Russian Dialects Made Easy: The Differences, the Locations and More
Several years ago, I moved from the United States to Australia.
When I met my now-husband who’s a born and bred Aussie, I quickly learned that the differences between American English and Australian English can feel like night and day sometimes.
The distinction between languages, dialects and accents is a thorny issue.
Even linguists struggle to agree on where various semantic peculiarities begin and end and how to effectively characterize them.
Russian as a whole is a relatively homogeneous language, with only slight variations in dialect and accent.
As a result, Russians can easily understand one another with little difficulty, regardless of where they’re from.
Nevertheless, familiarizing yourself with the differences between each regional variation is an important part of your Russian learning journey. Plus, it prepares you for the moment you come into contact with a native Russian speaker with an accent that varies from the standard.
And who knows? You just might find that you prefer the sound of one dialect over another—and adopt it!
What’s the Difference Between Language, Dialect and Accent?
Before we dive deep into the small world of Russian dialects, let’s get this big, burning question out of the way.
The Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich is frequently quoted any time the concepts of languages and dialect are raised. According to Weinreich, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
While there’s no perfect method for classifying the distinctions between these three concepts, there are simplistic explanations for each.
What Is a Language?
Language is often considered a standardized, ideal way of speaking. For instance, Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is regarded as the traditional form of Arabic, particularly for academic and religious purposes. However, MSA is really used primarily for reading, and the only people who regularly speak MSA are news broadcasters.
What Is a Dialect?
Dialects are essentially sub-sets of a language, which typically dictate vocabulary and grammar usage.
For example, in Australia, a common greeting is “G’day mate. How ya going?”
The first time I heard this I was confused; I wasn’t sure how to respond. “I’m going by bus. No, I’m going by plane. Actually, I’m just standing still; I’m not going anywhere!”
In reality, this is how Aussies ask someone, “How are you?” This vocabulary choice is one example of what makes the Australian dialect different from other versions of English.
What Is an Accent?
Accent can be considered from two perspectives—some say an accent is how someone speaks a foreign language. For instance, when a Frenchman speaks English, he likely has an identifiable French accent. Language learners often aim to minimize their accents as much as possible, but for native speakers, having an accent is often celebrated as a means of showcasing their geographical identity.
How an individual pronounces words in their native language demonstrates which geographical, or in some cases, other social group, that person belongs to. Think about how Bostonians say “pak the cah” instead of “park the car,” or how Southerners say “git the dawg” instead of “get the dog.”
These accents make it easy to identify someone as being from Boston or a Southern U.S. state, which many people consider part of their personal identity and a source of pride.
Some countries, such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, have numerous official languages (16 and 11, respectively). Other nations are known for having countless dialects. For instance, while there’s one official language in China (Mandarin Chinese) there are over 300 dialects used throughout the country.
Russian is not known for having any stand-out idiosyncrasies, at least not to the extent that Mandarin Chinese, Modern Standard Arabic or Zimbabwe and South Africa do.
But it’s worth discussing language, dialects and accent in the Russian context so that you’re well-prepared for what you might encounter in your Russian studies.
Russian Dialects Made Easy: The Differences, the Locations and More
The Russian language is considered the most geographically widespread native language in Eurasia.
While the Soviet Union had no official state language, Russian was dominant.
All official business, military communications and state media was conducted in Russian. And perhaps most importantly, education throughout the Soviet states was delivered in Russian.
Given the central oversight and distribution of official messaging, the Russian language is viewed as being highly standardized with minimal variation. However, there are some important aspects to recognize.
But I’m going to let you in on a secret—you won’t be able to master Russian dialects just by reading about them. Instead, if you really want to be a pro at listening to and understanding all Russian, the best thing you can do is listen!
East Slavic Languages
Slavic languages can be broken into three branches: West Slavic (Czech, Slovak and Polish), South Slavic (Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian and Macedonian) and East Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian). East Slavic languages all use the Cyrillic script.
During the Soviet Union, Ukrainian and Belarusian were both classified as dialects of Russian. However, Ukrainians adamantly contest the classification as a dialect, as shown in this video.
Belarusian is most closely related to Ukrainian, but shares 75% of mutual intelligibility with Russian.
However, Russian is still the main language in Belarus, being spoken by over 70% of Belarusians at home. Nevertheless, there are some noticeable differences between Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian which you should be able to notice.
Check out the video below to hear some of them!
Russian Dialects: Central, Northern and Southern
To be a well-informed Russian language student, there are three Russian dialects you should be aware of—Northern, Southern and Central.
Среднерусский говор (Central Dialect)
As a general rule, the central dialect is intended to bridge the gap between the Northern and Southern dialects.
The Central dialect is spoken in Moscow and most major cities, making it the “default” or “standard” form of Russian. As such, most people can understand someone from Moscow or St. Petersburg with little difficulty.
However, speech patterns are more similar between Vologda and Vladivostok, which is 6,000 miles to the east, than between Moscow and Ryazan, located barely 135 miles south.
The Central dialect is also considered the literary or cultural norm of Russian.
One means of explaining the Central dialect is that it marries the vowel system of the Southern dialect with the consonant system of the Northern.
The most noticeable vowel inclination is showcased in the central use of аканье (akanie). Akanie is the standard Russian pronunciation of both O and A, as A when both vowels are unstressed. For instance, много (many) is pronounced with a short A at the end in the Central dialect.
Северный говор (Northern Dialect)
The Northern dialect is spoken north of Moscow, in области (districts) such as Nizhny Novgorod, St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Siberia and the Far East.
Northern Russian is discernable due to the speakers’ tendency to pronounce an obvious and long O. This is referred to as оканье (okanie). Next time you hear a Northerner say the word много (many), pay attention because they’ll likely pronounce it with two long Os similar to the way Bulgarians pronounce it.
Another recognizable aspect of Northern Russian is the pronunciation of Ч (ch) as Ц (ts). Печка (stove), which is normally pronounced with a “ch” sound, may sound more like “petska” in the north.
Южный говор (Southern Dialect)
One prominent characteristic of the Southern dialect is the fricative G.
Rather than pronouncing Г (g sound), it’s pronounced as if it was a Х (h sound). For example, снег (snow) is pronounced sneH (instead of sneG), which is more in line with the Belarusian pronunciation, while нога (leg) is pronounced naHa as the Ukrainians do (instead of naGa).
The Southern dialect also includes яканье (yakanye) which causes O, E and A to all be pronounced as a hard A sound (such as bat) before a stressed syllable. The most conspicuous example is несли (to carry), which is pronounced nyAslee (instead of nyeslee).
When Russian Dialects Matter the Most in Your Learning Journey
Should you be overly concerned about regional language differences in your Russian studies? Probably not.
As with most countries and languages, you’ll find minor geographical differences in the ways people speak, but until you reach a high level of fluency, you’re unlikely to notice it.
The most important time to consider Russian dialects is probably when you’re selecting a tutor. There are various platforms from which you can select a tutor. And one-on-one online tutoring can really take your language to the next level. But keep in mind where your tutor is from.
I spent two years taking online Russian classes from a tutor in Kiev and was surprised when I visited St. Petersburg and was asked if I had learned Russian in Ukraine. At that point, I hadn’t even visited Ukraine, yet the slight accent my tutor had rubbed off on me. This isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but native Russian speakers may pick up on any peculiarities in your speech.
Finally, for more advanced students—or very ambitious novices—here’s an excellent video presented in Russian that describes in detail the various distinctions you might hear in the language!
And there you have it, the three primary Russian dialects you should be aware of! Are you particularly fond of one over the others? Or perhaps you’ve just now noticed that you already have a region-specific accent?
Remember, no matter where you go in Russia, you’ll be understood. So don’t let different Russian dialects discourage you!