Monday, December 27, 2010

Five Words For Doing Nothing

Why do people anticipate Winter holidays? Because this is the time to switch off an alarm clock and sleep longer. This is a time for lazy morning coffee and the quiet satisfaction of taking your time. Christmas is a good time for relaxation. Some countries limit winter vacations to a few days, right between Christmas and the New Year, and return to working routine on January 2ndat the latest. In Russia, the New Year holidays officially last from January 1st to January 10th, however, unofficially, many offices go on vacations during the last week of December. Russians are quite serious about holidays.

There are at least five different words in the Russian language for non-working days. The word “праздники” (plural form of “праздник”) is for holidays, for days when people celebrate something significant. The New Year holidays in Russian are “новогодние праздники”. There is another set of holidays called “майские праздники” (May holidays) that starts on May 1st (a Labour Day, a tradition inherited from the Soviet Union) and lasts until Victory Day (the end of World War II).

The word “выходные” (plural form of “выходной”) just means non-working days with no specific reason indicated. This word may be used for holidays as well as for a weekend (Saturdays and Sundays are normally non-working days in Russia).

The word “каникулы” (vacations) was initially used for academic vacations only. However, for last ten years, the usage of this word extended to non-academic areas as well, thus, you may find news headlines like this “ Во что обойдутся казне Рождественские каникулы” (How much Christmas vacations will cost to the state budget). Outside academic life, the word “каникулы” means quite a long period of non-working days.

Besides official holidays and weekends, every employee has a right for a vacation, a period of time that one is to be away from his/her primary job, while maintaining employment. In Russian, the word for (paid or unpaid) time off is “отпуск”. Summer time is often called “время отпусков” (vacation time), because many clerks prefer to schedule their vacations for July and August.

Finally, the last word that also means non-working day is “отгул”. Sometimes, an employee may be rewarded with a day-off for working additional hours. In this case, the employee may take a day-off on any day of the working week. Or, one may need an extra day-off for some personal reasons and, in order to get this day-off, he or she works more hours or perform some additional tasks.

Happy Winter Holidays and Prosperous 2011 Year!

Каток на Дворцовой площади
Photo by Eugene Kotlyarov

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rules Of Reading In Russian

Once a gentleman who studies Russian asked me, “You pronounce it like paka (пака), but write it as poka (пока), why?”. The short answer is “because the Russian language is not phonetic". What you hear is not what you write. The spelling of the word may differ greatly from the pronunciation.

There are a few simple rules of reading in Russian. They could be helpful for not only mastering proper Russian pronunciation, but also for improving spelling. Here they are.


In Russian, every word has one stressed syllable. In order to speak Russian properly it is necessary to know where to put the stress in the words. In some cases incorrect stress leads to a change in meaning. Stress in Russian is not fixed, it may fall on any syllable and normally it is not indicated with an accent mark. The best way to learn the stress is by listening to a native speaker and repeating what they say.

Vowel Reduction
In Russian, unstressed vowels are not pronounced as distinctly as stressed vowels. The alteration of a vowel in an unstressed position is called reduction. As a result of reduction, some letters denoting vowel sounds are read in a different manner than they are read in the alphabet.

Stressed А is like [ah] in father
Unstressed А is like [ə] in photography

Sressed O is like [oh] in coffee
Unstressed О is like [a] or [uh]

Stressed Е is like [ye] in yellow
Unstressed Е is like [yi]

Stressed Я is like [ya] in yacht
Unstressed Я is like [yi]
Exception: In the endings of nouns, adjectives etc., in unstressed position the letter я should be read as [ya]

И, Ы, У, Ю, Э
— no alteration in unstressed position.

Reading the news

Photo by James Offer


Hard and Soft
All consonant sounds are divided into hard and soft. Most sounds come in pairs "hard vs. soft", i.e. their pronunciation differs only by softness. There are 15 pairs of consonants "hard vs. soft". Both hard and soft sound in each pair represented by the same letter.
The sound is soft if the letter is followed by:
И, Е, Ю, Я, Ё or Ь
Otherwise, a consonant sound is hard.
Note: Ж, Ш are always hard, so turn И, Е, Ю into Ы, Э, У respectively when reading.

Voiced and Voiceless:
Most of Russian consonants come in voiced/voiceless pairs:
Б – П
В – Ф
Ж – Ш
Г – К
Д – Т
З – С

Voiced consonants are pronounced with vibration of the vocal cords, whilst unvoiced consonants are pronounced with little or no vibration of the vocal cords.

Russian letters Б, В, Г, Д, Ж, З turn into the voiceless sounds [П], [Ф], [К], [Т], [Ш], [С] before unvoiced consonants, at the end of the word and before final ь.

Vocalization is an opposite process compared to devoicing. It means that letters П, Ф, С, Т, Ш and К, the basic meanings of which are unvoiced consonants, may designate voiced sounds (hard and soft). Vocalization occurs in cases when these letters are found before letters Б, Г, Д, Ж, З denoting voiced sounds. Note that if П, Ф, С, Т, Ш and К are found before В, vocalization does not occur.

When reading:

  • check the stress,
  • reduce unstressed vowels,
  • soften consonants if they are followed by И, Е, Ю, Я, Ё or Ь,
  • devocalize voiced consonant at the end of the word or before unvoiced consonants,
  • vocalize unvoiced consonants before voiced consonants.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Like It, I Need It

When an English-speaking person wants to report his or her likes and dislikes, (s)he normally says, “I like it”. The sentence is pretty simple: “I” is a subject, “like” is a predicate and “it” is an object. The same goes with “I need it”. We now have a person who intentionally and responsibly reports his or her wishes, needs and favors.

In Russian, the regular expression of needs and likes is absolutely different from what we see in English. The most accurate translation for the sentence “I like it” is “Мне нравится это”, literally, “It likes to me”. The subject and the object are interchanged. This is no longer an active person who has a will and taste, but an object, an impersonal “it” who inspires a person for liking or disliking. This is not me, who has a desire to wear a diamond ring, but some unnamed force which has an irresistible impact on me, so I say to my husband “Мне хочется это колечко” (lit. This ring wants to me) instead of “Я хочу это колечко” (I want this ring).

Photo by Owen Thomas

“Мне нравится это” is just one of many similar constructions where “I” in English should be changed to the pronoun in the Dative case “мне” (to me) in Russian. Here are a few more examples:

I want an ice cream — мне хочется мороженого.
I need it — мне нужно это.
I feel cold — мне холодно. (lit. It is cold to me)
I feel sick — мне плохо.
And even “I think” could be translated in some cases like “Мне думается” (It thinks to me).

Some linguists believe that the Russian language just reflects the common Russian approach to active behavior and personal responsibility. Russian culture is rather passive and quiet. The idea of individual success (and individual responsibility) is what Western cultures are about, while Russians are rather fatalists. I think this specifically Russian way of expressing likes and needs was the reason for many jokes like “In Soviet Russia, movies watch you” back in the Cold War times.

Phrasal verbs in English distinguish native speakers from non-native speakers. In Russian, this is the construction “pronoun in Dative + verb/adverb” what allows a speaker sound more proper. Quite often, just changing a simple sentence with an active subject to the construction with the pronoun in Dative makes the phrase sound more Russian.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

How to Enjoy Winter

The weather is like a frantic woman these days. Europe is experiencing heavy snowfall, Moscow is suffering from unusual cold, and in my hometown in Siberia, one day the temperature is -20C (-4F) and another, it is 0C (32F) and raining. Climatologists frankly confess that they do not understand what's going on around nor what to expect in the near future.

Bad weather, short cloudy days without much sunlight, chilly winds and extreme cold can bring about serious physical and psychological stress for human beings. The body wants me to stay at home and sleep, but I can't stop my life and fall asleep like a bear. Adding a bad mood to a bad weather is of no avail, so there should be a way to survive the winter cold and stay active. Some simple steps could help you to cope with winter and perhaps even enjoy it.

1. Stay warm, dress properly and colorfully. You shouldn't layer on sweaters and jackets like an onion. Let it be just one wool sweater, a pair of pants with warm lining, and waterproof and windproof outerwear. You can express your personality and style while protecting yourself from the cold with a colorful wool scarf and pair of gloves. Colourful, cheerful accessories contrast well with the grey winter environment.

2. Stay safe, and choose proper shoes. Sudden snowfall may be very slippery. This winter, two of my good friends broke their bones because of the icy roads. Be careful and choose shoes with thick treads. Some shoe soles become very slippery when it is cold, so ask the salespeople if the soles of the shoes you want to buy are good for low, extremely low temperatures (who knows what kind of surprises this winter has for us?)

3. Eat well, forget about diets at least for some time. When it is getting cold, a body starts demanding for more substantial food, and the body is not wrong. Our energy expenses are greater when it is cold, so treat yourself with something hot and tasty. Enjoying food is also important for your emotional balance. There are few things in the world that can delight us as easily as good, delicious food. I personally prefer to add more spices to in my meal during the wintertime.

4. Sleep as much as you need to. The immense and complex chemical factory called the “body” can produce enough stuff to keep us full of energy and active when there is enough of sunlight, but leaves us feeling sluggish when there is less light. We naturally need more time to sleep during dark periods of the year. Lack of sleep in the wintertime is particularly dangerous and may cause depression.

5. Exercise outdoors, too. Skiing, skating, throwing snowballs, making snowmen — isn't it enough to love winter and the snow? When I was a child, my friends and I celebrated the first frosty days because this meant the end of dirty, rainy weather and the beginning of the winter fun.

6. Ventilating is important. There is a myth that people catch colds more frequently during the winter. The simple reason for that is the following: when it is cold outside, we keep windows closed and let viruses and bacteria to live and multiply. Viruses and germs can not survive in cold, but thrive in warm, stale air.

I hope you'll enjoy the winter and experience its many joyful events during this magical, beautiful season.

Russian winter | Русская зима

Photo by Anatoly Kraynikov

Monday, December 6, 2010

the Letter "Ы"

The letter “Ы” is so special that it deserves a separate journal entry. It looks like two characters, and represents a sound that many languages (English, French, German, Spanish and so on) don't have. It is extremely difficult to explain to non-native speakers how to pronounce “ы”, but anyway, this letter is very important in Russian.

As you may know, all Russian consonants can be categorized into soft (palatalized) and hard (non-palatalized) sounds. The bad news is that both palatalized and non-palatalized sounds are represented by same characters. The only way to guess if the consonant sound is hard or soft is to take a look at the next vowel. If it is а/о/у/э/or ы, then the preceding consonant is hard. If it is я/ё/ю/е/ or и, the consonant is soft. The vowel letter group “softens” the preceding consonants. The vowel “Ы” shows that the preceding consonant sound is hard. Phonologically speaking, the only difference between Ы and И is that И follows a soft consonant, and Ы follows a hard consonant.

Why pay attention to all (of) this stuff with hard and soft sounds? Because there are many words that only differ by one letter ы/и, for example:
бить (to beat) — быть (to be),
вить (to weave) — выть (to howl),
следи (watch, imperative)— следы (footprints),
грози (threaten, imperative)́ — грозы́ (thunderstorms),
клик (a click)— клык (a fang),
мило (nice) — мыло (soap),
сосни́ (suck, imperative) — сосны́ (pine trees)
пил (drunk, past simple) — пыл (heat, passion),
сгори (may you burn) — с горы (from the mountain),
ти́кать (to tick) — ты́кать (to poke)

The most popular cultural reference to the letter “Ы” is from a famous Soviet comedy “Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures” by Leonid Gaigai (Операция „Ы“ и другие приключения Шурика). The movie consists of three parts, each of them a story about the adventures of Shurik (alternative spelling — Shourick), the naive and nerdy Soviet student who often gets into ludicrous situations but always finds a clean way out. The third story, titled “Operation Y,” is about three criminals hired to simulate a burglary in order to cover for the overembezzling of a warehouse manager. One of the criminals offered to call the fake burglary “Operation Y” for conspiracy reasons. Watch the entire movie, and you'll be more familiar with modern Russian culture. “Operation Y and Other Shurik's Adventures” is a film with jokes and lines often quoted and referenced even nowadays.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Word of the day: конкретно

Конкретно [kahnkretnah] means exactly, definitely, specifically.

1) Что конкретно ты имеешь в виду? - What exactly do you mean?
2) Он конкретно решил изменить всё. - He definitely/really decided to change everything.
3) Он - христианин, а конкретно - православный. — He is a Christian, more specifically an orthodox one.

Though in most cases the word "конкретно" is stylistically neutral, it could have sort of jargon or colloquial shade.
Ты конкретно не прав — You are with no doubt wrong.
In a jargon speech you may meet a combination of "Чисто-конкретно" with the meaning "no doubt, straight forward, surely". In 1990-s, this was a bandit's slang.