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.

Vovels

  • 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 /ˈku.jo/ 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.

Consonants

  • 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.)
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reduplicated relations

In Mandarin Chinese, reduplication is a very common feature. Its function is to create an informal, less direct or more cute version of a word with the same meaning. For example, 謝謝 xièxie, “thanks”, is a reduplicated xiè. However, when it comes to naming your relations, it could well be that these apparently reduplicated words came first and then got shortened, just like English “ma” and ‎“pa” are short versions of ‎“mama” and ‎“papa”.

Now mama, papa, baba, dada etc. are babble words, something that babies all over the world tend to produce without thinking about their parents and other relatives. (How on earth Finns got to use äiti and isä, is anyone’s guess. Here’s my own guess: Finnish is derived from Elvish, not the other way round, and elvish babies never babble.)

What I find interesting about Mandarin is that there are different babble words for different kinds of brothers, sisters, uncles and grandparents. Which is logical, if you think of it. For example, an older brother and a younger brother often have nothing in common. Calling them simply “brothers” is just silly.

Han characters Pinyin Meaning Etymology
trad. 爸爸 bàba dad, papa ‎“dad”
simpl.
trad. 媽媽 māma mom, mum, mama ‎“mum”
simpl. 妈妈
trad. 哥哥 gēge older brother ‎“elder brother”
simpl.
trad. 弟弟 dìdi younger brother ‎“younger brother”
simpl.
trad. 姐姐 jiějie older sister ‎“elder sister, young lady”
simpl.
trad. 妹妹 mèimei younger sister ‎“younger sister”
simpl.
trad. 舅舅 jiùjiu mother’s brother, uncle ‎“mother’s brother, uncle”
simpl.
trad. 叔叔 shūshu father’s younger brother, uncle ‎“father’s younger brother, uncle”
simpl.
trad. 奶奶 nǎinai paternal grandmother, gramma, granny ‎“milk; woman’s breasts”
simpl.
trad. 爺爺 yéye father’s father, paternal grandfather, granddad ‎“father, grandfather”
simpl. 爷爷
trad. 寶寶 bǎobǎo baby ‎“treasure, precious”
simpl. 宝宝

just friends

It’s almost time for me to leave these shores. I still did not learn much Finnish. Just some words, and not the most useful ones.

As I mentioned in this blog quite a few times, Finnish vocabulary is mostly alien to Indo-European speakers. The familiar (to me) words fall into three categories:

Of course, there are more, but I don’t speak Swedish (among many other languages). I believe these words should be classified as “true friends”, as opposed to “false friends” (väärät ystävät). The problem is, I loathe to think of any Finnish word as a “false friend”. There are so few I remember, I better be, well, just friends with them.

There are, however, some Finnish words which sound (or look) like English, Russian, or even Spanish ones, but are not their cognates. To paraphrase Marianne Aav, these will have a phonetic impact or emotional content for most English (Russian, Spanish) speakers, but probably not for others. I leave it to you to figure out this content.

asia thing, matter, issue, business
fuksi freshman
herkullinen delicious
hieno fine, elegant
huijari conman, fraudster, swindler
jopa even, as much as
koitto dawning
kivi stone, rock
kotka eagle
krapu crayfish; (archaic) crab
kunnioitus respect
kunto condition, form; fitness
kulo dead grass (from previous summer); forest fire
kuura hoar frost
matka trip; distance
moikka hi, hello; so long
ohuella, ohuena, ohuetta, ohuin various forms of adjective ohut (thin)
osa part, portion
pankki bank
penkki bench
piha yard
pila joke, jest
pinkka pile, stack
puku suit, attire
pussi bag
pöllö owl
sotka bluebill, scaup (any bird of the genus Aythya)
suka brush, currycomb
telkka (colloquial) television
unikko poppy
vankila prison
vankka firm, strong

marimekko names

Translated literally, Marimekko means “Mary-dress”, but it has other connotations as well. Mekko is an old Finnish word that means “little girl’s dress” which suited the fresh, new look of Marimekko in 1951, while at the same time connecting to Finnish tradition. There is further resonance in the name: “Mari” is an anagram for “Armi”, thus linking the company closely to its charismatic founder, Armi Ratia. The depth of association of the company name extends to the names chosen for the fabric patterns and fashions. While many are straightforward, others defy translation. Some may have been chosen for their phonetic qualities or are deliberate misspellings that will be understood only by Finns as either humorous or old-fashioned. Others are in dialect or are old adages that may be unfamiliar today even to Finns. These will still have a phonetic impact or emotional content for most Finns, but probably not for others.

kohmelo, pohmelo

After living in Finland for six months, I still can’t follow the vernacular. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Finnish grammar is complex — though not that complex. At least conceptually, most of (what I know of) it does make sense. It is the (mostly) alien vocabulary that I have trouble memorising. In this situation, “false friends” are as good as “real friends”, because they all provide mnemonics for… for… forgot the word. Let’s just say, they provide mnemonics, all right? So it was good to discover that knowledge of Russian could be of some help here.

To the Russian ear, words such as kartonki (cardboard, carton) and patonki (baguette) sound amusing and familiar. But these could have arrived to Finnish from the language(s) other than Russian, just like картон and батон were borrowed from French. Similarly, kissa (cat) and киса (kitty, pussy) both appear to be of Germanic origin (cf. Swedish kisse). Some other Finnish words, however, leave no doubt regarding their source: тоска, кабак, водка, спирт, закуска, похмелье, топор, гибель, тюрьма, канава — all this horrid, quintessentially Russian stuff that readers of Tolstoyevsky glamourise. It’s as if the Finns used to be such happy people, they didn’t need these words in their vocabulary… until the Russians came, that is.

Speaking of Russians and/or false friends: although rusakko, russakka and ruskea are of Russian origin, none of these words means “Russian”. The word we are looking for is… wait a minute, I still have difficulty to remember it… venäläinen (from Venäjä, Russia).

Some Finnish words of Russian origin

arbuusi watermelon арбуз watermelon
halatti dressing gown халат dressing gown, surgical gown, lab coat, oriental robe
ikkuna window; sash окно window
kanava canal канава ditch, gutter
kapakka tavern, pub, bar кабак tavern, pub, bar
kasku anecdote сказка (fairy) tale; lies, fabrication
kauhtana cassock, kaftan кафтан kaftan
kiipeli trouble, dire straits гибель death, doom, ruin; huge number
kohmelo, pohmelo hangover похмелье hangover
kutri lock (of hair), curl кудри curls
lusikka spoon ложка spoon
läävä barn, pen, cowshed, pigsty хлев stable, stall, cowshed, pigsty
maatuska matryoshka, Russian doll матушка mother, mum
majakka lighthouse, beacon маяк lighthouse, beacon
muurahainen ant муравей ant
määrä amount, quantity, degree, measure мера measure, degree, extent, limit
papu bean боб bean
piirakka pie, pasty пирог pie
pirtu rectified spirit спирт alcohol, spirit
pokaali cup, goblet бокал glass, goblet
pätsi furnace; hellfire печь furnace, kiln, oven, stove
rotu breed, race род clan, genus, kind, sort; (grammar) gender
rusakko European hare (Lepus europaeus) русак (also заяц-русак) European hare
ruskea brown русый blond, light brown (of hair)
russakka German cockroach прусак (cf. пруссак, “Prussian”) German cockroach
saapas boot сапог boot
sapuska (colloquial) food закуска snack, appetiser
simpukka mollusk; clam; mussel жемчуг pearls
sini blue (n.) синий blue (adj.)
tappara (battle) axe топор axe
torakka cockroach таракан cockroach
sutkaus quip, joke шутка joke
sääli pity, mercy жаль pity
tavara goods, ware, commodity, property товар goods, ware, commodity
tuska pain, distress, agony, suffering тоска melancholy, depression, boredom
tuuma thought, idea; plan, scheme дума thought; duma (Russian legislature)
tyrmä dungeon тюрьма prison, jail
viesti message вести messages
voro thief вор thief
votka vodka водка vodka
värttinä spindle веретено spindle

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

järjestysluvut ja päiväys

Now that we know how to count in Finnish and Finnish days and months, how do we say the date (päiväys)? Fist, we need the ordinal numbers (järjestysluvut).

Like in many other languages, Finnish words for “first” (ensimmäinen) and “second” (toinen) are completely unlike their cardinal counterparts (yksi and kaksi). So no surprises here. After that, even less surprisingly, the ordinal numbers are very like their corresponding cardinals.

Dealing with larger numbers is not very difficult either. For instance, kuusi (6) becomes kuudes, kaksikymmentä (20) becomes kahdeskymmenes; the word for 26th is kahdeskymmeneskuudes, i.e. one simply joins the two ordinals together. Easy? Very easy. In the same fashion, the word for 1984th will be tuhannesyhdeksässadaskahdeksaskymmenesneljäs. For English (or Russian) speakers this may appear a bit odd: after all, we do not say “twentieth-first” (or “двадцатый шестой”). On the other hand, the Finnish way is much more logical. One may start wondering if English (Russians, etc.) are just plain lazy, at least with their ordinal numbers.

Now let’s have a good look at cardinal/ordinal pairs from 11 to 19. We have yksitoista / yhdestoista, kaksitoista / kahdestoista, kolmetoista / kolmastoista… Wait a minute. Why the first half of the word changes but nothing happens to toista? It is a bit like if in English we were saying “thirdteen” instead of “thirteenth”.

The reason is, toista is the partitive form of toinen, i.e. it is already changed (inflected) once and it would be too much bother to change it further. I don’t know it it is a good enough reason, but here it is.

To form the dates, we need both ordinal numbers and inflected month names. Once again, the partitive case is used. According to Wikipedia, this case is only used in Finnish, Estonian and Sami languages, so if you don’t speak any of these, good luck with understanding what it’s all about. Luckily, for our purposes we just need to know that the month names get suffix -ta: tammikuutammikuuta, helmikuuhelmikuuta and so on. Thus, November 30 is kolmaskymmenes marraskuuta.

Number English Finnish Russian
0 zeroth nollas нулевой
1 first ensimmäinen первый
2 second toinen второй
3 third kolmas третий
4 fourth neljäs четвёртый
5 fifth viides пятый
6 sixth kuudes шестой
7 seventh seitsemäs седьмой
8 eighth kahdeksas восьмой
9 ninth yhdeksäs девятый
10 tenth kymmenes десятый
11 eleventh yhdestoista одиннадцатый
12 twelfth kahdestoista двенадцатый
13 thirteenth kolmastoista тринадцатый
14 fourteenth neljästoista четырнадцатый
15 fifteenth viidestoista пятнадцатый
16 sixteenth kuudestoista шестнадцатый
17 seventeenth seitsemästoista семнадцатый
18 eighteenth kahdeksastoista восемнадцатый
19 nineteenth yhdeksästoista девятнадцатый
20 twentieth kahdeskymmenes двадцатый
21 twenty-first kahdeskymmenesensimmäinen двадцать первый
22 twenty-second kahdeskymmenestoinen двадцать второй
23 twenty-third kahdeskymmeneskolmas двадцать третий
30 thirtieth kolmaskymmenes тридцатый
31 thirty-first kolmaskymmenesensimmäinen тридцать первый
40 fortieth neljäskymmenes сороковой
50 fiftieth viideskymmenes пятидесятый
60 sixtieth kuudeskymmenes шестидесятый
70 seventieth seitsemäskymmenes семидесятый
80 eightieth kahdeksaskymmenes восьмидесятый
90 ninetieth yhdeksäskymmenes девяностый
100 hundredth sadas сотый
101 hundred and first sadasensimmäinen сто первый
125 hundred and twenty-fifth sadaskahdeskymmenesviides сто двадцать пятый
200 two hundredth kahdessadas двухсотый
300 three hundredth kolmassadas трехсотый
400 four hundredth neljässadas четырехсотый
500 five hundredth viidessadas пятисотый
600 six hundredth kuudessadas шестисотый
700 seven hundredth seitsemässadas семисотый
800 eight hundredth kahdeksassadas восьмисотый
900 nine hundredth yhdeksässadas девятисотый
1000 thousandth tuhannes тысячный
1001 thousand and first tuhannesensimmäinen тысяча первый
2000 two thousandth kahdestuhannes двухтысячный
2013 two thousand and thirteenth kahdestuhanneskolmastoista две тысячи тринадцатый