February 6, 2011

I'd Like to Buy a Vowel Please, Pat.

Origin of Character
  • Middle English caracter
  • From Latin character mark, distinctive quality
  • From Greek charaktēr
  • From charassein to scratch, engrave; perhaps akin to Lithuanian žerti to scratch

Let's talk about those pricey little creatures. The English language has five official vowels: A, E, I, O, U. Then there's that pesky Y...it's no wonder Y is such a misfit, what with all of the identity issues.

Aside: anyone else just start singing the misfit song from Rudolph just then?

I'll begin with the Russian vowels that most closely sound like our very own. You already know two of them: A and O. I bet you can guess which of our vowels they resemble. You are so clever, I tell ya! Here's the full five of them:
  • A - AH as in father
  • Э - EH as in met
  • И - EE as in meet*
  • O - OH as in oat; AH as in off
  • У - OO as in hoot
*The only one that is not the same sound is the И. Instead of an IH as in pin, Russian uses an EE sound just like the Spanish i. Again with the Spanish comparisons...lo siento (there it is!), but these are the only three languages I've studied, hence my frame of reference.

In addition to these five we're used to these vowel sounds there are six (count 'em!) more. This probably sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that in Russian every sound has its own character. They don't put two letters together to make new sounds like we do in English. So while initially there are more characters to learn, in the end things are far easier.

In my mind (welcome to the crazy), I divide these last six into two categories: those with a Y as in yet sound in front and those without. You've been introduced to one: E - YE as in yet. Or you have if you've been reading and I haven't bored you senseless. Here are those with a Y sound:
  • Я - YA as in yard
  • E - YE as in yesterday (change it up!)
  • Ё - YO as in yonder (without the southern accent, people)
  • Ю - YOO as in universe
This leaves us with two characters: Й and Ы

Yes, the first looks just like the EE sound, but with a smile on top of it. That character says Y as in the very end of the word toy. For all of us English speakers, our Russian teacher allows us to think of it as OY, but really the O part of that should be quite short...and I for one am not good at that, so I stick with the OY. The second, which looks like bl, is an interesting character...character. To quote my lessons:

"Ы sounds rather like i in ill (say it by keeping your mouth very slightly open and drawing your tongue back as far as it will go)."

Did you get that? Anyone trying it right now? It is rather difficult, even with (or perhaps in spite of) that description. We all say it a little differently, so no worries. As the last two are most frequently (as far as I've encountered them, anyway) used to indicate plural, it really isn't something to worry about. We all just make an EE/OY/I-Y sound on the end of plural words and it all works out...in the end.


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