Full Episode Audio
Exercises Only Audio
Welcome to episode 11. Today I’ll be answering three of the most common questions I get about Russian pronunciation. The first question is about the Russian letter O. Here’s a typical email…
Hi Mark, I’m confused about the letter O. Sometimes it sounds like ‘oh’ and sometimes it’s like an ‘ah’ sound. How can I know which it’ll be?
Good question. You’ve probably noticed that—no matter how long a Russian word is—it only has one stressed syllable. Even the longest one of all—достопримечательности—only one vowel gets stressed. Just like English words.
Now in Russian, when an O gets the stress, it is indeed pronounced like an Oh. But if it doesn’t get the stress, it sounds like ‘uh.’ Take the Russian word for milk. It has the letters ‘M-L-K’ just like English, but there’s three O’s in there: М-О-Л-О-К-О
If you’ve never heard it pronounced by a native speaker, then there’s no telling where the stress will be. It could be MO-loko…mo-LO-ko…or moloKO. There’s no rule. No way to know. Listen to the native speaker: молоко
Ok. Now I know. The stress is on the end.
Do you remember the word we learned that translates as “okay,” or “sure”. Like, someone tells you to call back in five minutes. You agree by saying….
Now that word, if you’ve never seen it written, has three O’s in it, just like молоко. And since the final O is the one that get the stress, the other two are reduced to “uh” sounds. huh-ruh-SHOW.
So, again, there’s no way to guess which vowel gets the emphasis in Russian. You have to hear it, first. That’s one of the reasons why, as a beginner, you want to put all your emphasis on learning to speak Russian. Because once you know the words, reading them is a breeze. You’ll already know where the stress goes. That’s the same way you learned to speak English. You had been speaking it for years, first.
The second question I get a lot is about the Russian letter G (Г). The emails always come just after the student encounters the word ничего. Tell me: Do you hear a ‘G’ sound in there? ни…че…го
Me neither. And yet the final consonant—that “vo” sound—is spelled with the letter G.
What cracks me up is how frustrated the person always is. “Argh! I thought the letter Г was pronounced as a ‘guh.’ So why is nichivo spelled ike that? Shouldn’t it be with a V?”
People…English is a million times worse. Just take our letter O. In the word ‘women’ it’s an “ih” sound, but in ‘woman’ it’s an unwriteable ‘uh’ sound. In the word ‘bother’ it’s an ‘ah’ but in “mother” it’s an “uh” sound. Even the simplest words…I mean, why doesn’t “so” (s-o) rhyme with “do” (d-o)? The letters N-O-W spell “now” but you put an S in front and you get SNOW? Even double OO’s don’t make any sense. Why doesn’t good rhyme with food? And that’s just the letter O. Heck, Russians have a joke about English: If it’s spelled Manchester, it’s pronounced Liverpool.
So…Yes, the Russian Г is sometimes pronounced as a “v” sound. Big deal. Here, repeat the following words, and listen for a “vuh” sound in each one.
All those “vuh” sounds…they’re spelled with the letter Г. And finally, I can’t help but point out:
How about the English G? Tell me how it’s pronounced in the word cough. Or garage. Compared to English, Russian is a nearly perfect spelling system, with words sounding out exactly as they’re spelled. So please, no complaining.
Moving on… Most of the of emails I get are from people wanting to know if they’re pronouncing some word correctly. And that’s such an important point. You’re studying Russian on your own, learning words and phrases, but you have no one to practice with and so you’re understandably worried that you’re not saying things right. That’s what everyone worries about, I think: Will they understand me?
If for no other reason, that is why I encourage you to join my Russian Accelerator course. Because along with lifetime access to the course, you get a full year of our Success Coaching. There you can send in recordings of yourself speaking Russian, and our native speaking coaches will listen and let you know that they understood you, and give helpful feedback so you can get even better. It’s one of the reasons Russian Accelerator is so popular, because it’s highly interactive. You study one of the lessons, send in your recording…then you can move on with confidence. You’ll know that Yes, people understand me. I’m saying this right.
Moving on: The last category of questions I get deal with the really tricky Russian consonants. Like Ш versus Щ , or З versus Ц and so on. The good news is, that’s exactly what we’ll be covering in the upcoming episodes of this course. For today, let’s choose the really troublesome pair of consonants: Ш vs Щ
On paper, they both look like an English W, except with flat bottoms. Here’s the first one which is pronounced like “sh” in English. Listen to the following syllables, each of which start with Ш , and repeat after the native speaker…
And now the 2nd one. Like I said, on paper it resembles an English W, but this one has a little tail on the right. So, using English letters I’d sound it out with “sh-ch”. Say the words “fish chips”…from the end of fiSH and the start of Chips…fiSHCHips. So again, repeat these two letter combinations after the native speaker.
Let’s do those side by side.
шу – щу
ша – ща
ши – щи
ше – ще
To really get these down, we’ll learn four new words today. All of them foods. These first two are popular Russian soups. Do you hear a “sh” or “sh-ch”? Listen and repeat:
Those both had the tricky one…the “sh-ch” consonant. Try them again..
щи ….is a soup made from cabbage, while…
борщ…is a red soup made from beets and potatoes.
Next word: шашлык
When you put raw meat on a skewer and put it over hot coals for a while, you end up with шашлык (shashlik). What we’d call in English shishkakbob. And do you hear how it has that simpler sound? The plain “sh” sound? Twice…шашлык
And finally, we have the word…каша….which is porridge, usually made from buckwheat. Pretty much every Russian and Ukrainian child is raised on kasha for breakfast.
Let’s try all four again. Cabbage soup is…?
Beet and potato soup is….?
Meat cooked on a skewer is…
And the breakfast staple throughout the former Soviet Union is….
Alright. Great job. If you have a moment, please check out my Russian Accelerator course, and in the meantime, I’ll see you in Episode 12.