top of page

BASIC RULES OF A RUSSIAN ACCENT

Updated: 1 day ago



The Russian accent is a staple in our films and TV shows, and is therefore incredibly valuable for any character actor to have in their repertoire. This simple starter guide will introduce you to some of the basic rules to follow when learning the accent, resulting in a version that’s perfect for auditioning.



INTRODUCTION

Anytime you explore an English as a Second Language (ESL) accent like Russian, you must consider your character’s proficiency with the English language. Has your character spoken English for many years, or only learned it recently? Did they learn in childhood, or as an adult? Do they speak it everyday, or infrequently? Decisions like these will affect the accent choices you make, just like it does for real world speakers.


And they are indeed “choices”. In real life, ESL speakers are often inconsistent when speaking English. They may speak a word a certain way in one moment, and pronounce it differently the next. This comes from the fact that many “features” of the accent are really just unintentional mispronunciations, adjusting how frequently we choose to utilize them can affect how thick the accent will sound. But while inconsistency is common in real life, as actors we must endeavor to make consistent choices so that our performances are repeatable. 


Let’s begin by covering some of the most common sound shifts you’ll want to try on when switching from a General American dialect to a Russian accent, starting with the vowels. If your own accent isn’t American, the shifts you need to make here may vary.


VOWELS SHIFTS 

1) The “short /i/”, [ɪ] as in KIT may move to a “long /i/”, [i] as in TREE

Bring in six images of the big ship. 

Tip: This change is simple to note on your script, simply replace every “short /i/” sound with “ee”


2) [ɛ] as in DRESS may move to a “short /i/”, [ɪ] as in KIT

Fred the elegant elephant was fed lemons in bed.


3) [æ] as in TRAP may move to [ɛ] as in DRESS

The fat cat had a bath and danced.

Tip: You can indicate this change on your script by replacing any “A” that makes the [æ] sound with an “E”


4) [ɑ] as in LOT is lip-rounded, closer to [ɒ]

I thought of calling Shaun this fall.

Tip: Round your lips on this sound, almost like you’re making a kissy-face. On its own, this sound change may feel British–but trust that when we add the additional features of the Russian accent, it will be distinct.


5) The “short /u/”, [ʊ] as in FOOT, may move to a “long /u/”, [u] as in GOOSE

The cook put away the book after he took a look. 

Tip: Once again, focus on rounding your lips on this sound, while simultaneously raising the tongue slightly in the back of your mouth.


6) [ʌ] as in STRUT may move to the back rounded vowel [ɒ], perhaps as in THOUGHT

My brother stumbled in a clump of shrubs above us.

Tip: This sound may also change based on the spelling of the word. For instance, “us” could be pronounced “oos”.


7) The vowels [eɪ̆] as in FACE and [oʊ̆] as in GOAT are two part vowels for Americans; the Russian speaker may cut these sounds in half, resulting a sort of pure, “punchier” version of the vowel.

As a favor, my favorite flavor was placed on my plate. 

It’s only a stone’s throw to Rio

Tip: To practice these changes, try singing the American version of these vowel sounds in slow motion, then abruptly stop your voice before the vowel “finishes”.



CONSONANT SHIFTS

1) For every <R> sound, we may hear a “trilled-R”, where the front of the tongue rapidly flaps (commonly referred to as the “Spanish-R”). If this is difficult for you, try a singular tap instead, closer to a soft “D” sound.

The enriched rich red rose grew rotten. 

Tip: For those who find this difficult, use the practice phrase “Krispy Kreme”--replace the “R”s with “D”s: K’dispy K’deme. Try saying it very slowly, then work your way up to a rapid pace–notice how the “R”s now sound closer to a trill?


2) Many consonant sounds will be “devoiced”, losing any activation of the vocal cords, including Zs and Js.

The wiz kid’s zit was risen.

Tip: Notice we often pronounce the letter “S” as “Z”s–not so in this accent, everything may feel like a true “S”.

Jerry jumped the judge and jury.

Tip: All the “J”s should now sound like “CH”s.


3) <W> sounds will often change to <V>s.

Which Wally will want to quit?


4) <TH> sounds will often change to <T> or <D>.

Give those things to them or they will go without.

Tip: Soften these sounds by producing them off the back of the teeth.


5) Every <L> should feel dark, almost swallowed in the mouth.

Lily’s light linen tablecloth cleaned nicely.

Tip: Pulling the tongue back to produce this sound can help to find the general mouth feel for a Russian accent, where everything might feel a bit more retracted.


6) Every <H> at the start of a word should happen with your tongue touching the soft-palate.

Happy hippos held their heads high.

Tip: It may feel like you’re clearing a scratch in the back of your mouth.


MUSICALITY

The Russian accent often sounds much deeper compared to most accents of English. In addition, the general resonance of a Russian speaker might feel more retracted in the mouth, resulting in a sort of “darker” sound. Coupled together, it can feel like you’re swallowing everything towards your throat.


As with many ESL accents, speakers will often misplace emphasis within a word or phrase. For instance, “mistake” may sound like “MEEsteak”, “speculate” could be “speKYOOlate”, etc. There’s no right or wrong here, just be careful of overdoing this or you’ll start to sound like you’re doing a caricature of the accent, rather than anything authentic.


Russian speakers often eliminate the articles “a” and “the” when speaking, so the sentence, “I’m going to the store to buy a cucumber,” may instead sound like, “I’m going to store to buy cucumber.” Again, this can feel a bit over-the-top if utilized too much…though it is a popular trop amongst writers.


Finally, you may hear a certain increased nasality in the accent after nasal consonants (<N> and <M>), especially when preceding a short vowel. For instance, “beneath” may sound like “behNYEET”, “never” may be “NYEver”, etc.


CONCLUSION

A Russian accent can be very difficult for English speaking actors to perform naturally, without going over-the-top. That said, don’t be afraid of starting with an extreme version of the accent and then pulling back over time. Practice all of the sound shifts on your own text. Then, imagine the “thickness” of the accent exists on a dial from 1-10; what happens if you turn the dial down a little bit? Then a little bit more? As in life, you’ll encounter characters who exist at every point on the dial. There is no right or wrong in regards to pronunciation when performing ESL accents, only how many features may sneak through to the English pronunciation. When in doubt, opt for simple choices that suggest the Russian accent without going over the top. You may also see audition breakdowns asking for “Eastern European” accents, and in those cases utilizing a very light version of the Russian accent will often produce acceptable results.


I’ve provided some links to example speakers below; be sure to give some a listen to hear the accent demonstrated properly.


EXAMPLE SPEAKERS:

Note, Scott Alan Moffitt, The Actor's Dialect Coach claims no ownership of the material in the following links--they are provided for educational purposes only. Certain links may contain language or content not suitable for children.


37 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page