Surely when you visit someone else’s country – whether it’s Russia, China, or anywhere else – you would be respectful enough to master at least a few words of their language, wouldn’t you? At least ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, just for courtesy sake. Pushing it to in include ‘yes’ and ‘no’ would be a good idea too – in fact anything to get you away from the notion that all foreign languages are just loud English with increasingly emphatic hand gesticulations in a vain attempt to get the point across.
All the while the unfortunate target looks on and thinks: “Not another ignorant Brit who’d decided that we owe it to him to speak English, when he hasn’t even attempted to learn anything of our language”. There are political debates about the British attitudes to English and its place in the world, but we’re not going to dwell on that here. What is a fact is that English has become the dominant means of communication in many aspects of modern, global and virtual life. So much so that I have heard first-hand claims of ‘Why bother’ when the issue of learning another language rears its head.
Going in with that attitude is unlikely to endear you to the indigenous population who may be more keen to help when confronted with someone who is at least trying to help himself to be understood in a strange land.
So it is with this in mind that I reveal my plodding steps into the Russian language and in turn encourage those seeking to travel East to make some kind of attempt to similarly arm themselves with a few basic words. I must point out that I am not a qualified language teacher – I’m still learning too; so if you know better than me then please feel free to butt in.
The first logical milestone is ‘Hello’, which is simple enough in English but a definite challenge to a newcomer to Russian. I’m convinced that the British/American vocal apparatus was not designed to pronounce the Russian equivalent which is seemingly assembled out of random consonants, disjointed and decidedly alien – to our untrained ears and mouths of course. And it goes something like this:
STRASS – VITS – CHA
That’s the phonetic equivalent in English of course, said at the same pace that we would say ‘elephant’. The STRASS component sounds like the English ‘stress’ but with the ‘e’ replaced with a sharp ‘a’ as in ‘apple’. VITS sounds like a slang shortening of ‘vitamins’, ie “I’m going to buy some vits’” and CHA is pronounced like ‘chat’, minus the ‘t’. Well, that’s what it sounds like to my ears after practising it several hundred times! It does get to sound natural once you are used to speaking outside your comfort zone. Believe me!
So there’s your first Russian word:
STRASS – VITS – CHA!
Now, to be honest I have lured you in with an anglocised approximation -but seeing as you are this far it would be a shame to give up, right?
Now, take the ‘STRASS’ component and make it “STRAZZ” -rhyming with “JAZZ” and you are closer still. ‘Still with me? Now the hard part:
The first “S” needs to be replaced with a short ‘Z, like we use at the start of “ZAP”. Now we have something like this:-
A further twist (hold tight) is to replace the ‘T’ in “ZTRAZZ” with a ‘D’, making it:-
-where you are rolling that ‘R’. Widening the mouth slightly on “DRAZZ” seems to help -well it helped me anyway.
If it’s becoming too much then I suggest practising, minus the initial “Z” a few times and then try dropping it in at the start. Remember, you are still timing it as if it was an ‘S’. It’s a “Z” in “S”-s clothing!
Ok, now you are getting there. You can add some further icing by softening the ‘I’ in “VITS”, as in “FIELD”. At this point you’ll be saying “Hello” in Russian as good as I can -for whatever that’s worth to you!
A final note: You may also hear “PRIV-I-YET” used. This is pronounced like the British “PRIVET” Hedge, but with an extra “EE” in the middle. It’s a lot easier to say but it’s the informal version: not recommended for use with strangers, or with authority figures, or in job interviews. You get the idea.
And with that: goodbye, for now.
Next time: A few choice words #2 – Goodbye
(Photo by Thawt Hawthje)