Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Slavic sounds and the alphabet - learning tips

In studying the Slavic languages, there are a several major issues that come up. Here are a few, along with suggestions to make your studies easier:

1. Sounds. The Slavic languages distinguish a large variety of sounds; not only do they have sounds that we don't, they sometimes are more precise about ranges of sounds that we lump together.

Suggestions: You will absolutely need recorded materials to learn a good accent for these languages. As important, you will need the patience to listen in order to distinguish sounds that we run together. Listening with an ear acclimated to these languages, you will hear things very differently from when you're just beginning. That said, we do have a lot of the sounds, or similar sounds, in English. The problem is that we use context, not careful listening, to distinguish them in everyday life. Before beginning the Slavic languages, it wouldn't hurt to tune your English ear. Try reading aloud the following words, focusing on the italicized parts, and you'll be in a better position to notice some of the distinctions made by different Slavic languages.

zh/sh : measue / pressure
j/ch : jump / chump
dj/tch : bridges / britches
sh/ch : ship / chip
shch: fish-chucker
u/yu : coo / cue
ah/ya : say "ah" / see "ya"

These sounds don't occur in all the Slavic languages, nor do the cover all the sounds that do. But if you practice with them, you should be a little better focused on your listening, which will help you understand distinctions between sounds that might otherwise escape you.

Writing. The Slavic languages either use the Cyrillic alphabet (commonly thought of as the Russian alphabet) or use so many diacritics (special markings) on our alphabet that it looks equally foreign. What's worse, there isn't a unified system for the marks.

Suggestions: This program limits itself to three languages from the Western Slavic branch, Czech, Slovak and Polish. While all three use different diacritics, within the languages there is a sense to the marks. Within limits.

Many programs simply give rough pronunciation equivalents for each accented character. A few insist that there is an underlying fundamental behind each mark and that if you will only learn the rules and exceptions it will all be clear. The best strike this compromise: the different accents should have a uniform impact on the letters they are placed upon, but don't, at least not that is perceptible to someone without degrees in historical linguistics and phonetics. On the other hand, sometimes it's fairly clear what an accent does. Whatever experts perceive, for you, learning on your own, figuring out what an accent mark does will sometimes be easy, sometimes not so easy. Whenever you can find a common thread that makes sense to you, stick to it. But if you see none, do not twist yourself into knots to figure out what you're doing wrong, but learn the letter with the accent as an entity unto itself. In that way, you'll simplify your task wherever possible, but without frustrating yourself over issues that, frankly, the average Pole, Czech or Slovak may not ever give a thought to in using the language.