and modern usage of less with count nouns. Michael Swan says in his classic Practical English Usage (3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 301):

Less is quite common before plural nouns, as well as uncountables, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect.

Not most, not even many — just some people. While most people apparently consider it just fine to use less.

Henry Hitchings writes in The Language Wars: A History of Proper English:

…there is always someone who is irked by the sign in the supermarket that says ‘Five items or less’. Shouldn’t it be ‘Five items or fewer’? One way round this, adopted by a supermarket where I shop, is for the sign to read ‘Up to five items’. The rule that I can recall being taught is that less is used of bulk, but not of countable nouns: ‘I do less entertaining than you because I have fewer friends’. One of the reasons for the blurriness of the distinction between less and fewer is the way more behaves. We use more with countable nouns and with non-countable ones: ‘I do more entertaining than you because I have more friends’. However, in the Middle English period, more was used of quantities that were not being counted and the now obsolete mo was used where numbers were specified: one spoke of ‘more butter’ and of ‘mo loaves’, and, were I to revive the distinction, I would say, ‘I do more entertaining than you because I have mo friends’. As mo disappeared, more took over both roles, and less copied this extension. But there were objections. The conventional distinction seems to begin in 1770 with Robert Baker’s Reflections on the English Language. Baker was different from most of his contemporary writers on language, informing his audience that he ‘quitted the School at fifteen’, knew no Greek and not much Latin, and owned no books. His Reflections contains some statements that will have sounded odd to his peers and continue to seem so now; for instance, ‘There are … Places, even in Prose, where for the sake of Sound, Whom may be used in the nominative’. But regarding less he has proved influential.

“Influential”? Clearly an understatement. According to Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage (here is an excerpt, and here is a scan of relevant pages), the “rule” which seems to be firmly entrenched in some heads can be traced to nobody else’s but Baker’s opinion.

I don’t know whether Hitchings actually meant that, but from the above quote it may appear that in good old times of mo, they were also consistently using fewer for countables; therefore, the usage of less for countables is a relatively recent trend. Nothing of the sort.

The OED shows that less has been used of countables since the time of King Alfred the Great — he used it that way in one of his own translations from Latin — more than a thousand years ago (in about 888). So essentially less has been used of countables in English for just about as long as there has been a written English language. After about 900 years Robert Baker opined that fewer might be more elegant and proper. Almost every usage writer since Baker has followed Baker’s lead, and generations of English teachers have swelled the chorus. The result seems to be a fairly large number of people who now believe less used of countables to be wrong, though its standardness is easily demonstrated.

Let’s look now in the OED itself. The entry on this particular meaning of less goes:

A smaller number of; fewer. <…> Freq. found but generally regarded as incorrect.

It is not elaborated why or by whom it is “generally regarded as incorrect” even though “freq. found”. And then it gives some quotations which leave this “incorrect” usage totally vindicated:

c888 Ælfred tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. xxxv. §5 [6] Swa mid læs worda swa mid ma, swæðer we hit gereccan magon.

1481 Caxton tr. Siege & Conqueste Jerusalem (1893) cl. 222 By cause he had so grete plente of men of hys owne countre, he called the fewer and lasse to counseyll of the noble men of the Cyte.

1580 J. Lyly Euphues (new ed.) To Rdrs. sig. Biv, I thinke there are fewe Vniuersities that haue lesse faults then Oxford, many that haue more.

1873 Nature 1 May 15/2 The determination of position in the given manifoldness is reduced to a determination of quantity and to a determination of position in a manifoldness of less dimensions.

1874 Rep. Brit. Assoc. Advancem. Sci. 1873 53 To return to the history of logarithmic tables to a less number of figures.

1904 Amer. Jrnl. Philol. 25 234 There might have been less barbed wire, less flaring flowers.

I often hear from those few who stand for fewer that no matter how many countable items is there, you still have to use fewer. Nonsense! “Not fewer than a million people” sounds weird. “Not less than a million people” sounds fine. Why? Because a million people is an awful lot, that’s why. When you deal with lots and lots of countables, you simply stop to count every single of them. That includes people.

Wait. How many people live in Finland? “Fewer than six million people” — hey, sounds not too bad, although I still prefer “less than six million people”. The reason is, fewer sounds all right with few items. If we are talking about few millions, we’re back in the familiar territory of countables. But now I spy a semantic difference here. Four or five millions is “fewer than six million people”, whereas 5,454,444 (population of Finland, 2013 estimate) is definitely “less than six million people”.

If few people say fewer, even fewer people say fewest. In the OED, both fewer and fewest are found under few — from which I conclude that they do not even deserve their own entries. Say no more.

kissa istuu minun sylissä

According to Wikipedia,

Adpositions are among the most frequently occurring words in languages that have them.

(One could therefore expect that in languages that don’t have them, adpositions are not that frequent.)

In Finnish, postpositions are more common than prepositions. Maybe because this is the first language with postpositions which I am trying to learn, I can’t help feeling excited about them. I find it especially cute that there is a special postposition, sylissä, which means “on the lap”:

Kissa istuu minun sylissä.

Cat sits on my lap.

Conceptually, there is nothing particularly weird about postpositions: they are just like prepositions except they are placed not before their object but rather their object after. Once you get used to that, it even starts to seem more natural. Some Finnish postpositions related to spatial arrangement could have at least three flavours. For example, alla means just “under” (static), while alle is used to express moving “under” and alta is (moving) “from under”. If you look carefully at the table below, you’ll see that there is pattern system method in ’t.

Where Where to Where from
above yllä ylle yltä
under alla alle alta
on top of päällä päälle päältä
up, at the top ylhäällä ylhäälle ylhäältä
down, at the bottom alhaalla alhaalle alhaalta
left vasemmalla vasemmalle vasemmalta
right oikealla oikealle oikealta
among, in the middle of keskellä keskelle keskeltä
among, intermixed with joukossa joukkoon joukosta
around, on the perimeter ympärillä ympärille ympäriltä
at, by äärellä / ääressä ääreen äärestä
in front of edessä eteen edestä
behind takana taakse takaa
between välissä väliin välistä
inside, indoors sisällä sisälle sisältä
outside, outdoors ulkona ulos ulkoa
far (away) kaukana kauaksi kaukaa
near, close to lähellä lähelle läheltä
next to vieressä viereen vierestä
(somebody’s) place luona luokse luota

Some other postpositions are always about movement, and yet some others are always static, for instance:

Static Dynamic
opposite, vis-à-vis vastapäätä through läpi
alongside, together with, while ohella / ohessa by, past ohi
with (food) kera through, via, by kautta
with kanssa / kaa upward ylös
onto kiinni downward alas
after jälkeen over yli
for the sake of tähden beneath, underneath ali
because of, due to johdosta / johtuen (moving) around ympäri
depending on riippuen along with mukaan
during aikana along pitkin
in the beginning of alussa across poikki
in the end of lopussa forward eteenpäin
on behalf of, for puolesta backward taaksepäin
in opinion of mielestä towards kohden / kohti
in case of varalta in a zigzag way mutkitellen

apple names and garden grammar

And the names these apples had! Names that reek of the American nineteenth century, its suspender-popping local boosterism, its shameless Barnum-and-Bailey hype, its quirky, un-focus-grouped individuality. There were the names that set out to describe, often with the help of a well-picked metaphor: the green-as-a-bottle Bottle Greening, the Sheepnose, the Oxheart, the Yellow Bellflower, the Black Gilliflower, the Twenty-Ounce Pippin. There were names that puffed with hometown pride, like the Westfield Seek-No-Further, the Hubbardston Nonesuch, the Rhode Island Greening, the Albemarle Pippin (though the very same pippin was known as Newtown nearer to Newtown, New York), the York Imperial, the Kentucky Red Streak, the Long Stem of Pennsylvania, the Ladies Favorite of Tennessee, the King of Tompkins County, the Peach of Kentucky, and the American Nonpareille. There were names that gave credit where credit was due (or so we assume): the Baldwin, the Macintosh, the Jonathan, McAfee’s Red, Norton’s Melon, Moyer’s Prize, Metzger’s Calville, Kirke’s Golden Reinette, Kelly’s White, and Walker’s Beauty. And then there were the names that denoted an apple’s specialty, like Wismer’s Dessert, Jacob’s Sweet Winter, the Early Harvest and Cider Apple, the Clothes-Yard Apple, the Bread and Cheese, Cornell’s Savewell and Putnam’s Savewell, Paradise Winter, Payne’s Late Keeper, and Hay’s Winter Wine.

Gardeners like me tend to think such choices are our sovereign prerogative: in the space of this garden, I tell myself, I alone determine which species will thrive and which will disappear. I’m in charge here, in other words, and behind me stand other humans still more in charge: the long chain of gardeners and botanists, plant breeders, and, these days, genetic engineers who “selected,” “developed,” or “bred” the particular potato that I decided to plant. Even our grammar makes the terms of this relationship perfectly clear: I choose the plants, I pull the weeds, I harvest the crops. We divide the world into subjects and objects, and here in the garden, as in nature generally, we humans are the subjects.

But that afternoon in the garden I found myself wondering: What if that grammar is all wrong?