Accent on Accents: Say “Nuclear Wessels” and I Won’t Share My Vodka

Updated On
26-Sep-2021
By
Ken

Voice over recording tips – This is the third in a series of articles by Lisa Theriot  on speaking in different accents, a useful skill for voice over actors.

Okay, this is a personal trauma, but I will never get over Walter Koenig as Chekhov on Star Trek saying “nuclear wessels.” Would it have killed somebody to at least introduce the man to a real Russian speaker? I know it was the Cold War, but sheesh! W is not a letter in the Russian (Cyrillic) alphabet. The sound does not occur naturally in Russian. When Russians have to represent a W sound, they either change it to a V (B in Cyrillic) or they use Y which sounds like “oo” as in “pool.” Imagine spelling “wall” as “oo-all.” Wales is “OO-ales” and Washington is “Vashington.” A Russian, of whatever century, is going to look at the word “vessel” and pronounce it vessel. Sigh.

It’s appalling in the era of YouTube that anyone attempts a Russian accent without listening to some Russians speaking English. Heck, just pick up the DVD of White Nights, which features Mikhail Baryshnikov (authentic accent) and Helen Mirren. Though Helen is a fine English lady, she was born Ilyena Vasilievna Mironoff and her accent is honestly come by. I find that if I check IMDB, anybody whose Russian accent I can’t fault after five minutes is either Russian or Eastern European, or has an immediate family member who is. A possible exception is the fabulous Timothy V. Murphy. I love love LOVE the Russian mobster DirecTV ads, and I was completely blown away when I found out he was Irish. I have not been able to discover if he has any Eastern European relatives (he lists Serbian as well as Russian and many others as familiar dialects on his resume), but if he doesn’t, I’m even more impressed [1]. Oddly, there are some sounds in Gaelic that are helpfully similar to sounds in Russian, but God bless the man, he did his homework. And I soooo want a pygmy giraffe.

Pitfalls waiting to expose your Russian accent as phony include…the letter H: Like W, it doesn’t exist in Russian. Their letter is X, pronounced like the <ch> in Bach. A breathy H sound with no slight phlegmy edge will give you away. Also the letter R: Russian Rs are rolled, more heavily the later English was learned. In fact, the tongue is pretty far forward in the mouth for most consonants; the letter D is often pronounced with a slight “th” quality. Short I: My Russian teacher always said most Russians can’t tell the word “live” from the word “leave”. Eef I hear “if”, I know eet ees phony accent. Short A, as in “cat”: this sound is rare for anyone but English speakers. A Russian saying “cat” sounds like a very quick “key-ett.” Articles: They don’t really exist in Russian. If you aren’t limited to a script, saying “I have apple” is much more likely than “I have AN apple” or “I have THE apple.” “Russia” is spelled with an O in Russian, so a Russian pronounces the first syllable as in “rock” rather than “ruck.”

I admit I am not Russian. I studied Russian when I was a volunteer for American Ballet Theatre; if I ever got the chance to say “your place or mine” to Baryshnikov, I wanted to do it in Russian (yes, I had the chance, and no, I chickened out). But I fell in love with the music of the language, and I don’t like to hear people butchering it. So remember that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov (the real one) are spinning in their graves every time Star Trek airs, and be careful with the Mother Russian tongue. Спасибо.

[1] Mr Murphy got in touch! (Thank you!) and says that he had a Russian roommate for awhile, who drilled him in sounding authentically Russian. The work SHOWS.

-Lisa Theriot

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