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Monday, December 31, 2007

Practice makes perfect

Now that you know a little Russian, let's take what you have learned and apply it to a simple exercise.

Make a small list of people that are either writers, basketball players, musical artists, or actors.
Convert those names to Russian (remember, Russians spell names how they sound). Pretend that you don't know what the person's profession is and ask your imaginary friend Иван about them. Give Иван's answer.


You: Эдди Мерфи (Eddie Murphy) - это баскетболист? (remember to raise the intonation of your voice when saying "basketball player")

Иван: Нет, это актёр.

And then try this answer:

Иван: Нет, это не баскетболист, а актёр.

Lesson: Asking Yes and No questions.

The Russian word for "yes" is "да" (da).
The Russian word for "no" is "нет" (neyt).
The Russian word for "not" is "не" (ne) (as in "This is not...")

When you are asking a question in Russian (that doesn't use who, what, where, etc.) all you need to do is raise the intonation of your voice.

For example, you are pointing at a picture in the news paper that you think is a basketball player. You are not sure so you ask your friend Иван "Это баскетболист?" or "This basketball player?" . You are right of course, so Иван answers "Да" or "Да, баскетболист" or even "Да, это баскетболист".

Now, let's suppose you are wrong, and the picture is actually of a musical artist. Иван (after slapping you across the back of the head) would answer "Нет" or "Нет, это артист" or even "Нет, это не баскетболист, а (but, whereas) артист". A negivtive answer to a yes/no question ALWAYS starts with "Нет".

Continue to point to people and ask about their professions.

Now wasn't that a breeze? Да?

Lesson: Introductions: "Who is this?" and "This is a professor"

OK before we get into actual sentences (you should pat yourself on the back for making it this far by the way!), I need to tell you something...

In Russian they do not use the verb "to be" so you can just forget about it for now. They do have a verb for "to be" which is "быть" but it is not used in most cases.

Just so that you can grasp this idea a little better, let's say that you are telling me that your Dad is an Astronaut. You would say "My Dad Astronaut" and leave it at that. Or if you were going to the store it would be "I going to store".

So if you are asking me "Who is this?" you would actually just say "Who this?" or "Кто это?" (kto eto). Turning those words around and saying "Это кто" means "This who?" and is also acceptable.

Now that you have asked me who a person is I would answer simply "Это артистка" meaning "This artist" instead of "This is an artist". Or maybe I would say "Это баскетболистка", "Это профессор", "Это писатель" or "Это актёр".

In sentences where you are using a noun as the subject and the predicate, a dash is used to replace the verb to be. If you were trying to say "Anna is a ballerina", you would say "Anna - ballerina".

Lesson: Greetings and Farewells.

The word you will probably use the most when speaking Russian is "Здравствйте" (zdraz-voot-yeh) or "Hello".

Now don't run screaming, I know it is a very intimidating word, but just relax. You will use this word so much that in no time you won't even have to think about it.

Why don't you take 5 minutes and write this word out for a bit. Make sure you are pronouncing it while you write, and with your sub conscience remember what you are trying to say (hello).

There are two forms of this word, the formal and the informal. A good rule of thumb is, if you are unsure of which to use, always use the formal greeting.

When you are greeting someone that is older than you, in a higher position that you, multiple people, or someone that you don't know, you say "Здравствйте" (zdraz-voot-yeh).

When you are greeting someone that is younger than you, in a lower position, or someone you know very well (friends, family, school mates) you use the shorter version "Здравствй" (zdraz-voo).

The only difference is the two letters missing from the end, but it is really important to know this.

Another word for hello is "привет" (privet), which means "hi". You would only use this with friends.

Some other ways of greeting people:

Доброе утро (dobro utro) - Good Morning.
Добрый день (dobree den) - Good day/Hello (suitable for greeting anyone during the day or afternoon).
Добрый вечер (dobree veecher) - Good evening.
Спокойной ночи (spokoinoi noich) - Good Night.

The standard way to say good-bye is "До свидания" (Dos-vi-dan-iya) and this doesn't change no matter who you are speaking to.

If you want to say "bye" to a friend or someone you are familiar with, you could say "пока" (poka) which literally means "meanwhile" (those crazy Russians!)

Another way to say good-bye is to say "Всего хорошего" (special pronunciation: visevo kharoshevo) which means "All the best".

Note: In the above word "его" is pronounced "evo". This may be the case for all "его" words but I am not sure of that at the moment.

Moving on...

Explaining Vocabulary

Each day I will list 5 extra words for you to memorize. 5 words is nothing when you really think about it, and keep in mind that as you become more familiar with Russian words, this task will become easier. You should write these words out as many times as you can throughout the day (along with any other new words in each lesson that you try) and USE them by speaking them.

I keep a list of vocabulary words at my desk at work and write them out when ever I get the chance. By the time I come home from work I usually know them all.

Here are your first 5 words:

актёр (act-yor) - male actor
актриса (act-ree-sa) - female actress

артист (art-ist) - male artist (musical artist only)
артистка (art-ist-ka)- female artist (musical artist only)

баскетболист (basket-bol-ist) - male basketball player
баскетболистка (basket-bol-ist-ka) - female basketball player

писатель (piss-a-tel) - writer*

профессор (prof-ess-yor) - professor*

As you no doubt noticed, some Russian nouns (most actually) have a masculine and feminine version (there is also a neuter version which will come up later). The most common way to form the feminine word is by adding "ka" to the end, however some feminine nouns are completely different words, like the word for female actress; актриса. These you will have to memorize.

*with most professions it is not necessary to use a fem. version, in fact using the fem. version may even insult the person you are talking about/to. The masculine form of the words for "composer" and "professor" are used when talking about both females and males in those professions. You probably wouldn't want to call someone a female basketball player either (it might translate to playing basketball like a girl, no insult intended ladies!!) but it sounds cool so I listed it here.

My friend who is taking linguistics at the university told me that in order to survive one day of basic conversation you would need to know around 3000 words! That means, if you learn 5 words a day it will take you 400 days to be able to converse semi coherently in Russian. Don't let that discourage you because as we go along you will be learning a lot more than just 5 words a day. Just remember that the more you use a language, the easier it gets.

If you're just so curious you can't stand it (and you want to check out the 2000 most used words in Russian) go here.


For now I am not going to get into pronunciation.

It is SO boring, and I just can't bring myself to get into it. Plus, there are so many rules...I am just going to make myself look like an idiot and confuse the hell out of you. I mean, so what if you sound completely retarded when you are speaking? Besides... it is a lot of rules that I am not really totally clear on 100% of the times(hence sounding completely ridiculous). To recap; sounding like an idiot+not totally clear on every rule=not going to teach you pronunciation for now.

I have included (in brackets) how I pronounce the word in order to assist you, but this may not be entirely correct. The good news is that I hear Russians themselves are VERY helpful and understanding towards English speakers, so it's not like they are going to lecture you for eight hours, or worse, publicly humiliate you for saying something with a thick English accent! Well, I can't really guarantee that they won't, but for now, if you want to learn about proper pronunciation try this. Or if you want to listen to some Russian words pronounced properly go here.

I promise at the very least I will add some more links to this post so that you can listen to the Russian language until your heart bursts.

Until then, add some Russian streaming radio to your music library. There are many different radio stations, just like in North America!! My personal favorite is Radio Chanson, radioretro, and this crazy "Wizard" station.

Lesson: More about the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian cognates.

Why is it called the Cyrillic alphabet? The Russian alphabet was devised by a monk named St. Cyril (born in Thessaloniki, Greece, sometime around 827 A.D.) so we call it the Cyrillic alphabet in his honor.

There are some letters in the Russian alphabet that are the exact same as in English:

Aa, Ee, Kk, Mm (in print, hand writing is another story), Oo, Tt (in print)

Read the following words: мама, атом, Том, Матт

There are some letters that look like English letters but are completely different sounding:

Bb(Vv), Hh(Nn), Pp(Rr), Cc (Ss), Yy(Uu), Xx(Kh)

Russians spell North American names the way they sound. Try reading some why don't you? Сара, Марк, Анна

Note: If you haven't noticed yet, there is no J in the Cyrillic alphabet. In Russian you use "d" and "zh" to get a sound like "dzh" or "дж". So "Judy" would be spelled like "Джнды".

Now try some other J names: Джон, Джоы, and my personal favorite Джордж.

There are some letters in the alphabet that look totally different but sound the same as English letters:

Бб(Bb), Гг(Gg), Дд(Dd), Зз(Zz), Ии(Ii), Лл(Ll), Пп(Pp), Фф(Ff)

Try reading some more names in Russian: Адам, Роз, Линда, Кевин

Now try reading some easy cognates: лампа, папа, телефон, такси, парк

The Cyrillic alphabet has many "s" sounding letters that look and sound very different than English letters:

Жж(zh), Цц(ts), Чч(ch), Шш(sh), Щщ(shch)

Ready to try some more names? Челси, Чарлз, Шан, Шерон

Next are the yo-, yu-, ya's, different than the popular American singing group.

Ёё(yo), Юю(yu), Яя(ya)

When these letters are not at the beginning of a word, the sounds resemble o, u, and a.

Some additional sounds:

Йй(y), ы(i), Ээ(e)

And finally, the spelling signs:

ь - Мягкий знак - soft sign, doesn't have a sound or it's own but alters the preceding consonant into a soft or palatalized sound.

ъ - Твёрдый знак - hard sign, is sometimes used as a separating sign between the prefix and the stem of a word. Hardly any words have this sign.

The alphabet itself is fairly easy to read (once you have memorized the letters!) and many words sound the same or similar to English. These words are called Russian cognates. You can find a nice beginners list here. These words are also apparently known as "international words" (but I really can't verify that as I only know less than 2 languages haha). When you are first learning the alphabet, reading easy Russian cognates is totally the way to go. You don't need to memorize them (unless you want to), just practice reading them to help you learn the alphabet and get familiar with the way the letters look when grouped together.

Once you learn some cognates maybe you would like to take a brief look at some false cognates, or "false friends" as they are called in some circles.

Lesson: The Cyrillic alphabet

The very first thing you need to do when learning Russian is memorize the Cyrillic alphabet. I also recommend putting on a large fur hat and pulling out a bottle of vodka (no mix, just a shot glass).

Ready? Let's begin. There are 33 letters in the alphabet, some of which look and sound nothing like English letters.

Aa - a as in father

Бб - b as in bitch

Вв - v as in vain

Гг - g as in gun

Дд - d as in doggy style

Ее - ye, e as in yet

Ёё - yo as in yogurt

Жж - zh pleasure

Зз - z as in zoo

Ии - ee as in heel

Йй - y as in boy

Кк - k as in kinky

Лл - l as in lover

Мм - m as in mouth

Нн - n as in naughty

Oo - o as in or

Пп - p as in piss

Рр - r *the r is more like a Spanish r "rrrrrrrrrrrrr"

Сс - s as in sadist

Тт - t as in tied

Уу - u as in boom

Фф - f as in fuck

Хх - kh as in loch

Цц - ts as in cats

Чч - ch as in chastity belt

Шш - sh as in shut up

ЩЩ - shch as in fresh cheese

ъ - hard sign

ы - i as in hill

ь -soft sign

Ээ - e as in set

Юю - yu as in university

Яя - ya as in yard

Take as long as you need to memorize and learn the alphabet. Make a poster of the letters and what they sound like and hang it in your kitchen or living room. Make some flash cards or just write it out as many times as you can! In order for you to learn and speak easily you really do need to know what each letter sounds like. There are many rules that we will learn as we go along, and the sounds of some letters change depending on many factors. For now, if you can grasp what each letter basically sounds like you will be able to start learning some Russian vocabulary.