Phonetics: A Few Fundamentals

“We are even silent in different ways.”

So began the first class of the first day of school. Phonetics. For many of us (myself actually not included in this) we haven’t been in a classroom in a while, certainly not as a student. Of the twelve participants in my program, two are professors, two are high school teachers (one of whom is a real live Russian), and the rest of us are graduate students. Of these graduate students, only three of us are still doing coursework. And heck, even if we still go to class, a few literature courses scattered throughout the week is nothing like daily 9am-3pm classes on Russian in Russian, in Russia. Comparison, there is not. (This my friends, is why I now nap between class and dinner, between dinner and bedtime, and still get in a full night’s sleep.)

So here we are in the Phonetics and Intonation class. Where we are greeted with the pronouncement that even our silence is accented, marked as English.(1) And that friends, is only the tip of a very daunting phonetic iceberg.

We start, as the song goes, at the very beginning (a very good place to start):


‘a, a, a, a, a, a, a’

“Excellent! I see that this group can say ‘a’ just like a Russian. I don’t think we’ll train too much more with ‘a’”

All seven of us have passed the first hurdle.

And so we continued, first with just vowels, then syllables with select consonants.

The professor, who is truly energetic, entirely patient, and wonderfully passionate about phonetics, manages to zone in on each of us without us feeling (entirely) like caged animals. She constantly reminds “Don’t be afraid!” after saying some consonant cluster that could never, ever exist in English (v’s and b’s and r’s and z’s all piled on top on one other!) Her body language is a bit intense, but effective. She leans in, knees bent, elbows bent, waiting to clasp her hands in victory at the moment we manage to navigate our tongues truly a la russe. Like a jockey on an invisible horse she bends towards us, fixes her stare on our mouths, and listens, rapt, for our ‘mi mi mi,’ squints and shakes her head at our ‘fi fi fi.’

“pi pi pi pi pi pi pi”

“Almost! Once more!”

“pi pi pi pi pi pi pi”

I am struck by the sensation that we are lost little birds, chirping for an Anglophone mama-hen that had abandoned the nest, begging a Russian one to adopt us…

But in reality, we are all grown ups, who, for whatever knuckle-headed reason, settled on Russian literature (or high school teaching) as the thing that beat out all the other things you can do in life. At least as a profession. (Or is it a lifestyle?)

Now, what I’m about to say is not intended as a self-aggrandizing rant of academic bravo which portrays us as a gaggle of over-reaching eggheads. Really. I just want to show you how far we’ve fallen/come. Hence I’m going to give you a teeny glimpse of our group. We have all actually decided to spend at least 5-7 years, after college, back in college. Hence, between the seven of us in this class, there are many, many years of higher education. Some dissertations have already been written. Research has been conducted in the farthest reaches of Russian-language archives domestically and abroad. Theories have been studied, absorbed, criticized, published, re-imagined, republished. Grants have been awarded. Students have been effectively taught. Jobs have been landed. All this by our own agency (again, I hold up the caboose as far as any academic achievements or anything resembling vocational legitimacy).



“No, no, that’s not a Russian ‘i’, move your tongue further”

Remember that project on the geography of memory in Soviet narratives?


“Further, it needs to be softer”

How about the paper on about the influence of Romanticism on 19th century satire?


“Now you’ve moved your tongue too far”

Thesis still coming along on Orthodox theology and modern aesthetics?


‘That’s it! A true, genuine Russian i! Fantastic. Now: li li li’

“li li li”

“Not quite….”

And so it goes… Through the alphabet, we go a’tripping.

In addition to learning, at long last, how to actually pronounce the language to which we have dedicated our youth, we are learning Russian intonation, the other, sneaker side of Russian speech. Intonation is the Russian linguist’s dream: the non-lexical, non-morphological level at which spoken Russian expresses meaning, purely based on where the emphasis is placed in a statement; rendering it a declarative, decisive, or skeptical statement, or even a question or demand. Similar things exist in many languages, its like a science-cum-badge-of-linguistic-greatness in the field of Russian language acquisition. As such, we practice it extensively, according to the widely-taught schema of 7 levels of intonation (the inventor of this heptal heirarchy is invoked by name in class for her contribution to linguistics). In general, our professors love systems. We constantly hear about “structures” “circles of structure” “paradigms of structure” “analogs” “algorithms” “structural classifications.” As of yet, we are only working with three of the seven types of intonation, but even so, there’s no wasted time.

The informal farewell ‘bye’ was one of the practice exercises. Spelled ‘poka,’ its pronounced ‘paKA’, (there is only one stressed syllable in any Russian word, which affects—just so you know—how all the vowels in the word are pronounced…this is part of the reason why us graduate students are so much better at reading Russian than speaking it).



“Hmmmm, that wasn’t really paKA, I didn’t have a sense that you were leaving, you were just saying “paKA.” There isn’t the right feeling to it.”


‘Almost, now you’re saying ‘bye’, but a Russian would emphasize it more. I still don’t feel it. Say it as if you don’t know when you’ll next see me. It’s a farewell, we’re leaving each other, parting ways, its not just a word.’


‘Aha! And there it is. A correct poka! How about that!’

That’s right dear readers, we are literally incapable of saying “bye” on the first try.

But don’t worry, we’re not just stuck with hello’s and good-bye’s. Our professor has us practicing phrases that will help us in everyday life, like “Did Petya go to the store?” “Are those your flowers?” “May I have some fat-free tvorog? (2)” Such sentences are only the practice shots for more important conversational moments in life, such as those relational face-offs when you need to know how to intonate “Oh still smoking?…” when we want our husband to put down the pack. How to make sure our boyfriends understand entirely and without confusion that, “Without a fur coat, the winter is cold.”

One of the great things about our phonetics professor, and actually, so far, about all of our professors, is that when we get something wrong, they nearly always give us the benefit of the doubt. First, they take a moment to absorb the mistake, be it phonetic, intonational, grammatical, syntactical, or just plain incoherent. They narrow their eyes, tilt their head, sigh—barely—to themselves and then nod knowing.

“I see why you would say that,” they begin, “you’re thinking of [insert far-fetched and terribly      complicated context for why we could have ever made our mistake] . Perhaps, it could be possible, perhaps…but it’s better said [insert actual Russian phrase/word/sound]. Very good.

So its not like we get away with making mistakes, it’s just assumed that when we make up a word/sound/grammatical form, we’re thinking of an archaism from Turgenev, combined with a sound change from South Slavic, that could very well lead to the type of syntactical innovation of the Futurist poets. But of course. These mistakes are only to be expected because we are, after all, educated people.

Educated people.

This is a very important category, I’m learning, around Moscow. Or at least, around MGU. At that opening ceremony (think jubilee!), each one of our professors was introduced to us as a very “educated” person [Russian speakers out there: образованный; it also has a slight connotation of being cultured, for brevity’s sake, I’m simply translating it literally, as ‘educated’]. Now, all of our professors are, in fact, educated. It’s sort of a prerequisite really. But where in English we might say, ‘accomplished’ or ‘lauded’ or ‘well-esteemed’, around here, it seems to be ‘educated.’ End all be all.

That’s not the whole of it though. The plot thickens because outside of the 8th floor of the 2nd Humanitarian Building of the Moscow State University in the name of Lomonosov, are Uneducated People. They’re lurking out there, and we must be aware of the dangers.

Now, the first time I was in Russia—another city, another program, (practically) another decade—the most pressing advice was on how to ward off hooligans, drunks, bad men posing as police officers, and other rapscallions who, I was told, would take your money, seduce you for a green card (or just seduce you), or at a minimum, tug your earrings out of spite (I’m not making that up). There was a sense that some shameful majority (or viciously large minority) of the general (male) population was out to get you, and could see you coming from a mile away.

They’ve been replaced. Or have undergone a metamorphosis, trading in their unscrupulous souls for dirty mouths. Now the thing to fear is the Uneducated, with their slang, their incorrect case usage and their failure to properly grasp the Russian verb system. These Uneducated People come up regularly in class. They’re tricky,–because you know what?–they’re in Moscow. Like a tribe of the undead amongst the living, they’ve left their villages and farms and infiltrated the Muscovite landscape. And they’re not who you think they are. Twice now one of my professors has noted that its not just the Ukrainians you have to watch out for—it used to be easy to spot them!—no, the Uneducated are seeping in from all over. We only just think they only come from the Ukraine. In fact, they might not be Ukrainians at all, and what’s more, some Ukrainians (names were named!) are themselves actually Educated. (3)

The Uneducated, of origin unknown (save not from Moscow proper) say things like “I feed myself” instead of “I eat” (one professor noted, with pain, how in their ignorance, they actually consider this to be “high speech”). They don’t reduce their vowels (shame, that’s what much of Monday’s class today was on!). They generally introduce vulgar phrases and shady foreign-isms into the language. And, apparently, they want you to too. Rumor has it that they’re positively evangelical about their bastardized Russian, and we, as vulnerable graduate students may fall into their clutches. The fertile soil of our receptive minds will absorb their curses on the subway, their shoddy grammatical constructions on the street, and our Russian—horror of horrors, unbeknownst to us!—will be defiled, rendered rude, kitschy or -gasp!- provincial.

Watch out kids, it’s a rough world out there. Silence might be Golden, but it still has an accent. And the Uneducated are out there, and they want you to talk like them. They may be confined to Moscow right now, but we’ve read the news, we’ve seen the movies. They don’t even know that they’re the Uneducated, ensconced as they are in linguistically primitive denial and ignorance. These sorts of things only worsen, spread to television, radio, perhaps our very own shores. You might not get mugged, but all those years of graduate work may be teetering on the edge of annihilation…

(1) How, you ask, is silence Anglo?  Or Russian?  By virtue ‘of the resting position of our phonetic apparatus’; that is, just by looking at us, the professor could tell our lips and tongue were poised to make English sounds, just as she can tell that a Russian mouth, when silent, is nevertheless poised to make Russian sounds, to utter hard t’s and soft i’s and countless zh’s and ch’s and sch’s and sh’s…

(2) A soft cheese common in lots of Russian dishes, especially sweets,  whose closest American approximation is probably Ricotta cheese.

(3) I intend no ill will towards Ukrainians, I’m just passing on (as close to verbatim as I can manage) this week’s lessons in life and langauge.



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4 responses to “Phonetics: A Few Fundamentals

  1. eileen pheiffer

    That was suitable for publishing, Britt. I will try to not enter any slander, such as saying what a hoot that blog was, or how I bust a gut laughing. No, I will adhere to the morals of your profs and even in my silence, try to look Educated.

    One complaint — the script is hard for these old eyes to read on the dark background — I was able to highlight it and read it better that way. Keep up the great writing– I so enjoy it.

    • I just changed the font, but my CSS skills aren’t good enough to figure out how to make it bigger! Ai–if its super annoying, I can switch the theme so its not grey on grey! Just shout!

  2. melxiopp

    Phonetics class sounds a lot like Voice & Speech classes in the acting school of my youth. Luckily, apart from a few outliers, I already spoke Standard American English, so most of my time was spent on making accent choices more crisp and deliberate, and learning IPA to more easily learn other accents (e.g., RP, Mid-Atlantic, etc.) by breaking them down.

    About all it’s good for these days is reading services aloud in New York in that idiosyncratic welter of Orthodox translations pretending at Elizabethan or KJV, but really only hitting at an odd sort of what would have been a then already anachronistic Edwardian affectation of obscure, pious, Victorian public school English with a dash of Greek or Russian.

    My minimal foreign language experiences did not focus as much on pronunciation, which I think is a mistake. There’s something unexplainably important about the way a language (or accent) is pronounced that is important to understanding the language (and accent). It also builds confidence since it’s sometime easier – well, for me – to learn how to pronounce something than it is to learn vocabulary and grammar and idioms.

  3. Wow. A really insightful and fun to read post. I’ve done a quick wordpress search for any entries on Russian/English phonetics difference – and here I am, reading about your adventures in MGU. So how successful was it in the end, did you master the Russian silence? 🙂 Actually, I have a something of a guess about that. Maybe this ‘looking different while silent’ thing has something to do with the fact (and I presume that is a fact, is it not?..) that most Russians speak their own (ok, our own) or any foreign language with somewhat tense jaw muscles; and probably retain some of that tenseness even while silent. Whajthink?
    Anyway, hello there, nice to meet you. Vlad

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