Now and then you find a good novel that nails character accents and regional dialects.
Although accents can help make your character’s voice memorable and help the writer add a bit of originality, they can also distract the reader if you do a rushed and stereotyped job.
Writing accents is easier said than done, even more so if it’s the Russian accent. Most of the time, English-speakers try and—almost always—fail to perfectly nail the Russian accent.
Even well-trained actors are—at times—guilty of horribly imitating Russian accents, often falling victim to a lot of stereotypes.
But you can write a good Russian accent if you get a couple of things right. Let’s look at what you ought and ought not to do.
Why Learning Russian is Hard
Russian is among the most difficult European languages to learn, the learning curve for most native English speakers is steeper.
When you look at Spanish and French, they are easier because some of the English words passed through them from Latin.
On the other hand, Russian is a member of a separate linguistic group known as the Slavonic.
What makes Russian difficult to learn for native English speakers?
To answer this question we need to look at the differences between the two languages.
1. Russian uses a different Alphabet
When you start learning Russian, you realize that you don’t have the advantage of learning using a familiar alphabet. The Russian alphabet is Cyrillic, which has few letters similar to English ones, but you have to learn an entirely new alphabet.
The Cyrillic alphabet has about 18% letters similar to Latin letters, there are 33 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet. Also, even though the majority of the sounds match letters in the Latin alphabet, they are spelled differently.
2. The Russian Grammar is different
For example, while English nouns are gender-neutral, Russian nouns have gender. They can be masculine, feminine, or neuter.
In certain cases, the noun’s gender is linked to the item being referred to. Usually, though, the noun’s gender is at the speaker’s discretion. So, the Noun’s gender is commonly one of the most difficult new principles for most native English speakers to absorb.
In English, verbs are conjugated to show different tenses and states while in Russian, verbs fundamentally indicate whether something is done or not.
3. There’s Less Sentence Structure in Russian
English is far more fluid than most languages. In English, we change the order of our words far more easily.
However, English isn’t anywhere near the Russian language as far as free-flowing sentences are concerned.
In contrast to English, any part of a Russian sentence may be shifted to any section of the phrase without losing its meaning.
Russians could say the same sentence in more than 4 different ways, but the meaning would stay the same.
This fluidity isn’t completely ungoverned because although the meaning does not change, the emphasis of what you are saying does.
5. Articles are Nonexistent in Russian
Definite and indefinite articles do not exist in the Russian language. This means that the Russian language doesn’t have any equivalent of ‘the,’ ‘a,’ and ‘an’ but the meaning provided by such articles can be according to the context.
Tips on How to Write a Good Russian Accent
1. Learn some Russian
Rather than trying to write an accent copied from people and full of stereotypes, try to evoke an accent on your own. To do so, you’ll need to learn some Russian.
The best way of doing this is to learn grammar and syntax. You must understand Russian syntax because Russian sentences are constructed with a different structure than English. Russian nouns, for example, have gender, a difference that completely changes the way you structure your sentences.
After learning a bit of Russian, try to jot down a few Russian sentences in English. It will be better if you try to translate everything literally, that’s what a lot of Russian speakers with a not-so-good command of English do.
2. Consider the character’s mastery of English
If you think all Russians speak English in the same way, you’re wrong—not every Russian has a heavy accent.
Some Russian schools start teaching English in kindergarten and by the time the kids can read and write, they already have a smooth accent.
There should be differences between a character who is new to the English language and another with better fluency.
3. Mess a few grammatical rules
For example, a Russian’s English usually misses an article or features a misused verb tense.
As I said, it’s not every Russian that does this, but a lot of Russians (even the ‘fluent’ ones) usually have a hard time using the correct verb tense when speaking English.
If you want to nail Russian accents, then you have to —once in a while—let your Russian character abuse a verb tense or forget an article.
Example: This is house, I buy it when I move to America.
Not always, occasionally.
4. Learn Russian pronunciation
This is the part that most focus on, binging on Hollywood Russian accents and then just dumping them into their story.
Obviously, Russian pronunciation is an important aspect of writing a Russian accent, but you have to do it right.
The first step is learning the way Russian vowels and Russian consonants sound like when someone has a heavy accent.
Russian has 33 letters, 21 of which are consonants, and 10 are vowels. Learn all of them.
For example, Russians have a very strong R (it’s Rrr rather than a smooth, quick r).
And—most of the time—Russians have an “s” or “z” where there is “th.”
You could write “Zis sing zat he is doing is bad, no?” instead of “what he is doing is bad, don’t you agree?”
Similarly, Russian doesn’t have a ‘W’ sound, so a lot of Russians often substitute the ‘w’ sound with something that seems close, the ‘v’ sound.
5. be inventive with the letters ‘R’s and ‘H’s
Continuing on the observation that Russians slap their tongue against the roof of their mouth when pronouncing the ‘r.’
You can find a way to put this tongue rolling into words (you are a genius, you can do it). If you can’t, it’s not a big deal.
And then there’s the harsh ‘H.’ Russians usually have a tough time pronouncing ‘h’ and often use a “g” or a softer ‘kh’ instead.
When pronouncing the ‘h,’ Russians raise the back of the tongue, producing a tense sound and a harsh ‘h’ scratching against the back of their throats.
6. Word order
It is important to understand the difference between English and Russian sentences in the context of word order.
In English, the word order is, ‘subject—predicate—object’ while in Russian it is rough-and-tumble.
In Russian, the meaning of a sentence rarely changes when you reorder the words, it’s only the emphasis that is affected.
So, your Russian character should occasionally disregard word order and rearrange the words to emphasize different parts of the content.
7. Don’t try to be too clever
Being a genius who absorbs tips and uses them in their own way is not bad. But, with foreign languages, being too inventive can also mean taking things a bit too far.
As one Murphy Barrett said
“You can have a Russian get English expressions or slang wrong as well. But do not make the same mistake as Nog in Star Trek Deep Space Nine. In an episode, Nog says to friend Jake “The beach is transparent” when he means to say “The coast is clear.” This is not a normal sort of mistake.”
Of course, Russians—whether educated or less literate—are bound to make mistakes, but some will be obviously relatable while others will be kind of unconvincing.
The relatable ones should not be stereotypes, just the mistakes that a typical Russian would say, “yeah, I usually say that or do it that way.”
And… the fact that a character is poor or unemployed does not mean that their English should be bad or they should have a thick Russian accent.
Tips for Writing Believable Character Accents
1. Stay away from stereotypes
I believe that if it’s something new, take your time and thoroughly explore it. It is a similar thing to writing Russian.
If you just jump into writing Russian, you’re bound to play into Russian stereotypes. Sometimes, I read a story and straight away it stinks of a Hollywood plot and horrible stereotypes.
Like the way almost every Russian or eastern European is a tough criminal, drinking vodka, always has a thick Russian accent.
Or how every African living in the west is in a dashiki or wearing gators.
Once your readers notice boring stereotypes, your work starts looking less original and you might lose a couple of fans.
2. Use native proverbs and expressions
Apart from staying from stereotypes, you have to sprinkle proverbs and expressions into the dialogue.
This way, you are also adding depth to the story because the native vocabulary and colloquialisms add a cultural dimension to the story.
Therefore, the story and characters become more relatable and hence realistic.
A word of caution: Informal language does change with changing generations, so, do thorough research on modern slang or colloquialisms lest you use outdated expressions.
3. The dialogue should not be distracting
It is hard to write an accent without using phonetic spellings in the character’s dialogue.
However, it is better to be stingy with your ‘zis,’ ‘zat,’ and ‘zere.’
Too much is poisonous.
Throw one phonetic spelling somewhere, make the context plain and comprehensible, and ease the reader’s burden of deciphering the words.
If not, you will end up distracting the reader—and instead of focusing on the plotline, they will be focusing on decrypting the character’s speech.
When writing a particular dialect or accent, you ought to make sure you have done enough to keep your reader’s focus on the story. Anything that detracts from that should be avoided.
Final Words on How to Write a Russian Accent
Accents are generally difficult to write unless it’s Jamaican and you know a bit of patois. But if we are talking about accents like Russian or other eastern European accents, it’s a notorious act.
To write a good Russian accent, you will need to know Russian, Russian culture, and Russian history.
You also have to know the common mistakes committed by Russian English speakers and what level of fluency.
Most importantly, you have to avoid stereotypes at all costs if you want to write a believable accent.