How Russian intonation changes the meaning: 30+ audio examples

Learning Russian is learning how to be an actor, a musician. It’s more art than science. Russian is a musical language. So put away your grammar books for a while to master Russian intonation. Have fun with it.
You need to learn the Russian intonation to

  • Clear speech blockage
  • Understand Russian speech by ear
  • Understand the meaning
  • Be understood correctly
  • Make friends with Russians

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If you would like to check my fun course of Russian pronunciation, Click here or the image below

In Russian speech we don’t separate the words to make your listening easier. It may be a problem to discern where a word ends and another begins.

Мы не говорим он|и|она. Мы говорим ониона.

We use intonation to discern:

  • words
  • emotions
  • degree of confidence
  • meaning

Similar to the stress, intonation changes the meaning completely. Here is the example.
You surely know the word Здра́вствуйте! It’s hello. But if pronounced with a specific intonation it doesn’t mean hello. And what does it mean? Compare 2 audios:

1. Здра́вствуйте. 2. Здра́вствуйте!

The first means “hello”, while the second means “This is no good of you”.
And when I say

Здра́вствуйте, я ваша тётя!

It does not really mean I am your aunt. It means “This is no good of you. That’s not what we agreed upon.”

7 Russian intonation patterns in comparison.

Let’s compare 7 Russian intonation constructions (ic) to see how they change the meaning.
Listen and repeat. Use your hand “to draw” an intonation pattern in the air. Hands are reflexively connected with the voice, that’s why they are so helpful.

1. Ic-1 – ic-3 (statement-question)

Russian intonation construction (ic-1)
ic-1 pattern
Russian intonation construction ic-3
ic-3 pattern

И всё? (ic-3) – И всё. (ic-1) Is that all? That’s all

Сегодня четверг? Сегодня четверг.

Это Маша? Это Маша.

2. Ic-1 – ic-2 (statement – emotion)

Russian intonation construction ic-2
ic-2 pattern

We use ic-2 to emphasize. Usually when we are annoyed, or when we repeat the statement or question. Master it to be able to show your emotions.

Не надо (ic-1). Не надо! (ic-2) Don’t do this. Don’t do this!

There is a sharp drop on the intonational center. It may fall on different words, depending on what we want to emphasize

Что ты учишь? Что ты учишь? Что ты учишь?

Меня зовут Таня. (А не Наташа).  Меня зовут Таня. (А не соседку).

Я люблю только тебя

3. Ic-1 – ic-4 (statement – question with particle “А»)

Russian intonation construction ic-4
ic-4 pattern

Она была там.(ic-1) А он? (ic-4) She was there. And he?


Я купил молоко. .(ic-1) А хлеб? (ic-4) I bought the bread. And milk?

Шура, это наши деньги. .(ic-1) А Козлевичу? (ic-4) Shura, this is our money. And how about Kozlevich?

4. Ic-1 – ic-5 (statement – emotional statement)

Russian intonation ic-5
ic-5 pattern

We use ic-5 to add a little fire to our statement. Usually it means that we are very confident about what we say. There are 2 intonational centers in this pattern.

Он выучил урок. .(ic-1) Он выучил урок! (ic-5) He learned the lesson. – He surely learned the lesson.

Какая прелесть! (ic-5) Very nice! Какой ужас! (ic-5) Very bad!

5. Ic-6 – ic-7 (positive estimate – negative estimate)

Russian intonation ic-6
ic-6 pattern
Russian intonation ic-7
ic-7 pattern

This is a nice one. Intonation turns the meaning upside down. Same words – opposite meaning. Listen to the examples.

Какой он мужчина! (ic-6) Какой он мужчина (ic-7). What a man! (admiration) – I disagree, he is not a man.

Какой классный фильм! (ic-6) Какой классный фильм! (ic-7). What a great film!. – I disagree, very bad film.

Ой, Таня! (ic-6) Ой, Таня. (ic-7) (Tanya, you are awesome!) – (Tanya, you are awful).

My mama used to say the last one.
Usually ic-6 and ic-7 are quite difficult for the foreign students. How are they to you?

6. Ic-3 (question) Ic-6 (positive estimate)

Какая погода? – Какая погода! How’s the weather? – What a wonderful weather!

Сегодня тепло? – Сегодня тепло! Is it warm today? I’m so happy it’s warm today.

7. Ic-2 – ic-3 –ic-1 – ic-5.

– Какие у нас места? (2)
– Какие у нас места? (3) 4-е и 5-е. (1)
– Какие у нас места! (5) Просто прекрасные

8. Different intonations in a short dialogue.

– Это не Рио-де-Жанейро. (1)
– Что, простите? (2)
– Это (2) не Рио-де-Жанейро. Это Новосибирск. (5)
– Ой, не знаю. Мне (2) нравится Новосибирск.
– А какая там погода! (6) Прекрасная погода. (5)
– Какая там погода? (7) Просто ужас.(5)

What’s the question? It depends on the intonation.

Russian words order is flexible in both statements and questions. We don’t need to change the words order like in English to ask a question. We just use question intonation to be understood. How to understand what exactly are you asked? Pay attention to the stress.

Анто́н был там? – Антон. Who was there?
Антон бы́л там? – Был. Did Anton attend?
Антон был та́м? – Там. Where Anton was?

When the pause changes the meaning

How to translate? To work or not to work?

Работать нельзя отдыхать.

1. Работать нельзя / отдыхать. – Work.

2. Работать / нельзя отдыхать. – Don’t work.

Очень удивил его вопрос друга.

1. Очень удивил его / вопрос друга – He was surprised by his friend’s question

2. Очень удивил его вопрос / друга – A friend was surprised by the question

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If you would like to check my fun course of Russian pronunciation, Click here or the image below

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