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.)

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

yksi, kaksi, kolme

Counting is Finnish is not a rocket science, even if the words appear alien. In fact, they are alien. Apart from nolla, which is derived from Latin nullus, and seitsemän (which sounds to me like a hybrid of seven and семь), the numbers are, well, unlike anything. And how on earth one is supposed to count, say, “one, two, three, five, six, seven” in salsa class? Yksi, kaksi, kolme, viisi, kuusi, seitsemän? This just does not make any sense. (Apparently, in spoken Finnish they just shorten the numerals like this: yks, kaks, kol, nel, viis, kuus, seits… So one can do that salsa count after all.)

But wait. I think I can spy something interesting about Finnish numbers 8 and 9. Wiktionary says that kahdeksan is “a compound of kahde- (genitive of kaksi-) and -ksan”, and yhdeksän is “a compound of yhde- (genitive of yksi-) and -ksän”. Except it is not at all clear what is ksan/ksän. And why only one of them got umlaut?

According to Wikipedia,

The words kahdeksan “eight” and yhdeksän “nine” have no confirmed etymology. The old theory is that they are compounds: *kaks-teksa “10–2”, or “eight” and *yks-teksa “10–1”, or “nine”, where the reconstructed word *teksa is similar to the Indo-European words for “ten” (*dek´m), but this is phonologically not plausible.

Hey, I already came out with exactly the same theory, on my own. Why it’s not plausible? I don’t know. Maybe because kymmenen sounds nothing like deksan. So what? “Kilo” does not sound like “one thousand”, and yet we are using it all the time.

Finnish numerals from 11 to 19 are uniformly created by adding suffix -toista. In contrast to English -teen, German -zehn, Russian -надцать etc., toista does not mean “ten” but is a form of ordinal number toinen, “the second” (decade, that is).

The rest is helppo tehtävä (easy-peasy): kymmenen is ten, kymmentä is tens; sata is one hundred, sataa is hundreds; tuhat is one thousand, tuhatta is thousands. The resulting glued-together words look frightening but are actually easy to understand… provided that you still remember how to count to ten.

# English Finnish Russian
0 zero, nil nolla ноль
1 one yksi один
2 two kaksi два
3 three kolme три
4 four neljä четыре
5 five viisi пять
6 six kuusi шесть
7 seven seitsemän семь
8 eight kahdeksan восемь
9 nine yhdeksän девять
10 ten kymmenen десять
11 eleven yksitoista одиннадцать
12 twelve kaksitoista двенадцать
13 thirteen kolmetoista тринадцать
14 fourteen neljätoista четырнадцать
15 fifteen viisitoista пятнадцать
16 sixteen kuusitoista шестнадцать
17 seventeen seitsemäntoista семнадцать
18 eighteen kahdeksantoista восемнадцать
19 nineteen yhdeksäntoista девятнадцать
20 twenty kaksikymmentä двадцать
21 twenty-one kaksikymmentäyksi двадцать один
30 thirty kolmekymmentä тридцать
40 forty neljäkymmentä сорок
50 fifty viisikymmentä пятьдесят
60 sixty kuusikymmentä шестьдесят
70 seventy seitsemänkymmentä семьдесят
80 eighty kahdeksankymmentä восемьдесят
90 ninety yhdeksänkymmentä девяносто
100 one hundred sata сто
101 one hundred and one satayksi сто один
125 one hundred and twenty-five satakaksikymmentäviisi сто двадцать пять
200 two hundred kaksisataa двести
300 three hundred kolmesataa триста
400 four hundred neljäsataa четыреста
500 five hundred viisisataa пятьсот
600 six hundred kuusisataa шестьсот
700 seven hundred seitsemänsataa семьсот
800 eight hundred kahdeksansataa восемьсот
900 nine hundred yhdeksänsataa девятьсот
1000 one thousand tuhat тысяча
2000 two thousand kaksituhatta две тысячи
2013 two thousand and thirteen kaksituhattakolmetoista две тысячи тринадцать

Counting in Finnish

cardinales y ordinales

Last Friday, on the way back from school, Timur and I talked about difference between números cardinales (cardinal numbers) and números ordinales (ordinal numbers). I used to confuse which are which until I mentally connected ordinal with Spanish masculine noun orden (order). So, that’s it: ordinal numbers are those that refer to positions within some ordered list, and cardinal numbers are… the other ones (those which represent quantities). Unlike English, where the ordinal numerals beyond 1st, 2nd and 3rd are typically formed by simply adding -th suffix to the corresponding cardinal numerals, Spanish has rather different terminology for ordinals.

OK, to an English speaker primero, segundo, tercero etc. should not sound exactly alien. Apart from first, second, third, fourth and so on, English has another set of ordinal numbers derived from Latin: primary, secondary, tertiary, quaternary… well, that’s about as far as it gets. I’ve never encountered quinary, senary and higher in either literature or conversation. Also, if you ever learned basics of music theory in a language other than English, the names of intervals are all very similar to Spanish ordinal numbers. But this is probably a topic for next post.

It is said that ordinal numbers above ten are seldom used in Spanish. Indeed, go googling for “mil novecientos sesenta y siete” and you’ll get thousands of hits. Now try to do the same with “milésimo noningentésimo sexagésimo séptimo”. The obvious explanation is that ordinals are significantly longer than cardinals. Still, it’s good to know one when you see one, so I think the table below may come handy *.

Cardinales Ordinales
0 cero
1 uno primero
un 1er primer
una primera
2 dos segundo
segunda
3 tres tercero
3er tercer
tercera
4 cuatro cuarto
5 cinco quinto
6 seis sexto
7 siete séptimo
8 ocho octavo
9 nueve noveno
10 diez 10º décimo
11 once 11º undécimo
12 doce 12º duodécimo
13 trece 13º decimotercero
14 catorce 14º decimocuarto
15 quince 15º decimoquinto
16 dieciséis 16º decimosexto
17 diecisiete 17º decimoséptimo
18 dieciocho 18º decimoctavo
19 diecinueve 19º decimonoveno
20 veinte 20º vigésimo
21 veintiuno 21º vigésimo primero
22 veintidós 22º vigésimo segundo
23 veintitrés 23º vigésimo tercero
24 veinticuatro 24º vigésimo cuarto
25 veinticinco 25º vigésimo quinto
26 veintiséis 26º vigésimo sexto
27 veintisiete 27º vigésimo séptimo
28 veintiocho 28º vigésimo octavo
29 veintinueve 29º vigésimo nono
30 treinta 30º trigésimo
31 treinta y uno 31º trigésimo primero
32 treinta y dos 32º trigésimo segundo
33 treinta y tres 33º trigésimo tercero
40 cuarenta 40º cuadragésimo
50 cincuenta 50º quincuagésimo
60 sesenta 60º sexagésimo
70 setenta 70º septuagésimo
80 ochenta 80º octogésimo
90 noventa 90º nonagésimo
100 cien 100º centésimo
101 ciento uno 101º centésimo primero
200 doscientos 200º ducentésimo
300 trescientos 300º tricentésimo
400 cuatrocientos 400º cuadringentésimo
500 quinientos 500º quingentésimo
600 seiscientos 600º sexcentésimo
700 setecientos 700º septingentésimo
800 ochocientos 800º octingentésimo
900 novecientos 900º noningentésimo
1000 mil 1000º milésimo
1001 mil uno 1001º milésimo primero
1002 mil dos 1002º milésimo segundo
2000 dos mil 2000º dosmilésimo
2011 dos mil once 2011º dosmilésimo undécimo
3000 tres mil 3000º tresmilésimo
4000 cuatro mil 4000º cuatromilésimo
5000 cinco mil 5000º cincomilésimo
10.000 diez mil 10.000º diezmilésimo
100.000 cien mil 100.000º cienmilésimo
500.000 quinientos mil 500.000º quinientosmilésimo
1.000.000 un millón 1.000.000º millonésimo

* In Diccionario panhispánico de dudas and Spanish Wikipedia, the symbols for ordinal numerals contain a full stop (1.º, 3.er, 5.ª), while Collins dictionaries do not (1º, 3er, 5ª). I used this latter style in the table. Also, starting with 4, I listed only masculine ordinals. I hope you don’t think this sexist. To get feminine forms, simply replace the terminal -o’s with -a’s and º’s with ª’s). Maybe one day Real Academia Española will admit uses like 1@ and segund@, why not.