Unlocking Russian Pronunciation
Become a Master Class Apprentice
Check out the topics below – they're a curated collection of information that I hope will be super helpful to you. Enjoy!
Russian Default Mouth Position
The Russian default mouth position is fundamental to authentic-sounding Russian pronunciation. Here are the three keys to achieving it:
The jaw does not open very far, much less than in US English!
The tongue is forward, mushed up against the back of the bottom teeth with the tip at the gum line.
The lips are rounded and protruded so they’re sticking out in front of you.
The jaw, tongue and lips move away from this position as you speak for some sounds, but starting from and returning to this position helps you create the basic shape of the mouth that makes your speech sound Russian. (For detailed info, click here.) Work REALLY carefully to acquire this habit, and everything you say will instantly sound 1000% more Russian. : )
Switch Between English & Russian on a Mac
Want to switch quickly between Cyrillic and English keyboards when you type on a mac?
This video will show you how to switch between languages using a keystroke combination that means your hands never have to leave the keyboard. Very handy (haha!)
This technique will work for other languages as well. It's a big time saver for students, teachers, translators – anyone who switches between Russian and another language regularly when typing.
Insert Stress Marks in Russian When You Type
Want to insert stress marks – or accent marks – in Russian words FAST when you type?
Like the video above, this video will show you how to add stress marks using a keystroke combination that means your hands never have to leave the keyboard.
This technique will work for other languages as well. (The process described in this video will look a little different on a PC, but it's essentially the same.) Yay!
Inserting Stress Marks in Long Passages
If you have a long passage and don't want to insert stress marks manually, check out Timur Baytukalov's Easy Pronunciation site here. What a lifesaver! I liked his site so much I became a lifetime member. Thanks, Timur!
More on the Russian Default Mouth Position
I first learned about the Russian default mouth position – known in Russian as артикуляцио́нная ба́за (articulation basis) or артикуляцио́нный укла́д (articulatory setup) – from my beloved native Russian phonetics teachers, especially Ири́на Влади́мировна Одинцо́ва (МГУ) and Светла́на Бори́совна Степа́нова (СПбГУ). Еле́на Андре́евна Брызгуно́ва (МГУ), a revered and decorated Russian linguist, wrote about the Russian default mouth position in several of her books including Зву́ки и интона́ция ру́сской ре́чи, and in her work she cites the work of several others. Various international scholars have interpreted and added to the concept of a default mouth position over time. I love how it's described in the current (2023) version of a Wikipedia article titled "Basis of Articulation":
In phonetics, the basis of articulation, also known as articulatory setting, is the default position or standard settings of a speaker's organs of articulation when ready to speak. Different languages each have their own basis of articulation, which means that native speakers will share a certain position of tongue, lips, jaw, possibly even uvula or larynx, when preparing to speak. These standard settings enable them to produce the sounds and prosody of their native language more efficiently. Beatrice Honikman suggests thinking of it in terms of having a "gear" for English, another for French, and so on depending on which language is being learned; in the classroom, when working on pronunciation, the first thing the learner must do is to think themselves into the right gear before starting on pronunciation exercises. Jenner (2001) gives a detailed account of how this idea arose and how Honikman has been credited with its invention despite a considerable history of prior study.
I also love how one of my Master Class observers, Anna Lordan, put it this way in one of her email reflections to me (email, 2/15/23). Thanks, Anna!
The overall observation is how critical shifting the default mouth position is. The way I heard myself describing it to someone this week is: it’s training to put your mouth into the shape of the instrument for Russian, so when the air comes through, it makes the sound of Russian. So for example, the English default mouth position is one type of musical instrument, one type of wind instrument. It has its own shape, and when the air comes through that instrument, it makes certain sounds. You can’t try and “play” the sounds of Russian on the English instrument, because the shape of the instrument is completely different. You have to change instruments.
For me, one of the most clear and helpful formulations of the Russian default mouth position comes from Irina Odintsova's Зву́ки. Ри́тмика. Интона́ция in the section comparing Russian and English phonetics (p. 310-313). I have translated & paraphrased the key points below.
English: The mouth is opened wider than in Russian.
Russian: The mouth remains more closed.
English: The lips are spread wider (and they are both elastic and tense).
Russian: The lips are somewhat protruded (they come away from the teeth a bit).
English: The tongue is retracted and has a widened and flatter position with the tip curved upward (the tongue lies deep in the mouth, not touching the palate).
Russian: The tip touches the back of the bottom teeth while the front and middle of the tongue are raised to the palate.
English: the articulatory setup is based on “ə” (the schwa sound)
Russian: the articulatory setup is based on “и”
I highly recommend purchasing Odintsova's book if your Russian would allow you to benefit from the detailed and incisive commentary she offers. I have found the book online in several places, but they are constantly changing so you'll have to search for it yourself – see the Works Cited list below.
There's one other important feature of the way the tongue performs in English. I first encountered the concept in Constantine Borissoff's MA thesis, "Basis of articulation and articulatory setting in pronunciation teaching: Focusing on English and Russian" (2011). He is quoting Beatrice Honikman, a South African linguist, in the following passage:
The basis of articulation of English has some important consequences. Its notable secondary feature was described in Honikman (1964) who defined it as the `tongue anchorage':
Almost throughout English, the tongue is tethered laterally to the roof of the mouth by allowing the sides to rest along the inner surface of the upper lateral gums and teeth; the lateral rims of the tongue very seldom entirely leave this part of the roof of the mouth, whereas the tip constantly (or some other part of the dorsum, occasionally) moves up and down, periodically touching the central part of the roof, but generally not for very long at a time, before it comes away. Thus, one might regard the tethered part – in this case, the lateral contact – as the anchorage, and the untethered part as the free or operative part of the tongue-setting (Honikman; 1964, 76).
Here, the critical insight is that native speakers of English tend to anchor their tongue against the upper molars. If you're a native speaker of English, see if you can feel this happening when you speak (it helps to try reciting something you've memorized really fast – like the Pledge of Allegiance or song lyrics. Can you feel your tongue touching your upper molars in the back? If you are doing this, then you need to STOP DOING IT when you speak Russian! The whole body of the tongue needs to come away from the teeth, not widen itself as it usually does but instead get narrower, and move forward in order to achieve the Russian default mouth position which, as Odintsova puts it above, is based on "и" rather than “ə” (the schwa sound).
Various languages have been studied and described to varying degrees. Let's think for a moment how grateful we can be that this work has been done for us by such tremendous scholars...and let's honor them by putting this knowledge into practice!
“Basis of articulation.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 October 2022, en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Basis_of_articulation&oldid=1114233101.
Borissoff, Constantine Leo. “Basis of articulation and articulatory setting in pronunciation teaching: Focusing on English and Russian.” MA diss., Birkbeck College, University of London, 2011.
Bryzgunova, Elena Andreevna. Zvuki i intonacija russkoj reči. Moscow: Russkij jazyk, 1977.
Honikman, Beatrice. “Articulatory Settings.” In, In honour of Daniel Jones : papers contributed on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, 12 September 1961, edited by David Abercrombie, D. B. Fry, P. A. D. MacCarthy, N. C. Scott, J. L. M. Trim, 73-84. London: Longmans, 1964.
Lordan, Anna. "Reflections on Class 2." Received by Kimberly DiMattia, 15 February 2023.
Odintsova, Irina Vladimirova. "Metodicheskiie Kommentarii." Zvuki. Ritmika. Intonacija. Uchebnoe posobije. Moscow: Flinta-nauka, 2018.