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The Russian Language

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Russian is a member of the Slavic family of Indo-European languages. Aside from technical terms, it has been influenced only a little by Latin; its classical influence was Greek. It has in the past borrowed liberally from French and German1, and, like many other languages, now does so from English.


Russian has a standardised print alphabet of 33 characters, or 32 if you don't count 'yo' (ë) as a separate character. This alphabet closely resembles the Greek one, with some additions and changes of sound value. There is also a script alphabet, which is not standardised. Several letters in script can be written in two or three different ways, often by the same person. This is also Greek-based, but not so clearly. The letters of the Russian alphabet don't have names like their Greek counterparts; they are named for how they sound in a word, with the exception of two letters that have no sound of their own. These are known as hard sign and soft sign. The former is now used only for the sake of spelling the words correctly, having no real value, while the latter functions like a silent 'e', and can fall anywhere in a word. The Russian alphabets are known as Cyrillic, and are traditionally said to have been designed by Saint Cyril.


Russian is a highly structured language. It has six cases2, which are as follows:

  • Nominative indicates the subject - 'John buys the newspaper.'

  • Genitive indicates possession - 'John's newspaper is cheap.'

  • Dative indicates the indirect object - 'John writes to the newspaper.'

  • Accusative indicates the direct object - 'John buys the newspaper.'

  • Instrumental has the sense of 'with' or 'by means of' - 'John swats a fly with the newspaper.'

  • Prepositional indicates location or topic of conversation - 'John talks about the newspaper.' This case is governed by the prepositions 'in', 'on', 'about', and 'in the presence of'.

Russian also has three genders3 of noun (masculine, feminine, and neuter). Each gender has several different types, which are declined slightly differently. The adjective must agree with the noun, so it has to be declined4, too, along with the pronoun.

The verb has an imperfective and a perfective aspect, the difference being whether you are initiating an action or describing it in general ('I want to drink tea'), or completing it ('I want to drink my entire cup of tea'). It sounds a bit sloppy in English, but it works in Russian. The transitions from imperfective to perfective vary among the verbs; some change aspect by gaining a prefix, like the verb 'to read'. In this example, chitat becomes prochitat. In other verbs, such as 'to go/walk', the root or suffix changes, in this example from hodit to idty. There are six conjugations for each type in the future tense. The same goes for the present imperfective - you can't have a present perfective. There are two classes, which are conjugated differently. Past and conditional tenses are arranged somewhat more simply.

Another thing to be noted about Russian verbs is that 'to be' is seldom used in the present tense, and hardly ever in conversation. That is why you will often hear a native Russian speaker who is learning English say things like 'I mechanic'. Because everything is laid out so carefully through declined noun and adjective and thoroughly conjugated verb, Russian does not feel the need for articles (a, an, the). 'I mechanic' is a complete sentence.

Learning Issues

Due mainly to its radically different alphabet and complex grammatical structure, English speakers generally find Russian difficult to learn. It can also be difficult to distinguish between three different soft 'i' sounds, and to master the gently rolling 'r'. Syllables are combined in ways unheard of in English, as in vcyeobshchee ('universal'). However, it is well worth the effort. It's a beautiful language.

Russian is widely spoken in the former USSR, because of both the need for a lingua franca and the insistence of the former Soviet government. Aside from Russia, at least two republics (Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) have it as one of their official languages. It is also spoken in countries like Poland, where the previous generation learned it in school, and Finland, where it is still taught. About 165 million people speak the language natively, and 275 million worldwide claim some level of fluency5.

The Cyrillic AlphabetThe American Council of Teachers of Russian - RussNetNews in RussianTravelling and Working in RussiaA1018586
1German was most influential on the old names for military ranks, but also contributed the word for 'sandwich'.2Latin has an equal number, and Greek five.3It should be noted that 'gender'; is applied in a linguistic sense, not a biological one.4'Decline' is simply the term for the changing of the form of the word to indicate its case.5Figures from the 2000 World Almanac.

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