A Guide to Russian - 10 facts about the Russian language

Useful facts about the Russian language

Translation in Russian

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1. Where is Russian spoken?

Russian is the official language in the Russian Federation, which has a population of more than 140 million people. Russian is also spoken in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and other republics of the former USSR. Because of the legacy of the Iron Curtain, Russian speakers have a good chance of being understood anywhere from Riga to Belgrade.

2. What you already know about Russian

About 10% of Russian words are internationalisms and bear a resemblance to English words, eg.
 проблема, problem,
 кофе, coffee, or
 кафе, café.

There are plenty of loan words from Italian, French or German so you have an advantage if you know any of these languages already. Admittedly those loan words might look a bit archaic as they made their way into the Russian language in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the word  парикмахерская, hair salon, from the German word for wig maker.

The main source of loan words for modern Russian is English so don't be surprised if you see words such as  флэш-карта, flash card, or  хакер, hacker.
By the way, even the old word  вокзал, train station, comes from a very similar English word - Vauxhall.

3. How hard is it to learn?

Many people who are learning to speak Russian agonise over its pronunciation and grammar. The various endings of the nouns, six cases, two aspects of the verbs and the correct placement of stress may seem tortuous indeed.
But the good news is that there are only three tenses in Russian and the word order in Russian sentences is predictable.

4. The most difficult words and tongue twisters

 Шла Саша по шоссе и сосала сушку.
Sasha walked down the avenue and sucked a biscuit.

 На дворе трава, на траве дрова; не руби дрова на траве двора.
There is grass in the yard, there are logs on the grass, don't chop the logs on the grass of the yard.

5. Know any good Russian jokes?

The Russian sense of humour might seem sarcastic to foreigners and at times even rude, but even so Russians are ready to laugh at themselves. Since the Soviet era, jokes have reflected not only realities of everyday life but also politics. This is still unchanged in modern Russia where new jokes are being told the day after a story about a political row appears on the front page of the newspapers.

But Russians also laugh about the same topics as the rest of the world, eg. cute things children say, mothers-in-law, neighbouring countries and grannies visiting the doctor.

6. If I learn Russian, will it help me with any other languages?

Russian sits within the East Slavic branch of the Slavic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. The closest relatives of Russian are Ukrainian and Belarussian, which you will be able to understand on a basic level after learning Russian.

Knowing Russian will make it easier for you to speak any other Slavic language, eg. Polish, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian or Slovene.

7. What not to say and do

As with all languages beware of false friends, ie. words that sound similar but have a different meaning.
Don't try to buy a  магазин, magazin, in Russian - you end up with a shop.
Better ask for a  журнал, zhurnal.
Don't be surprised if someone invites you into his  kабинет, kabinet. You're not meant to sit in his cupboard or join his cabinet, you're simply invited into his office.

And watch out for which syllable of a word is stressed as it has an impact on the meaning.  Я плачу, ja plachU, means I'm paying while  я плáчу, ja plAchu, means I'm crying, which you might well be considering the prices in Russia today.

If your name is Luke or Luka, don't be offended if people start giggling when you're introducing yourself.  Люк means hatch and  лук, luk, means onion.

8. Famous quotations

 Все строят планы, и никто не знает, проживёт ли он до вечера.
Everyone is making plans, but no-one knows if he's living to the evening.
Famous Russian writer Lev Tolstoy included whole pages in French in his novels, but the author of "War and Peace" still represents Russian culture for millions of people.

 Любовные письма нужно жечь всенепременно. Из прошлого получается благородное топливо.
Love letters have to be burned. The past provides the most noble fuel.
Acclaimed prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov may well be called either a Russian or an American writer. As the creator of "Lolita" himself acknowledged, Russian wasn't his first language, and with the help of foreign nannies he could read only simple words such as

Schtschi! Russian wasn't the native language of other iconic Russian figures, such as minor German princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, better known as Empress Catherine the Great. She managed to write the simple Russian word
 щи, cabbage soup, with eight spelling mistakes: schtschi, that's eight wrong letters in a two-letter-word, as the Russian joke goes.

9. First publication

Unearthed in 2000, the Novgorod Codex is considered to be the most ancient Russian book which dates back to the beginning of the 11th century. The wooden book with four wax pages was used for a few decades to record psalms and other religious texts.

10. How to be polite and show respect

Russian is one of those languages that differentiates between a formal and an informal you.
So please use the polite  Вы for people you've just been introduced to and switch to the informal  ты after you've been invited to do so.

Then there is the patronymic: a Russian name consists of the first name, patronymic and family name, eg. Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky or Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva. The patronymic does what it says - it's based on the name of one's father with -ovich behind it for a son and -ovna for a daughter. It is considered polite to address someone by his first name and patronymic so if you're learning Russian there's no better way to impress than knowing someone's formal name. Learning to use it correctly in accordance with six cases is a completely different matter ...

Russian key phrases

Russian key phrases

Get started with 20 audio phrases

The Russian alphabet

The Russian alphabet

All the sounds, from A to Я and lots of sibilants

Russian soap opera

Russian soap

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