Living the Dream with a Russian Accent

A Work in Progress

by Lady Sofya la Rus

Many people in the SCA like to use an appropriate accent for their personas. Most of us can do a passable job of mimicking an English, or even Scottish or Irish accent, since we can get a lot of exposure to them in our mundane lives. But often, the more exotic accents give us trouble. A friend of mine in the SCA has a Russian persona, but unfortunately, he usually ends up with a weird English accent. This article is dedicated to him and inspired by a now-defunct website I found a couple of years ago.

I have not made a serious study of period Russian, although I have worked with it a little. Medieval Russian pronunciation is a matter of debate, which I am not qualified to comment on. So I will limit myself to sharing my knowledge of modern Russian pronunciation.

I am not a native Russian speaker, but I had the priviledge of learning Russian from native speakers. This article is my attempt to pass on what I have learned about speaking English with a Russian accent.


Pronunciation

Russian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet that was originally based on the Greek alphabet. Learning the Russian alphabet is a nice way to start work on a Russian accent. For one thing, Russian is more phonetic than English, and so knowing the names of the Russian letters goes a long way in learning Russian sounds.
Learning the alphabet takes only a little time, and is the first step in learning to read Russian, which may be useful someday for someone with a Russian persona. It also helps pronounce transliterated/transcribed Russian (see below) properly.

Saying the Russian Alphabet

Cyrillic

Letter Name

Pronounce

Cyrillic

Letter Name

Pronounce

Cyrillic

Letter Name

Pronounce

А

Ah

Ah

К

Keh

K

Х

Kheh

Kh

Б

Beh

B

Л

El

L

Ц

Tseh

Ts

В

Veh

V

М

Em

M

Ч

Cheh

Ch

Г

Geh

Hard G

Н

En

N

Ш

Sheh

Sh

Д

Deh

D

О

Oh

Oh

Щ

Shcheh

Shch

Е

Yeh

Yeh or eh

П

Peh

P

Ь

Tvordi znak

“hard sign”

Е

Yoh

Yoh or oh

Р

Ehr

R (rolled)

Ы

“I”

Tense “I”

Ж

Zheh

zh

С

Es

S

Ь

Myakhi znak

“soft sign”

З

Zeh

Z

Т

Teh

T

Э

Eh

Eh

И

Ee

Ee

У

Oo

Oo

Ю

Yu

You

Й

Ee kratkoye (short)

Like y in boy

Ф

Efeh

F

Я

Yah

Yah

Another way to learn about Russian pronunciation is to study the Russian-English transliteration systems. Most of our research in the SCA is done with sources that have been transcribed from Cyrillic into the English alphabet. There are several systems that have been developed to do this, and a familiarity with them will provide insight into Russian pronunciation, in addition to being useful in research.

Transcribing Modern Russian into Modern English

Cyrillic

Sounds Like

ISS

LOC

Revised English

U.S. Military

Cyrillic

Sounds Like

ISS

LOC

Revised English

U.S. Military

А

Ah

A

A

A

A

Р

R (rolled)

R

R

R

R

Б

B

B

B

B

B

С

S

S

S

S

S

В

V

V

V

V

V

Т

T

T

T

T

T

Г

Hard G

G

G

G

G

У

Oo

U

U

U (or oo)

U

Д

D

D

D

D

D

Ф

F

F

F

F

F

Е

Yeh or eh

E

E

Ye or E

Ye

Х

Kh (hard h)

X

Kh

Kh

Kh (?)

Е

Yoh or oh

Ë

E

Yo or O

Yo

Ц

Ts

C

Ts

Ts

Ts

Ж

Zh

Zh

Zh

Zh

Zh

Ч

Ch

Č

Ch

Ch (or Cz)

Ch

З

Z

Z

Z

Z

Z

Ш

Sh

Š

Sh

Sh (or Sch)

Sh

И

Ee

I

I

I

I

Щ

Shch

Šč

Shch

Shch (or Sch)

Shch

Й

Like y in boy

J

I

I (or Y or deleted)

J

Ь

“hard sign”

<> 

К

K

K

K

K

K

Ы

Tense “I”

Y

Y

Y

Y

Л

L

L

L

L

L

Ь

“soft sign”

<> 

М

M

M

M

M

M

Э

Eh

É

E

E

E

Н

N

N

N

N

N

Ю

You

Ju

Iu

Yu

Yu

О

Oh

O

O

O

O

Я

Yah

Ja

Ia

Ya

Ya

П

P

P

P

P

P

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consonants

There are a few consonants that are pronounced differently in Russian. The Russian "r" is rolled slightly, a bit like an Irish accent. The Russian "x" is pronounced like a hard/harsh "h". The Russian "g" is always the hard "g" as in "guitar".
And there are several English consonants that simply do not exist in Russian:
    "j" or the soft "g"
    "w"
    "th".
To pronounce the English "j" sound, Russians will combine "d" with their letter "zh". It's a little like making sure you pronounce the "d" in "bridge".
The "w" sound is apparently impossible for Russian speakers. They have to substitute the "v" sound, or sometimes, the "oo" sound. Thus our "William" becomes "Vilyem," or "Uilyem."
The "th" sound is also nearly impossible. The voiced "th" in "that" will be pronounced as a "z" (like in bad French accents!). The unvoiced "th" in "thing" will be pronounced as an "s". (Using "d" and "t" is an Italian accent rather than Russian, I've heard.)
In addition, Russians may have trouble keeping track of all of the silent consonants in English. So they may accidentally pronounce the "k" in "knife" or try to pronounce the "w" in "write" (remember, "w" comes out as "v" or "oo" for Russians).

Vowels

English vowels are not too hard for Russians, although the Russian vowel sounds are much more limited than in English, and given the opportunity, Russians will pronounce vowels in a Russian way, rather than an English way. (Review Russian alphabet now.) Some English vowel sounds, like the "i" in "bite" are actually blends of vowel sounds that Russians know, so they aren't too difficult. But there are a couple of vowel sounds that Russians can't get.

Vowel Examples:

    "a" as in "cat" becomes "ah" as the "a" in "bratwurst"
    "a" in "fate" tends to become "eh" like the "e" in "set"
    "i" as in "bite" is made from "ah" plus "ee"
    "o" as in "cot" - probably pronounced with more of an "oh" sound

Grammar

Particles

Our use of "a," "an," and "the" is pretty illogical for Russian speakers. (And it probably is illogical, I just don't want to think about it too much and get confused.) So they will often use these little words wrong. My shortcut to mimic this is to frequently put "the" where it doesn't belong, or drop the particle completely. "That is a nice car" becomes "That is THE nice car" or "That is nice car."

Double Negatives

Russian grammar requires the use of double negatives in most situations, so Russians will occasionally use double negatives in English. This does NOT include the use of "ain't" which is a slang term that Russians probably wouldn't be comfortable with (and certainly has no place in period re-enacting!). I don't mimic this very well, because the English double negative rule is so ingrained in me that my tongue doesn't like to violate it.

Progressive Verbs

The Russian language makes much more frequent use of progressive verbs than English does. Such verbs end in "ing" in English. "I am talking". "He was swimming". So Russians will tend to use them with great frequency when speaking English. And I don't find it too hard to do likewise when I'm using my Russian accent.

Simple/Long Sentences

On the one hand, Russians learn to use long, convoluted sentences in Russian, and so would like to do the same in English. On the other hand, they may not know enough English to feel comfortable in the attempt. So their English sentences may tend to be quite short. Or they may be long and awkwardly constructed.

Slang

Slang is one of the hardest things to learn in a new language. It comes with practice and time, but a Russian speaker will probably never be completely comfortable with English slang. This is not a huge issue for re-enacting, since most modern English slang is not period anyway.

Adding Russian words

Russians will use Russian words when speaking English in various situations. First, when they don't know the English word and hope the Russian is close enough to the English equivalent, or that one of their listeners will be able to translate it for them. Second, if they're distracted or in a hurry, they may say the Russian unconsciously, not even realizing that they've slipped into a "foreign" language. This happens to me when I'm interpreting back and forth between English and Russian and I lose track of who I'm talking to. (I'm not a professional interpreter, so I can get confused.) Third, when the Russian is more or less talking to themselves, i.e. expressions of surprise, curses, muttering under their breath.
In the SCA, I will mimic the above situations when I think I can get away with it. Most of the time when you throw in a Russian word or phrase, people give you a confused look and you have to spend a couple of minutes explaining what you just said. So I don't do it if I'm in a hurry. On the other hand, at a Russian-themed event or class, people are better prepared to hear Russian words, so it isn't as disruptive. I avoid serious cursing in Russian, since it's not my native language and I don't want to give offense to Russian speakers by using the words inappropriately.


Selected References:

A Russian Accent. Defunct on-line article intended to help writers with Russian characters' dialogue.
Omniglot, a guide to written language. //www.omniglot.com/writing/cyrillic.htm
Paul Wickenden of Thanet, Spelling Russian Names in Period English. //www.goldschp.net/archive/fletcher.html
Sofya la Rus, Spelling Russian in Period English. //www.strangelove.net/~kieser/Russia/spelling.html

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