If you’re writing a movie, video game, or novel and find that your script includes characters with Russian accents, it’s always good to know how to write Russian English properly. There are a few things you need to keep in mind to create an authentic Russian accent in your text, including dialect, pronunciation, and meaning.
How to Write Accents in General
Before we get into specific advice on how to write a Russian accent in your work, it’s good to know how to deal with a different accent in general when writing in your own language, in my case English.
It’s not always easy to get this right, because if you’re not careful, your foreign language character may sound like an impersonation as if you were writing a comedy.
That’s usually the problem with taking a phonetic approach to writing foreign characters. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it’s very difficult to pull off.
Ways to Portray Accents When Writing in English
Refer to the Accent
If a minor character is a Russian speaker, you can always refer to the accent in your prose, for example, “He said with a strong German accent…”.
Use the Occasional Native Word
You can also drop the occasional Russian word into your text. So, for example, instead of writing ‘Yes, I can see your point’ you might say ‘Da! I can see your point!’ (use italics, by the way, when using original language).
Start Phonetically, and Then Write Normally
Another option is to interpret a bit phonetically before you continue with clearer language. The idea is that you say just enough to indicate the accent before continuing in language that’s clearer to the reader.
Use Some Native Sayings or Proverbs
A great option is to include a few authentic phrases in the dialog now and then to remind the reader of the character’s nationality. You can even insert them in the native language, especially if a sentence might sound familiar to the reader.
Of course, you don’t want readers to reach for the dictionary every other page.
Overall, your goal should be for readers to hear the characters’ voices while maintaining clarity and always serving the story. If your attempts to convey authentic dialog get in the way of the story, character development, and exposition, it’s time to pull back and use simpler language.
A Strategy for Writing Accents in Your Drafts
You shouldn’t let detailed research of accents, places, and cultures get in the way of your writing.
Chances are your research and awareness of characters, their backgrounds, cultures, and so on will evolve as you write your book and even as you write a series of books.
That’s why it’s a good idea to write the dialog in a simpler version and spice it up with accent and cultural references in later drafts to make it more vivid.
The good news is that you don’t need to know the Russian alphabet, study the Cyrillic alphabet’s script, be a native speaker, consult a native Russian, or reach for a Russian grammar textbook in order to pull this off!
Learn to Dial in the Culture Quickly
When it comes to Russia and the Russian language, I have the advantage of having studied the language at college and then traveled the country extensively for 20 years as a documentary filmmaker and in other capacities. I had the great privilege of visiting many different parts of Russia and meeting people from the top of society to ordinary people in remote areas.
This in turn means that although I’m not a native Russian speaker when I write about a Russian character, I can draw on a range of personal experiences to bring the character to life, including dialog.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t write an authentic Russian character if you don’t understand the Russian language and have never been to Russia!
These days, it’s amazing how quickly you can dial into a particular place in the world and its people. For example, there’s a wonderful YouTube channel called “Bald and Bankrupt” where the YouTuber enthusiastically visits all sorts of unusual places in the former Soviet Union. It’s a wonderful way to soak up the local atmosphere and watch how different people behave and talk.
The same technique is used in almost every country in the world with all kinds of people. Basically, it’s quite easy to quickly find a representative of the kind of character you want to write and observe him or her a bit to see body language, mannerisms, accent, speech patterns, cultural references, and so on.
It is a great way to help you bring places and settings to life in your text.
YouTube Accent Tutorials
Aside from the sheer number of videos about different places and people, you can also find language teachers or actors on YouTube who’ll teach you how to pronounce different accents, including Russian, of course.
These videos are very useful to find out how the language feels and sounds. However, you need to follow the general guidelines at the beginning of this article on how to translate these sounds and feelings into your own language.
Generations of Russians
Before we get into the specifics of the Russian language that can help you write a Russian accent, it’s worth saying a few words about generational change in Russia and how it affects the way Russians speak and what they talk about.
Older, educated Russians are very well-read. They’ve often read world literature much more than their peers in the West. The truth is that they devour literature.
I remember a visit to a remote village in eastern Siberia where I met a former camp inmate who asked me only to read a few lines of Rudyard Kipling in an authentic English accent. The reason was that he’d remembered one of Kipling’s poems throughout his time in the camp and now wanted to hear it in his native language.
I’ll just quote the last verse here:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,‘IF’ by rudyard Kipling
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
As for the younger generation in Russia, my experience is that those who’re in any kind of profession speak at least a little English, often very good English. This means that if you set your characters in a Western setting, you’ve to be careful not to portray them badly as characters through clumsy dialog.
The Educational Chain
Of course, if you go down the educational chain, you’ll end up with characters who either don’t speak English at all or only speak a few words. With these characters, you may have to go more to the extremes of Russian pronunciation to make the characters seem authentic.
In scenarios where your characters are either in Russia or where a group of Russians speaks Russian among themselves without outsiders, you may need to adjust the dialog to reflect the fact that they’re speaking Russian and not English.
Three Indicators of a Russian Accent
If you’re listening to a Russian who’s not fluent in English, there are some clues that can help you write that either a Russian person is speaking English or a Russian person is speaking Russian.
The ones that immediately come to mind are:
1. No Articles
– The lack of articles in the Russian language. You’ll notice that Russians drop the “the” and the “a” before subjects and objects. For example, instead of saying “The dog sat on the mat”, a Russian would say “The dog sat on the mat”.
2. Slang and Diminutives
– Russian speech has an incredibly rich variety of slang and diminutive language. In addition, there are everyday linguistic patterns. When asked “How are you?” people often respond with “Normal” (normal’no) – of which the street slang version would be ‘normul’‘) – which can mean anything from “great” to “I’m depressed” depending on the pronunciation!
Names are diminished among family and friends, so Vladimir becomes “Vova,” Natasha becomes “Natashka,” and even more intimate variations. “Blue” language in Russian can be very expressive and witty but must be used carefully by non-Russians, who often misjudge its strength in a given situation.
“Chert” (pronounced “chyort”) – meaning “devil” – is quite safe; the rough equivalent would be “damn” or “damnation.”
In contrast to the wonderful informality and poetry of the Russian language, there’s also the opposite: a great formality of speech. In Russian literature, you’ll find some really great examples of this – for example, in Gogol or Dostoevsky.
One of the hallmarks is the formal and respectful way of addressing an adult Russian by his father’s name – where the middle name refers to the father’s first name. So an office worker might say, “Boris Vlamimirovich, shall we start the marketing campaign now?
People who know each other more closely sometimes use only the father’s name: “Petrovich, why don’t we go to dinner soon?
Three Amendments You Can Make Right Now
There are many ways to amend a piece of written English dialogue to make it seem more ‘Russian.’
Three very useful ways are:
1. H Goes to G
The letter ‘he’ does not exist in Russian (instead the language has a ‘kh’ letter that when pronounced through the back of the throat sounds like a harsher ‘h’.
The best way to replicate this in writing in English is to transform an ‘h’ to a ‘g’ – for example, Prince Harry would be ‘Preence Gerry’ (we’ll come to the ‘i’ in a moment).
You could also write ‘kh’ to substitute for the ‘h’ – so it would become ‘Preence Kherry’
2. I goes to EE
In Russian pronunciation, ‘i’ tends to be said as ‘ee’. Every Russian vowel tends to be more pronounced, by the way.
Therefore, ‘chisel’ would be said more like ‘cheesel’. Or, rather, ‘cheezel’ because – and here’s tip number 3:
3. S goes to Z
Russians have a more sibilant ‘s’ that sometimes verges on a ‘z’ sound.
Therefore, a thick Russian accent would give something like: ‘Zound of garmoneeka eez zweet’. Of course, the issue with transforming the sentence to that degree is that it becomes almost incomprehensible.
Therefore, personally, I would probably go with:
‘Sound of kharmonica eez sweet!” – in other words, to introduce just enough accent to tilt at the Russian character, while not getting in the way of the story.