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‘You speak Russian?!’

If you want to impress your friends, family, colleagues, and almost every English speaker you’ll ever meet, learn Russian. Russian – so I’m told – is hard. It is the language of spies, code-breakers, and Communists, and the preserve of Oxbridge intellectuals. Winston Churchill famously called Russia ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ Although Churchill was talking about the country, he could easily have been addressing the language. Overcoming the Cyrillic alphabet, they say, is barely half the battle. Once inside, you’ll confront near-impenetrable walls of grammar and vocabulary that force many learners to retreat. Or will you?

Actually, Russian isn’t that tough. Learning to read a new alphabet requires a bit of time and practice, and the grammar isn’t always as straightforward as you’d like, but chances are that the language is more familiar than you realize.

We all know at least one word of Russian and, once you’ve added your tonic and closed the drinks cabinet, you’ll probably find that you know a few more. Vodka aside, many more Russian words have crept into English over time. Intelligentsia (интеллигенция) may come from the Latin word intelligentia, meaning intelligence, but it found its way into our vocabulary thanks to the pre-Revolutionary Russian Avant-garde – the self-proclaimed intellectuals of the day.

Unfortunately, a lot of Russian loanwords in English are specialist, often tied to specific political or social conditions. You might be able to squeeze a cheeky nyet (нет) – or no – into everyday conversation, but how often are you likely to chat about kulaks, agitprop, or perestroika over a cup of coffee?

Luckily, Russian has done its fair share of borrowing from its neighbours. If you’re looking for an easy way ‘in’ to the language, start with familiar vocabulary. Tsar Peter the Great’s (1672-1725) programme of modernization may have brought beard tax to the Motherland, but it also encouraged an influx of loanwords from German, French, and English.

Blackmail, knitwear, and chips

French was the language of choice for the eighteenth-century nobility, and there are many words of French origin in contemporary Russian. A large number of these are related to culture and entertainment. You might enjoy a shanson (шансон – from chanson, meaning a ‘song’) at a kabare (кабаре, from cabaret), but it would be a total kоshmar (кошмар – from the French cauchemar, meaning ‘nightmare’) if you forgot your bilet (билет – from billet, meaning ‘ticket’). You never know when you might stumble across a French word wrapped up in a Cyrillic coat. Tricotage, meaning ‘knitting’, becomes trikotazh (трикотаж, meaning ‘knitwear’) in Russian. Pronounce the ‘zh’ like the ‘s’ in ‘treasure’ and you’ll get the idea. Curiously, the Russians also rely on the French when it comes to both window blinds – zhaluzi (жалюзи), from jalousie – and blackmail. How shantazh (шантаж), from the French word for blackmail chantage, managed to worm its way into Russian and stay there remains a mystery to this particular Russianist.

German words in Russian are found mainly in the military sector or the sciences, but there are more than a few exceptions. Russian takes the word shlagbaum (шлагбаум) – meaning barrier or turnpike – from German, although it is about as useful to an elementary language learner as tsiferblat (циферблат, German: Zifferblatt), meaning clock or watch face. If that’s all a bit too much, stick to sandwiches: Russian has adopted the German Butterbrot (in Russian: buterbrod/ бутерброд) to mean an open sandwich, readily available in office canteens.

Russian is overrun with English words, especially in the world of biznes (бизнес, or business to you and me). However, being an English speaker has its advantages outside the ofis (офис, from office). Order chai (чай) in a kafe (кафе, from the French) and you’ll probably get a cup of English Breakfast – black, of course, unless you ask for milk. Pick up some caviar-flavoured crisps (yes, really) to accompany your beer and you’ll find yourself reaching for American English. Don’t ask for chips (чипс) though, as you’ll only get one (as well as a few funny looks) – the plural of crisp is chipsy (чипсы). The final –s doesn’t mean anything in Russian, as plural nouns are most frequently formed by adding –y (-ы) or –i (-и). This rule also applies to jeans, or dzhinsy (джинсы).

From gamburgers to Garri Potter

While non-native Russian speakers are struggling to get their heads around plurals of plurals, Russians are attempting to approximate foreign words in the Cyrillic script. The Russian Cyrillic alphabet may consist of more letters than the Roman alphabet, but its pronunciation is largely phonetic. This is a blessing for a language learner (no messy diphthongs here!), but a challenge when it comes to some loanwords. There’s no ‘th’ in Russian, which means that smoothie – still quite new on the café scene, and lacking a Russian equivalent – is frequently approximated as smuzi (смузи), but sometimes as smuti (смути). Hamburger, though, is most definitely gamburger (гамбургер). The closest sound to ‘h’ in Russian is ‘kh’ (х), best approximated by the Scottish pronunciation of ch in loch, but ‘g’ is a popular choice. Word of note: it’s best to suppress those inevitable giggles when your new Russian friend tells you how much they enjoyed reading Garri Potter (Гарри Поттер).

As it turns out, Russian isn’t all that mysterious. If you’ve ever studied French or German, chances are you’ll find plenty of familiar words to help you on your way to fluency. And even if you only have English in your linguistic arsenal, it shouldn’t take you too long to gain your bearings. Russian: not such a mammoth (from the Russian mamont/мамонт) task after all.

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