Jun 27, 2017
I’m casually learning Russian. Here are some of my notes.
Table of Contents
|Letter||Name||Translit.||English Example||Russian Example|
|Йй||и краткое |
|r||Rolled r||река |
|Ъъ||твёрдый знак |
|"†||Hard sign††||объект |
|Ьь||мягкий знак |
|'†||Soft sign†††||весь |
† Indicates a transliteration that is either not obvious or which is transliterated differently in other systems.
†† Silent; prevents palatalization of the preceding consonant.
††† Silent; palatalizes the preceding consonant (if it is phonologically possible).
In Russian, there are a number of important spelling rules that one should do their best to not violate. It is important to note that these rules trump all other spelling issues.
5-Letter Spelling Rule
An unstressed о may not immediately follow ж, ш, щ, ч, or ц. Instead, use е.
|о||ж, ш, щ, ч, or ц||е|
|о́||ж, ш, щ, ч, or ц||о́|
Here, the adjective хо́рошее has a hard stem (ш). Typically о follows hard stems, but this has been swapped with е because the 5-letter spelling rule states that an unstressed о may not follow the letter ш.
Here, we keep the о because it is stressed. Only unstressed о’s are swapped with е.
7-Letter Spelling Rule
A ы may not immediately follow к, г, х, ж, ш, щ, or ч. Instead, use и.
|ы||к, г, х, ж, ш, щ, or ч||и|
Here, the adjective ру́сский has a hard stem (к). Typically ы follows hard stems, but this has been swapped with и because the 7-letter spelling rule states that ы may not follow the letter к.
As like with ру́сский, ы may not follow a hard stem (ш in this case). So it is swapped with и.
8-Letter Spelling Rule
A ю or я may not immediately follow к, г, х, ж, ш, щ, ч, or ц. Instead, use у and а respectively.
|ю||к, г, х, ж, ш, щ, ч, or ц||у|
|я||к, г, х, ж, ш, щ, ч, or ц||а|
Here, the ending of the я form of the verb учиться starts with -у, whereas typically the ending of the я form for this verb pattern would start with -ю.
However, because the 8-Letter spelling rule states that ю may not follow the letter ч, it has been swapped with у.
If you’ve had experience with another a foreign language before, like Spanish or German, you may be familiar with the concept of verb conjugations.
In English, verbs hardly change in the present tense. We do say “he reads” as opposed to “I read” or “you read”, but in many languages there is a different form of the verb for each person. As such, this is also the case for the Russian language.
There are two distinct types of verbs in Russian which are denoted based on the endings that they take. These different types are typically called the Type-I Conjugation, or the е/ё-conjugation, and the Type-II Conjugation, or и-conjugation. These names come from the characteristic vowel sound that you’ll hear in many forms of the verb. The е/ё-conjugation contains a е or a ё, and the и-conjugation—ostensibly enough—contains и.
Also known as the е/ё-conjugation.
As a basic example, let’s look at the endings for the present tense of the verb читать (to read).
|Читать (чита-) – To read|
|я чита́ю||мы чита́ем|
|ты чита́ешь||вы чита́ете|
|он чита́ет||они чита́ют|
You may notice that the endings are different for every person. There’s a я form, a ты form, etc., and these verb endings change so that the verb agrees with the subject. We can look at these as a stem, чита-, to which we can add the appropriate endings.
Let’s look at a similar verb: знать (to know).
|Знать (зна-) - To know|
|я зна́ю||мы зна́ем|
|ты зна́ешь||вы зна́ете|
|он зна́ет||они зна́ют|
So our stem here is зна-. Note that when the stem ends in a vowel, as in these first two verbs, we’ll spell the ending of the я and the они forms with the letter ю.
Let’s look at another е/ё-conjugation verb: писать (to write).
|Писать (пиш-) – To write|
|я пишу́||мы пи́шем|
|ты пи́шешь||вы пи́шете|
|он пи́шет||они пи́шут|
So what do you notice here that is different? Well, there are a couple of things:
First of all, the я and они forms are spelled differently. Here, we’ve used the letter у instead of ю.
Second, the stem is changing. You’ll see that the infinitive had an с, but these present tense forms have ш instead. Strange. Now, how do we know that that’s supposed to happen? Here’s the bad news:
You cannot reliably predict verb conjugations from the infinitive. You must learn the conjugation separately.
But the news is not all bad. Russian verbs are not completely random; There are some patterns and strategies that you can learn that will help, but still you cannot predict which pattern to apply just by looking at the infinitive. So, your best strategy is to learn three forms: The я form, the ты form, and the они form. If you know those, you can predict nearly all other forms of any verb.
Let’s take a look at some of the patterns that may help with the е/ё-conjugation:
Always start with either е or ё.
The ты, он, мы, and вы form endings start with the vowel е, or the vowel ё if the ending is stressed.
-ю, -ют after vowel stems.
If the stem ends in a vowel, the я form ending is -ю, and the они form ending is -ют.
-у, -ут after consonant stems.
If the stem ends in a consonant, the я form ending is -у, and the они form ending is -ут.
With these rules in mind, let’s look at the verb жить (to live).
|Жить (жив-) – To live|
|я живу́||мы живём|
|ты живёшь||вы живёте|
|он живёт||они живу́т|
Just as with писать, the stem here ends in a consonant, so the я form ending is -у, and the они form ending is -ут.
Now, note that there is no в in the infinitive. So how do we know that the stem is жив-? Because we’ve gone ahead and learned the я, ты, and они forms separately. Unfortunately there’s no magic rule for deriving жив- from the infinitive жить.
There’s one more important pattern here that has to do with the ты, он, мы, and вы forms: here we see that if the ending is stressed, then the vowel of the ending is ё. And how do we know if the endings are stressed? Well once again, because we’ve learned the я, ты, and они forms.
Although you cannot predict the stress from the infinitive it’s true that there are only three possibilities.
Fixed stress on stem.
With verbs like читать, the stress is always in the same place—it’s fixed somewhere on the stem and not on the verb ending.
чит|а́|-ю чит|а́|-ешь чит|а́|-ет чит|а́|-ем чит|а́|-ете чит|а́|-ют
Fixed stress on ending.
With other verbs, stress can always be on the ending, like with жить. So it is fixed, and always on the last syllable.
жив-|у́| жив-|ё|шь жив-|ё|т жив-|ё|м жив-|ё|те жив-|у́|т
Lastly, with писать we saw that stress could be mobile and could move around. The good news is that in this category, stress will be on the ending for the я form, and one syllable back from the ending for all the other forms. So it’s not random—it is consistent for this specific pattern.
пиш-|у́| п|и́|ш-ешь п|и́|ш-ет п|и́|ш-ем п|и́|ш-ете п|и́|ш-ут
Now, do we really care about stress? And the answer is: yes, absolutely we do. Not just for the sake of good pronunciation, but if we want to tell someone to do something—to use the command form, as we will later learn—we will often need to know the stress pattern to figure out what the command form should look like. So in the long run if you’re serious about Russian, be sure to put stress marks on your flash cards, and say new words aloud as much as possible so you come to know what just sounds right.
This may seem like a lot of rules, but if you get in the habit of learning the я, ты, and они forms you’ll get used to the most common patterns before too long.
Also known as the и-conjugation.
As a basic example, let’s look at the endings for the present tense of the verb говорить (to speak).
|Говорить (говор-) – To speak|
|я говорю́||мы говори́м|
|ты говори́шь||вы говори́те|
|он говори́т||они говоря́т|
In the ты, он, мы, and вы forms, we see the characteristic и that gives this conjugation its name.
The я form normally ends in -ю and the они form has the ending -ят. When we look a these я and они forms, there’s one other important point to touch on. You’ll recall that Russian has three important spelling rules: the five-letter, the seven-letter, and the eight-letter spelling rules. It’s this last rule that will be important here. To recall: we never write ю or я after к, г, х, ж, ш, щ, ч, or ц. Instead, we’ll use the letters у and а.
The я and они forms in the и-conjugation have the vowels ю and я respectively, so we’ll need to keep this in mind whenever the stem of the verb ends in any of the aforementioned letters.
Учиться (to study) is a common word where this comes into play. Let’s take a look:
|Учиться (уч-) – To study|
|я учу́сь||мы у́чимся|
|ты у́чишься||вы у́читесь|
|он у́чится||они у́чатся|
So here because of the last letter of that stem, we spell the я form with the letter у, and the они form with the letter а. It doesn’t really affect the pronunciation, but we really want to make sure we get the spelling right for these forms.
One other thing worth noticing about the и-conjugation verbs is that the consonant at the end of the stem can often change, but this will happen in the я form only. For example, let’s look at видеть (to see).
|Видеть (вид-) – To see|
|я ви́жу||мы ви́дим|
|ты ви́дишь||вы ви́дите|
|он ви́дит||они ви́дят|
Here you see that the д becomes ж, but only in the я form of the verb. You may remember that consonants can change in the е/ё-conjugation too but in those verbs it will typically change in all of the forms and not just the я form.
Possession and Ownership
The Russian language doesn’t have the verb “to have”—at least not in the conventional English sense. Instead, we use a different construction. Take the following for example:
У меня́ есть па́спорт.
In English, this would translate to “I have a passport”. But in Russian, this literally translates to “By me there is a passport”, or “A passport exists by me”.
So what’s going on here?
We’re using the preposition у, meaning “by” or “at”, then the personal pronoun (меня́, in this case), followed by the word есть, meaning “there is” or “there are”, then ending with the nominative case of the thing or person that is possessed, owned, or being had. We need the nominative case here because in this Russian construction, this па́спорт is actually the subject. This is because we are saying literally “A passport exists by me”.
This construction may sound odd to English speakers, but there are actually quite a few other languages, including Irish, Hindi, and Finish, that have similar constructions.
Let’s take a look at a few more examples:
У тебя́ есть газе́та?
Do you have a newspaper?
У меня́ есть докуме́нты.
I have documents.
У вас есть чемода́н?
Do you have a suitcase?
У меня́ есть ви́за.
I have a visa
У тебя́ есть дочь?
Do you have a daughter?
У вас есть пода́рки?
Do you have any gifts?
Note in the above examples how есть never changes its form. Here are a few more examples:
Како́й у тебя́ па́спорт?
What kind of passport do you have?
У меня́ кана́дский па́спорт.
I have a Canadian passport.
You’ll notice here we’re not using the word есть. Есть is used to indicate whether something or someone exists or is present. In the above examples, the speaker is assuming the listener already has a passport so there is no reason to ask whether the passport exists. Instead, the speaker is asking the listener to describe his or her passport. When the listener replies, there’s still no need for есть because we already assume that a passport exists.
This concept is the same for parts of the body as well. For example, since we can assume that everyone has eyes, there is no need to use есть when asking about a listener’s eyes, but rather the speaker can ask the listener to describe what color eyes they have.
Here are just a few more examples:
У тебя́ есть да́ча?
Do you have a dacha (summer home)?
Yes, I do.
У тебя́ больша́я да́ча?
Is your dacha big?
Yes, it is.
Additionally, to indicate possession in the negative, replace the word есть with нет.
У меня́ нет па́спорт.
I do not have a passport.
У меня́ нет ви́за.
I do not have a visa.
У меня́ нет до́чери.
I do not have a daughter.
Lastly, it should be noted that in Russian, there actually is a verb “to have”, име́ть, however it’s used most often with abstractions:
to have the right
to have the opportunity
It is often said that Russian spelling is more regular than English spelling, and that’s true, but there are a few situations where Russian spelling can be deceptive and doesn’t give an accurate picture as to how certain sounds are pronounced.
Russian uses final devoicing, that is, at the end of the word, most consonants are devoiced, meaning they’re pronounced like they’re voiceless counterparts. But what are voiced and voiceless consonants?
Voiced consonants are letters that are pronounced in part by vibrating the vocal cords—the structures in your throat that produce your voice—whereas voiceless consonants are pronounced without vibrating your vocal cords.
In English, the letter b is voiced, as is d, g, and so on. The same can be said for the Russian consonants б, д, г, з, and ж.
Most voiced consonants also have voiceless counterparts—the have same or very similar pronunciation, just without using the vocal cords. The following are the Russian voiced-voiceless pairs. These letters can be pronounced by voicing or devoicing it’s respective counterpart.
Now, why do we care about this? Well it’s actually really important for good pronunciation. In Russian, a voiced consonant at the end of a word will generally be devoiced—that is, pronounced like its voiceless counterpart. Let’s look at the following for example:
Because this word ends in б, a voiced consonant, we pronounce this word as [zoop], and not [zoob]. Let’s look at a few more examples.
сад – [sat]
друг – [drook]
муж – [moosh]
указ – [ookás]
любовь – [l’ubóf’]
As an aside, you may have noticed that English spellings of Russian names sometimes end in a v (like Ivanov) and sometimes are spelled with an f (like Smirnoff). Now we know why there could be some hesitation here: spellings with f reflect the Russian pronunciation, whereas spellings in v reflect the Russian spelling.
In Russian, there are some voiced consonants that do not have any voiced counterparts. These letters are л, м, н, and р. Unlike the previous letters, these remained voiced when they are at the end of a word. Here are a few examples:
стол – [stol]
там – [tam]
сон – [son]
царь – [tsar’]
Voicing in Clusters
Besides at the end of the word, there’s another common situation when we’ll hear this devoicing of a voiced consonant. First, let’s consider what happens when two or more consonants come together in a cluster.
It’s fine to have two voiceless consonants together…
утка – [útka]
стол – [stol]
And it’s no problem to have two voiced consonants side-by-side…
тогда – [tógda]
здесь – [zd’es’]
But, Russian does not like to have a voiced and voiceless consonants right next to each other.
Assimilation of Voicing
When you see a voiced consonant followed by a voiceless one in spelling, the voiceless character of that second one will carry back to the first causing it to devoice so that now that originally voiced consonant will sound like its voiceless counterpart even though, again, the spelling won’t usually reflect this. This is called assimilation, because the first sound is becoming more similar to the second.
Listen how the voiceless к in this word makes the voiced б sound like a voiceless п.
- юпка – [úpka]
Unlike when we say vodka in English, in Russian, the letter д will be pronounced as if it were a voiceless т.
- водка – [vótka]
In the same way, the voiced ж devoices to sound to like ш.
- ложка – [lóshka]
And in this word, the voiced в will sound like a voiceless ф.
- всё – [fs’o]
Sometimes this devoicing can even jump across word boundaries, especially since prepositions are normally pronounced as if they were at the beginning of the following word.
Pay special attention to the pronunciation of в, meaning in or into, in the following phrases. If the next word begins with a voiceless consonant, be sure to pronounce the в as its voiceless counterpart: ф.
в Сочи – [fsóchi]
в томске – [ftómske]
But, if the next word begins with a voiced consonant or a vowel, then the в will be voiced.
в Москве – [vmóskvе]
в Омске – [vómske]
Some of these consonant clusters can be challenging for native speakers of English, and a pretty common mistake is to always pronounce the preposition в as voiced, then maybe to put a little vowel sound before the next word so for «в Сочи» you get something like [vi Sochi]. But we want to be sure to avoid this tendency.
You may have noticed that it’s always the following consonant that affects the consonant that precedes it, it’s always going backwards. This is also true when the last consonant of a cluster is voiced and the preceding one is voiceless. The voiced quality of the proceeding consonant changes the preceding one to voiced.
Listen to how the voiceless с in this word sounds like a voiced з, because it’s followed by the voiced д.
- сделать – [zd’élat’]
And here, the voiceless т of the word вот becomes voiced when it’s followed by д, so here is what sounds like two д sounds.
- вот дочь – [vód dóch’]
As we saw before though, there are four consonants that don’t get involved in this voicing and devoicing business. So, л, м, н, and р don’t generally become devoiced.
Listen for how the л here is voiced even before the voiceless к.
- полка – [pólka]
And these same four letters do not cause a preceding consonant to become voiced. So here, you can hear how the т in от remains voiceless, even before the voiced м.
- от меня – [at m’enyá]
We should add one exception: the letter в. Although it does become devoiced at the end of the word, it does not cause a preceding voiceless consonant to become voiced. So in this word for example, the с remains voiceless even though it’s followed by the voiced в.
- связь – [svyas’]
Of this six Russian cases there is one which never occurs without a preposition, this case is ostensibly called the prepositional case.
In the prepositional case, most nouns will end in -е, which is just added to the end of masculine nouns. For example:
чемода́н → в чемода́не
слова́рь → в словаре́
Notice how the only function of the soft sign at the end of «слова́рь» was to show that that final р was soft. The letter е that we add also shows that the preceding consonant is soft so we won’t need the soft sign anymore and we can remove it before adding the -е ending.
With feminine and neuter nouns the prepositional -е ending replaces the final vowel of the nominative form of the word.
кни́га → в кни́ге (f)
ку́хня → в ку́хне (f)
окно́ → в окне́ (n)
пла́тье → в пла́тье (f)
Here are a few more prepositional transforms for practice.
журна́л → журна́ле
го́род → го́роде
ви́за → ви́зе
па́спорт → па́спорте
Аме́рика → Аме́рике
Кана́да → Кана́де
дом → доме
кварти́ра → кварти́ре
However, there are some common words that end in и in the prepositional. The words that take this -и ending are feminine nouns that end in a soft sign (ь).
крова́ть → в крова́ти
тетра́дь → в тетра́ди
Lastly, there are some nouns that end in й, ия, or ие. Any of these words, regardless of their respective gender, will end in a double -ии in the prepositional case.
кафете́рий → в кафете́рии
Росси́я → в Росси́и
общежи́тие → в общежи́тии
А́нглия → в А́нглии
Фра́нция → во Фра́нции
Ита́лия → в Ита́лии
Герма́ния → в Герма́нии
Fortunately, the prepositional plural is a lot simpler. It is one basic ending, with two possible spellings: -ах and -ях.
We’ll use -ах for stems ending in a hard consonant…
дом → домах
кварти́ра → кварти́рах
окно́ → о́кнах
And we’ll use -ях for stems ending in a soft consonant.
музе́й → мозе́ях
слова́рь → слова́рях
крова́ть → крова́тях
Notice here how we’re dropping the й and the ь before we add the ending. Some more examples:
ку́хня → ку́хнях
общежи́тие → общежи́тиях
ве́рсия → ве́рсиях
пла́тье → пла́тьях
There’s a reason the prepositional case is called the “prepositional”: It’s the only case in Russian that’s always used with some preposition. Let’s take a look at three of the most common prepositions that are used with this case.
в is a preposition in Russian that often has the sense of in or at in English. Here are a few examples:
в маши́не – in the car
в ко́мате – in the room
в университе́те – at/in the university
на is a preposition in Russian that often translates to on or at in English. Here are a few examples:
на конце́рте – at the concert
на столе́ – on the table
на ле́кции – at the lecture
о with prepositional case endings means about in the sense of “talking about” or “thinking about”, etc. Here are a few examples:
о конце́рте – about the concert
о Росси́и – about Russia
об етой книге – about this book
In the last example you can see that о has an alternate form об which is used before words that start with vowel sounds. It’s not unlike a vs an in English.
Brown, Nicholas. The New Penguin Russian Course: A Complete Course for Beginners. Penguin, 1996.
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “The Letters of the Three Spelling Rules of Russian.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 22 Sep. 2013, www.youtu.be/Yp4VoIQ98pg.
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “Adjectives and Spelling Rules.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 16 Sep. 2015, www.youtu.be/TSD18CufsEw.
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “Russian Verbs: First (е/ё) Conjugation.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 27 Mar. 2013. www.youtu.be/xmr2YPkhTVo
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “Russian Verbs: Second (-и-) Conjugation.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 27 Mar. 2013. www.youtu.be/YPwb4sNnkLI
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “Possession and Ownership in Russian.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 2 Jun. 2013. www.youtu.be/xmr2YPkhTVo
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “Russian Pronunciation: Final Devoicing.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 4 Jun. 2013. www.youtu.be/aSQRfSyAxe8
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “Russian Pronunciation: Voicing in Clusters.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 13 Jun. 2013. www.youtu.be/YO9tqh460OM1.
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “Russian Cases - Nouns in the Prepositional.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 17 Jun. 2013, www.youtu.be/kyat8rMHubI
Ford, Curtis, Jr. “Russian Cases - Usage of the Prepositional.” YouTube, uploaded by Russian grammar, 17 Jun. 2013, www.youtu.be/Vij7y-3nxRo