Saturday, August 27, 2011

Russian Accent

Mr.John Well wrote an interesting observation of Russian pronunciation errors in English. This article is helpful to me, because I am eager to get rid of my Russian accent. However, this post could help English speakers who are learning Russian to figure out what proper Russian pronunciation is, because all Russian pronunciation mistakes in English are nothing but the interference of Russian. Here are my comments:
  • “Occasional slipups in the contrast between iː and ɪ”. In Russian, there are long and short vowels. Since the XIV century or so, Russians have stopped distinguishing short and long vowels, so the habit of pronouncing all vowels equally long is hard to quit, since it counts centuries of language practice.
  • “No distinction between the DRESS and TRAP vowels”. True. I can hear the difference only if I try to hear it. In Russian, both sounds are alike. Actually, Russian simply doesn't have sounds that could fit them completely.
  • “No distinction between the LOT and THOUGHT vowels”. In Russian, there's no sound ʊɔ. This sound is easy to pronounce, but I forget which word has which [ɔ]-like sound. Since my brain is sure that there's no difference between the two, it memorizes words as if they have [ɔː]. By the way, the American accent is easy to recognize by this ʊɔ-sound. When Russians are mocking Americans, they start pronouncing words with ʊɔ, like Vʊɔdka
  • “The GOAT vowel was pronounced by one of our guides (female, perhaps in her late 50s) as ɛu”. Again, in Russian, we do not have diphthongs like these, our vowel sounds are always one pure sound. My teachers taught me to pronounce this sound exactly like this.
  • “Excessive prevocalic vowel reduction, à la russe, e.g. kəmpaˈzɪʃn̩ composition instead of ˌkɒmpəˈzɪʃn̩.”. In fact, this is how non-native speakers should treat any prevocalic vowels in Russian. The rule of vowel reduction is the basic one.
  • “Voicing assimilation, also à la russe, e.g. ˈbɫɛɡ ˈbɔːks black box.” Another very important pronunciation rule: in Russian, always voice the final consonant if the next one is voiced. Unfortunately, I follow this rule automatically when speaking English.
  • “Failure to use compound stress in open compounds, e.g. parking lot with the main stress on lot.” This mistake reveal a deep conceptual difference between Russian and English. For English speaking people, it is OK to say “parking” instead of a parking lot, “contacts” instead of contact lenses and “rentals” instead of rental apartments. In Russian, the first words are adjectives. Sometimes we do use adjectives as nouns (i.e. столовая – dining – is initially an adjective), but not as often as in English. From the Russian point of view, “lot” is more important than parking, this is why lot is stressed.
  • “Failure to deaccent function words, e.g. There is not enough space for all of us instead of There’s not enough space for all of us.” It's an interference of the Russian intonation. In Russian, we would stress “us”. When speaking foreign language, you load your mental CPU with finding the right words instead of pronunciation, so the intonation that is natural comes first.
  • “ in our country repeatedly rather than in Russia” — Yes, we do love words “we”, “us”, “our”. This is how we feel, this is how we used to think about our life in this country. “We” is much bigger than I here.
  • “today in the afternoon”. In Russian, we first state the date (today) and then the time (afternoon).

I enjoyed these accurate and profound observations greatly. I highly recommend it to Russians who learn English and to all the people who learn Russian.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Russian Not-Questions

Have you noticed that grammatically correct phrases are sometimes not quite natural for native speakers? I'm sure you have. Vice versa, real communication can sometimes generate grammatical nonsense, but this nonsense is more adequate to the situation that any other grammatically irreproachable phrase. Here is my favorite example from the real Russian communicative practice.

In Russian, we often ask questions with negative particles; however, the meaning of such questions is positive. These questions are actually not of the “don't you?” kind. They are something different. When your Russian friend asks you “Ты не видел мою книгу?”, you should not be confused with the mention of “не”(don't) here. In English, this question is just “Did you see my book (anywhere here)?” Another example: “У тебя есть эта книга?” and “У тебя нет этой книги?” are absolutely equal questions (Do you have the book?) despite the obvious grammatical fact that the first is positive and the latter is negative. “Не” here is closer translation of “by any chance” than to “not”.

So why “не” (not)? Here, the negative particle does not negate anything. Russians use it to make their questions a bit more polite; so as to be not so pushy. It's like saying “I'm sorry for disturbing you with my question” or “I'm asking you about this just because I suppose you could be helpful, but you are not obliged to help me, so please feel free to say no”, but way shorter. The negative particle in the questions like these leaves you room to refuse or deny something in a non-offensive way.

How to form not-questions? Just add “не” before the verb, or use “нет” instead of “есть” when asking about having or not having something.

When to use “не”? Well, it is not necessary. You may ask questions in direct way. But if you want to improve your speaking skills to the level of a native speaker, you may add “не” any time you feel unsure if your interlocutor can answer your question or when you want to show that you wouldn't mind a refusal in the response. Please note an intonation here. The pitch increases on verbs; same intonation as any other simple questions.

Question mark sign
Photo by Colin Kinner

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Imperfective Verbs of Motion

walking man too
Photo by Billy Liar

I want to be frank with you, Russian verbal aspects are very hard to master for non-native speakers. Even students whose Russian is fluent, confuse imperfective and perfective verbs. Normally, Russian grammar books explain the difference between the two aspects as continuous connotation vs completed action. This is a correct, but not a complete explanation.

Let's take a look at the English grammar. English verbs have continuous, indefinite, and perfect groups of tenses, which means that any action could be considered as something actually happening at this very moment, something that happens (normally and regularly) or something that has already happened and we all see the results. The very same range of meanings could be expressed in Russian, but via different means. The Russian perfective aspect is close to the English perfect tenses. Perfective verbs always describe something that has happened. The action has been completed, it has resulted in something. Perfective verbs contain latently or implicitly the idea of a limit — the end or the beginning of the action, its finish or its start.

Example: Она начала есть — She started eating. Начала (started) is perfective here, because the action of “starting” had being completed, there is a limit for this action.

In contrast, Imperfective verbs describe the actions that have no limits. Imperfective verbs describe either the action that is happening or the action that happens regularly. So the Imperfective aspect unites continuous tenses and indefinite tenses, and quite often the same verb could be used for expressing both continuous and regular action. However, sometimes, the Russian language has two different imperfective verbs — one for continuous and another for indefinite. This is true mostly for verbs of motion. For example, there are two verbs идти and ходить, which mean “to go”, but the first is for continuous action and the latter is for indefinite. The difference between ехать and ездить (to go by a vehicle) is the same.

Examples: Я иду на работу (I'm going to my office, I'm on my way to the office). Я хожу на работу каждый день (I go to work every day).
Я еду на автобусе. (I'm riding the bus). Я езжу на автобусе каждый день (I ride the bus every day).

Another difference between the verbs in these pairs is that the first verbs (иду, еду) have the only one direction — they are about moving toward something. But, хожу and eзжу are multi-directional, they mean that you visit some place and then return or go to some other place. If you think about it a bit longer, you'll see that English verbs of motions when put into the present/past continuous tense also describe the action of movement in one direction, otherwise, it would be something other than a continuous tense.

This article was intended as some encouragement for those who are learning Russian. As you may conclude from the post, there are no hard or easy languages. Most languages operate with identical meanings and ideas. It's only the means or methods by which these meanings are expressed that are different.