A good Russian accent, such as the one Viggo Mortensen uses as Nikolai Luzhov in 2007’s “Eastern Promises,” brings an air of authenticity and drama to a performance. A bad one, however, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempt as Ivan Danko in 1988’s “Red Heat,” can accidentally slide into comedic territory. But what separates a good accent from a terrible one? Keep reading to learn the pronunciation, inflection, and grammatical nuances that allow for an authentic-sounding Russian accent.
“Eastern Promises” Courtesy of Focus Features
The largest of the Slavic languages, Russian is divided into three major dialects. The Central dialect, spoken in and around Moscow, is the most commonly used one for film, TV, and theatrical performances. Phonetically, Central Russian uses five vowel phonemes (sounds that act as a connector between syllables) and multiple consonant clusters (consonants with no intervening vowel). Grammatically, it is a pro-drop language, which means it drops certain classes of pronouns if they can be inferred. It does not use article determiners, which indicate which and how many articles are being discussed, and usually uses subject-verb-object word order. Russian’s Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters—seven more than the 26 in the English alphabet.
English has 12 vowel sounds (five long and seven short), while Russian has only five (all the same length). People with Russian accents often mispronounce words containing multiple vowels when speaking in English. Because short vowels were eliminated in Russian, consonant clusters developed over time in their place. When Russian speakers say English words, they sometimes skip over sounds to cluster consonants together like they do in their native language. For example, consonant clusters mean that “sneeze” becomes “sneese,” “dove” becomes “dof,” and “squad” becomes “squat.”
“Red Heat” Courtesy of Tri-Star Pictures
Alter your pronunciation in the following ways to create a believable Russian accent:
- Switch “w” with “v”: In Russian, there is no “w.” When you say words starting with “w,” such as “wave” or “wallow,” switch out the “w” sound with a “v” and say “vave” or “vallow.”
- Switch a short “u” with a long “uh”: Instead of the short “u” sound in “mood” or “rude,” use a longer “u” sound, like “moooohd or “ruuuhde.”
- Switch “th” with “d” and “zh”: For words that start with “th,” such as “thanks,” use a “d” and “zh” sound instead—“dzhanks.”
- Switch “h” with “kh”: Instead of saying, “How’s it going?” say, “Khow’s it going?”
- Switch “i” with “ee”: Since there is no “i” sound in the Russian alphabet, use the longer “ee” sound instead. For example, “wish list” is pronounced “veesh leest” with a Russian accent.
“Black Widow” Courtesy of Marvel Studios
The Russian English dialect uses a different tone than the one used by native English speakers. Russian is highly inflectional, so the meaning of a word or sentence can hinge on its tone. To incorporate Russian-style inflection into your speech you should:
- Stress unlikely words: Russian places stress on many words, so when Russian speakers talk in English, they often use inflection in what feels like a random pattern. Embrace the linguistic stress and pronounce certain syllables at a higher pitch to take your Russian accent to the next level.
- Turn around the tone: For declarative sentences that make statements, provide facts, or otherwise offer information, make your tone rise at the beginning and then fall at the end. Think of it as the opposite of traditional English interrogative (and Valley girl) tones, which start low and end high.
- Speak slowly: Since someone with a Russian accent is an English-language learner, they likely speak slower than native English speakers. Slow your speech down to legitimize the accent.
“Child 44” Courtesy of Lionsgate
When Russian people speak English, they often abide by the grammatical rules of their native language. For example, if your character is in the early days of their English-language fluency, it might cause them to:
- Skip articles: Russian speakers often skip articles, or words that define a noun as specific or unspecific. Leave out the definite article “the” and indefinite articles “a” and “an” to sound like a Russian English-language learner. So, “It was a long day” becomes, “Eet was long day.”
- Misapply verb tense: At times, native Russian speakers use the wrong verb tense when speaking English, since Russian verbs only have two main tenses (past and present) and one partial tense (future). Someone with a Russian accent might say, “We walk the dog,” instead of, “We walked the dog,” for example.
“Iron Man 2” Courtesy of Marvel Studios
- Study Russian language and culture: Become acquainted with Russian phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary to understand the reasoning behind linguistic changes. An understanding of Russian culture will provide you with more context. Watch Russian films, TV shows, and YouTube videos; listen to Russian radio; use educational language apps like LingQ and Drops; or spend time with native Russian speakers.
- Study Russian accents: Once you have a basic understanding of the language and people, immerse yourself in the sounds of the Russian accent—both from native Russian speakers and from actors performing the accent. The International Dialects of English Archive is a helpful resource, or you can take your cues from the silver screen. Tom Hardy in “Child 44,” the protagonists of “The Americans,” and—surprisingly—Mickey Rourke in “Iron Man 2” all perform believable Russian accents. Make notes on what works, what doesn’t, and any new information gleaned from your studies.
- Practice: As with all things acting, the more you practice, the better you’ll be. While remaining mindful of issues of diversity and authenticity, try practicing your accent alone, with friends, and with strangers. Their reactions may indicate where you should make improvements.
- Do a trial run: If you have an audition that requires you to perform with a Russian accent, spend time beforehand speaking in the accent. According to dialect coach Sammi Grant, before recording or auditioning, you should “talk in the accent for 20 minutes.” This makes it easier to maintain it during your performance.
- Aim for continuity, not perfection: If you accidentally mix the wrong vowels or use an incorrect inflection, just keep going. “Don’t get too hard on yourself if you accidentally go off-accent, and just continue to talk in the accent,” Grant advises. “It’s really the only way to learn.” Kate Mulgrew, who portrayed Galina “Red” Reznikov in “Orange Is the New Black,” admitted that her Russian accent isn’t perfect.
“In the audition, it said [to use] a light Russian accent,” she recalled. “So I did some studying of the accent. And it’s almost an oxymoron, a light Russian accent, because the accent itself is so deep in the throat. Anyway, it just emerged like this, and nobody said a thing.”
Acting necessitates the suspension of disbelief, so even if your accent doesn’t feel completely right, you might still get the part.