Compared to English pronunciation, which often has more exceptions than rules, Russian rules of pronunciation are fairly clear and consistent.
Understanding the one-letter-one-sound principle
Russian is a phonetic language, which means that for the most part one Russian letter corresponds to one sound. The letter K is always pronounced like k, and the letter M is always pronounced like m. This pattern is different from English, where a letter can be pronounced in different ways depending on where it shows up in a word. Consider the two different pronunciations for the letter c in the words cat and race. This difference almost never happens in Russian.
Giving voice to vowels
Vowels are the musical building blocks of every Russian word. If you flub a consonant or two, you'll probably still be understood. But if you don't pronounce your vowels correctly, there's a good chance you won't be understood at all.
Lengthening out vowels
If you want to sound more Russian, don't shorten your vowels like English speakers often do. Imagine, for example, that you're in your room on the second floor, and your mom is downstairs in the kitchen. You call her by saying "Mo-o-o-m!" That's the way Russians say their vowels (except for the shouting part!).
Accenting the right vowels
Stress is an important concept in Russian. Putting a stress in the wrong place isn't just a formal mistake. The meaning of a word can change based on where the stress is. For example, the word zamok (zah-muhk) means "castle." However, if you shift the stress from the first syllable to the last, the word zamok (zuh-mohk) now means "lock."
Unfortunately, no hard and fast rules about stress exist. Stress in Russian is unpredictable and erratic, though you begin to recognize some patterns as you learn more. The harsh truth, however, is that each word has its own stress pattern. What happens if you stress the vowel in the wrong place? Certainly, nothing terrible. What may happen, however, is that the person with whom you're trying to converse will have a hard time understanding you and take longer to grasp what you really mean. Before learning a new Russian word, find out which vowel to stress. Look in any Russian-English dictionary, which usually marks stress by putting the sign ´ over the stressed syllable. In a dictionary, zamok (zah-muhk; castle) is written za/mok, and zamok (zuh-mohk; lock) is written zamo/k.
Vowels misbehavin': Reduction
Some Russian letters change their behavior depending on whether they're in a stressed or an unstressed syllable. The vowels a, o, ye, and ya do this a lot. When stressed, they behave normally and are pronounced in the usual way, but when they're in an unstressed position, they go through a process called reduction. This deviation in the vowels' behavior is a very important linguistic phenomenon that deserves your special attention. Not knowing it is like a double-edged sword: not only does it take other people longer to understand you (they simply won't recognize the words you're saying), but you also may find it hard to recognize the words you think you already know (but unfortunately store in your own memory with the wrong stress).
Saying sibilants with vowels
The letters zh, ts, ch, sh, and sh' are called sibilants, because they emit a hissing sound. When certain vowels appear after these letters, those vowels are pronounced slightly differently than normal. After a sibilant, ye is pronounced like eh (as in end) and yo is pronounced like oh (as in talk). Examples are the words tsyentr (tsehntr; center) and shyol (shohl; went by foot; masculine). The sound ee always becomes ih after one of these sibilants, regardless of whether the ee sound comes from the letter i or from an unstressed ye. Take, for example, the words mashina (muh-shih-nuh; car) and bol'shye (bohl'-shih; bigger).
Enunciating consonants correctly
Like Russian vowels, Russian consonants follow certain patterns and rules of pronunciation. If you want to sound like a real Russian, you need to keep the basics in the following sections in mind.
Say it, don't spray it! Relaxing with consonants
When pronouncing the letters p, t, or k, English speakers are used to straining their tongue and lips. This strain results in what linguists call aspiration — a burst of air that comes out of your mouth as you say these sounds. To see what we're talking about, put your hand in front of your mouth and say the word "top." You should feel air against your hand as you pronounce the word.
In Russian, however, aspiration shouldn't happen because consonants are pronounced without aspiration. In other words, say it, don't spray it! In fact, you should totally relax your tongue and lips before saying Russian p, t, or k. For example, imagine somebody who's just had a stroke. She won't be able to put too much effort into her consonants. Believe it or not, that's almost the way you should say your Russian consonants. Relax your speech organs as much as possible, and you'll say it correctly. To practice saying consonants without unnecessary aspiration, again put your hand in front of your mouth and say Russian cognates park (pahrk), lampa (lahm-puh), and tank (tahnk). Practice until you don't produce a puff of air with these words!
Cat got your tongue? Consonants losing their voice
Some consonants (b, v, g, d, zh, and z) are called voiced consonants because they're pronounced with the voice. Practice saying them out loud and you'll see it's true.
But when voiced consonants appear at the end of a word, a strange thing happens to them: They actually lose their voice. This process is called devoicing. They're still spelled the same, but in their pronunciation, they transform into their devoiced counterparts:
- B is pronounced like p.
- V is pronounced like f.
- G is pronounced like k.
- D is pronounced like t.
- Zh is pronounced like sh.
- Z is pronounced like s.
Here are some examples:
- You write Smirnov but pronounce it as smeer-nohf because v at the end of the word is pronounced like f.
- You write garazh (garage) but say guh-rahsh, because at the end of the word, zh loses its voice and is pronounced like sh.
Nutty clusters: Pronouncing consonant combinations
Russian speech often sounds like an endless flow of consonant clusters. Combinations of two, three, and even four consonants are quite common. Take, for example, the common word for hello in Russian — zdravstvujtye (zdrah-stvooy-tee), which has two difficult consonant combinations (zdr and vstv). Or take the word for opinion in Russian — vzglyad (vzglyat). The word contains four consonants following one another: vzgl.
How in the world do Russians say these words without choking? They practice. Here are some words that contain consonant clusters you may want to repeat at leisure:
- obstoyatyel'stvo (uhp-stah-ya-teel'-stvuh; circumstance)
- pozdravlyat' (puh-zdruhv-lyat'; to congratulate)
- prestuplyeniye (pree-stoo-plyen-ee-ye; crime)
- Rozhdyestvo (ruzh-deest-voh; Christmas)
- vzdor (vzdohr; nonsense)
- vzglyanut' (vzglee-noot'; to look/glance)