Today we’re going to cover some of the major differences between Russian and English. Russian forms part of the Slavonic branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Closely related to other Slav languages, including Polish, Czech and Serbo-Croatian, Russian is the mother tongue of some 150 million people in Russia and the various republics that once made up the Soviet Union.
While not the most complicated language we’ve looked at so far, Russian is still far enough apart linguistically and culturally from English that the two languages contain a number of fundamental differences. Many of the challenges native English speakers face in learning Russian revolve around mastering these differences.
Written Russian uses a Cyrillic alphabet. Modern Russian contains 33 letters. Older forms of Russian contain additional characters, but these have since been merged phonetically into letters found in the modern alphabet. English speakers face two key challenges when learning the Russian alphabet. First, not all of the Cyrillic letters have clear English equivalents. The Russian “A” equates to the English “a” and the Russian “M” to the English “m”. However, there are many other characters that do not resemble anything a native English speaker is accustomed to reading.
The second difficulty is that Russian has many letters that resemble English letters but actually have entirely different pronunciations. The Russian “B” is equivalent to an English “v” and “H” is equivalent to “n”. In coming to grips with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, native English speakers have to simultaneously familiarize themselves with letters they do not recognize and resist the urge to assume that a familiar-looking letter is pronounced the same way in both languages.
Grammar and Syntax
Russian and English are fundamentally different on a grammatical level. English is an analytical language. Meaning is expressed through additional words and by changes in word order, making sentence structure extremely important. Russian is a synthetic language. This type of language expresses grammatical differences through the structure of words. Prefixes, suffixes, and inflectional endings indicate declension, conjugation, person, number, gender, and tense. Compared to English, the Russian system of noun and adjective declension and verb conjugation is fairly complicated. At the same time, word order is considerably less important and sentence structure far more fluid. Forming sentences in Russian essentially requires English speakers to invert the grammatical qualities they would prioritize when constructing sentences in their native language.
English has twelve vowel sounds (five long and seven short). However, Russian contains only five vowels sounds and does not differentiate between short and long vowels. While Russian and English do have a comparable number of consonants, their sounds do not fully overlap. There are some sounds in Russian that simply do not exist in English and some English sounds that Russian has no equivalent for.
One factor in the favor of native English speakers is that Russian is a highly-phonetic language. Once you do manage to master Russian pronunciation, you can use it as a much more reliable guide to how to read and write words than you ever could with English.
English possesses an extremely large number of verb tenses: simple present, present continuous, present perfect, present perfect continuous, simple past, past continuous, past perfect, past perfect continuous, future, future continuous, future perfect, and future perfect continuous. In contrast to these twelve tenses, Russian only has three: past, present and future. The English concept of perfect and progressive verb forms has no Russian equivalent. As a consequence of this, Russian also lacks English’s copious number of auxiliary verbs (do, have, will, etc.) Only a handful of Russian words could be considered pseudo-auxiliary verbs by English standards.
Instead, the Russian verb system is built chiefly on the idea of aspect. Actions exist in one of two states: completed or uncompleted. Russian indicates the state of verbs by appending affixes to the verb stem. This difference makes the Russian verb system far simpler than that of English but not necessarily any less daunting. English speakers basically have to re-learn how to express actions through a more “limited” system than the comprehensive but complex web of verb tenses they are accustomed to using.
Russian has no articles, definitive or otherwise. Don’t bother looking for Russian counterparts to the, that, a, or an. They simply don’t exist. This is a bit of a break for native English speakers learning Russian. English’s article system is actually quite complicated and is something native Russian speakers learning English often struggle with. Russian language learners, on the other hand, are spared having to learn an equivalent to one of modern English’s more challenging concepts.