Russian, or Russki yazyk, is the main cultural and state language of Russia. It belongs to the regional subgroups of the East Slavic languages, namely Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian. With some modifications, these three languages use the Cyrillic script. The Russian language belongs to the Indo-European language family, which also includes Albanian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, and Celtic, as well as Italian, Urdu, French, Marathi, Punjabi, German, Bengali, Portuguese, Hindi, English and Spanish, among others. For English speakers, it is one of the most difficult languages to learn. You need about two years of intensive study to be proficient in Russian.
The Russian language is spoken by 137 million native speakers within the Russian Federation and about 167.3 million worldwide. It is spoken as a second language in several countries, including Azerbaijan, China, Israel, Mongolia, the United States and other countries that were former members of the Soviet Union. It is one of the official languages of the United Nations.
Russian is divided into three main dialects. The Southern group extends from the central to southern Russia while the Northern group covers St. Petersburg and across Siberia to the east. The Central dialect is between these two groups. Its modern literary form is based on Moscow’s Central dialect that combines the vowel system of the Southern group and the consonant system of the Northern group. The difference among the three dialect groups is actually minimal, compared to other European languages. Its literary and vocabulary style is heavily influenced by English, German, French, Latin and Greek languages. Russian has its own sign language and even has a derived or pidgin language called Russenorsk that is a combination of Norwegian and Russian.
The Cyrillic alphabet, developed by St. Cyril and St. Methodius between the 9th and 10th centuries is used for the written form of Russian and is also used by the Slavic languages spoken in Eastern Europe.
Originally it has 43 letters but some were no longer used so the Modern Russian now has 32 letters, with some letters having recognizable counterparts in the Latin alphabet. A few of the letters are written in the Roman alphabet, such as A, K, M, O and T although some are pronounced differently, such as Y/y which is pronounced a “oo” and X/x has a “ch” sound like in the word “loch.”
The Russian language has many distinct characteristics that you will not find in other languages.
• Its alphabet is very distinct.
• There are no indefinite or definite articles in Russian and the adjectives agree with the nouns that are being modified in terms of case, gender and number.
• While grammar teachers will reprimand you for using double negatives, in Russian, multiple negatives are even compulsory.
• In creating sentences in Russian, the basic word order is subject-verb-object, yet in practice, this order is flexible.
• The way Russians address people they have been introduced to is fascinating. If a woman named Natasha is the daughter of a person whose first name is Ivan, she will be called Natasha Ivanovna, meaning that she is Natasha, the daughter of Ivan. If the son of Ivan is also named Ivan, then the son will be called Ivan Ivanovich, which means he is Ivan, the son of Ivan. These name suffixes (-ovna and -ovich) are always attached to the first name of the father.
• In Russian, the verb “to be” is not used in the present tense but must be used in the past and future tenses. Likewise, the numbers one and two have genders, but the rest of the numbers don’t. The number one even has a plural. In the same manner, the verbs in the past tense have genders whereas the future and present tenses do not have this characteristic.
Like other languages, some Russian terms crossed over to the English side, with words like babushka (grandma), balalaika (mandolin-like stringed instrument), balaclava (knitted hat that covers most of the face), bridge game, cosmonaut, intelligentsia, mammoth, pogrom, sable, sputnik, troika, and pavlova.
Russian is a language where the Romanized translation is very different from how the words and phrases sound. The best way to learn the language is to listen to audio books so you will get to know how the letters and letter combinations are pronounced. Still, you can learn to say spasibo (thank you), da (yes), nyet (no) and poka (bye), which are pronounced almost exactly in the same way as they are written.