Thursday 23 June 2011

russian english

Here are some disconnected jottings about Russian pronunciation errors in English, as exemplified by our tourist guides in St Petersburg. (Both were university graduates in ‘English philology’, spoke British-style English fluently and clearly, and used English every day in their professional work.)

• Occasional slipups in the contrast between and ɪ. Generally speaking, though, this opposition had been mastered.
• No distinction between the DRESS and TRAP vowels. (See blog, 2 June. Bear in mind that all NSs of ‘core English’ make this contrast, though the phonetic realization of the two vowels varies considerably.)
• No distinction between the LOT and THOUGHT vowels, both realized as something like ɔː, or as an opening diphthong ʊɔ. Hearing body pronounced as ˈbɔːdi by a non-Scot was somewhat disconcerting.
• The GOAT vowel was pronounced by one of our guides (female, perhaps in her late 50s) as ɛu. This was particularly grating when followed by l, as in ɛuɫd old. (It would have been OK if embedded in a strong Scouse accent, but it wasn’t, and led to some incomprehension.)
• Excessive prevocalic vowel reduction, à la russe, e.g. kəmpaˈzɪʃn̩ composition instead of ˌkɒmpəˈzɪʃn̩.
• Voicing assimilation, also à la russe, e.g. ˈbɫɛɡ ˈbɔːks black box.
• Failure to use compound stress in open compounds, e.g. parking lot with the main stress on lot.
• Both of these errors together made ɑdˈdiːlə quite difficult to recognize as art dealer.
• Failure to deaccent function words, e.g. There is not enough space for all of us instead of There’s not enough space for all of us.

I should also add that their command of English grammar and vocabulary was excellent. But odd bits of Russian phraseology slipped through here and there — for example, in our country repeatedly rather than in Russia, and today in the afternoon instead of this afternoon.


  1. slipups in the contrast between and ɪ - was this limited to using i(ː) for ɪ?

    DRESS and TRAP vowels. […] all NSs of ‘core English’ make this contrast - But certainly not all of the time, whatever the books say. Still, making a difference is much more common today than half a century ago, I think, when the overlap between the two (for the same speaker) was larger.

    distinction between the LOT and THOUGHT - same as above, basically.

    kəmpaˈzɪʃn̩ - I think having a schwa in the first syllable wouldn't raise any eyebrow, even a mere syllabic m would do, but the typical pre-tonic ɐ gives it away, even if it isn't lengthened in St Petersburg as much as in Moscow.

  2. Did you observe the classic ɔ -> a~ɐ in unaccented syllables? For example pra'sidʒa for procedure?

  3. @Lipman: are you saying that you think there are some speakers of "core" English who do not consistently distinguish e.g. "bat" and "bet"? If so, what sort of background would they have?

  4. I'm not quite sure what you mean by consistently. Put the other way around for clarity: I agree that there are no speakers of "core English" who consistently don't distinguish between the two. Also, the shift from close to open since what - the 1960s? was more radical for TRAP then for DRESS, so the phenomenon is probably easier to find among older speakers. But while you'd find quite a spectrum for both vowels in a longer sound sample, there's an overlap between the two, and you might well find the same b*t once used for bat and once for bet.

  5. OK, I see what you mean now: different but overlapping distributions of realisations. I can believe that for conservative RP, though I think in Britain now it's more likely to happen with the TRAP/STRUT pair than this one. I just wouldn't call it not making the contrast.

    On a related subject, as a British English speaker with no TRAP/BATH split, I've quite often encountered non-native speakers who pronounce BATH very similarly to how I do, but TRAP sufficiently differently to sometimes cause misunderstanding.

  6. Yes, I agree about TRAP/STRUT today.

    In light of the accents that haven't the TRAP/BATH split, by the way, I find it interesting that both in older and in today's RP, there's a certain cross section, too.

  7. What would you say is Margaret Thatcher's last vowel in computer in this video? Is it ə or ɐ?

  8. Ad John C. Wells

    "In our country" seems to be a _Lehnuebersetzung_ of 'v nashey strane'. But do the English (British) not say 'in this country' meaning 'this Kingdom', i.e. the UK? Swift has famously said of himself in the Verses on his own death:

    'This kingdom he has left his debtor'

    meaning the then United Kingdom of Great Britain (England plus Scotland, it was not so long after 1707).

  9. Wojciech

    When the English say 'in this country' (meaning Britain), they are generally addressing foreigners, making a contrast with 'abroad' — with, of course, a hint of condescension.

    And according to my wife, Russians don't say в нашей стране, but rather у нас в страней or simply у нас. Rather surprisingly, she claims We don't say it — the British do.

    [For those who don't know Russian, у нас (u nas) means 'at our place', 'in our crowd', 'at our home' and the like as well as 'in our country'.]

  10. Wojciech

    1. In our country is probably even more condescending, sometimes even overtly hostile.

    2. I can't comment on Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish use of in this country or in our country.

  11. You got me saying "black box" over and over again just to hear whether I voice the [k].

  12. There is a joke name for Spanish English (i.e., Spanglish), and a joke name for Chinese English (i.e., Chinglish). Does there exist a joke name for Russian English?


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