Russian Phonetics: Sound and Meaning in Russian Avant-Garde Poetry

A website curriculum for teaching Russian phonetics and avant-garde literary culture.

Website address:
The idea for this project emerged from of my experience teaching Russian at Berkeley and my own budding dissertation work on Russian avant-garde poetry. As a graduate student instructor of Russian—and a student in the throes of research—I became increasingly convinced not only of the relevance of poetry in the classroom but also of the pedagogical potential of avant-garde verse as a springboard for teaching pronunciation. In the early stages of Russian acquisition, poetry—perhaps especially that of the avant-garde—does not enter the curriculum for mostly obvious reasons: students have neither the vocabulary nor the cultural acumen (or, as is often the case, the literary flair) that would permit them to understand or appreciate Russian verse. What is more, formal training in pronunciation and poetic recitation, often considered a thing of the dark past of rote learning, figure very rarely in the classroom, if at all. For this reason, most contemporary Russian textbooks sideline phonetics, relegating them to preliminary statements on the Russian alphabet and pronunciation, and the concepts introduced (vowel reduction, assimilation, consonant-final devoicing, etc.) are minimally plumbed, let alone reiterated at further stages in the students’ learning.[1]

And yet: beginning students of Russian—and even students who have already completed a semester or two of the language—are beset with hesitation and even anxiety about their pronunciation.[2] They are daunted by, but also curious about, those unfamiliar and oftentimes-difficult sounds Russian requires them to articulate. I saw a place for creative potential in my students’ hesitation and constant struggle with Russian phonetics: why not make use of their heightened awareness and self-consciousness when it comes to the articulation of sounds? This awareness could serve as a site of overlap with some of the chief aesthetic and linguistic concerns of the avant-garde, albeit in the case of the later the issue is not so much one of anxiety or inability. Many poets of the avant-garde stressed the appreciation of language as an experience of sound, questioning and playing with the relation between sound and meaning, so it seemed to me students of Russian were in fact the perfect candidates for appreciating the Russian language with “defamiliarized” perception—the very type of refreshed or distanced perception that the avant-garde wished to cultivate in its audience. Many avant-garde poets emphasized the primordial, even irrational impact of sound as opposed to the flattened, prescriptive apprehension of everyday meaning. In doing so, the avant-garde strove to shock their audience away from crystallized meanings, forms, and aesthetic pretenses: this audience, we should not forget, consisted primarily of native speakers who, at least as the avant-garde saw it, took the relation between sound and sense for granted. I submit that we think of our students, being non-native learners of Russian, as finding themselves in that intermediary space where sound and sense are still forming their alliances: it is this very space of new associations and new experiences with language that the avant-garde strove to expand, opening up the possibility for the introduction of new sounds, new meanings, and new words. So, taking the avant-garde’s lead, in my website I aim to impart to students a sense of language acquisition as a synthetic process by which we learn to align sounds with meaning—and a creative process by which we question and explore how sounds and meaning interact.

So, although recent teaching methods have drifted away from phonetics, downplaying the necessity of verbal precision, I wish to emphasize to what extent tonic stress, intonation, and vowel reduction are essential to any student’s verbal usage of Russian. These three elements, when weakly adhered to by students, are frequently the cause of miscommunication and confusion with native speakers. Moreover, I wish to overcome pedagogical models that treat phonetics in a way too abstract for practical application—especially when students are just beginning to learn—and models that impose phonetics on second- and third-year students whose habitual mistakes are often to ingrained and resistant to improvement. The ultimate goal of this project is to impart an appreciation of poetry while stressing essential phonetic confidence and accuracy alongside the acquisition of conversational skills students develop by way of their textbooks.

In my website I draw upon the works of Russian Futurist poets such as Vladimir Maiakovsky, Velemir Khlebnikov, Elena Guro, and Aleksei Kruchenykh; there is also an “interlude” with Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s most eminent modernist poets who did not partake in the type of experimentation to which the Futurists were beholden. Being poets, all of these writers, albeit to different degrees, insist upon the verbal texture of words, emphasizing the associative quality of sounds and the aural fabric of the poetic text. The poetry of the avant-garde is one especially fit to be read aloud, and even more so: it is a poetry that compels its speaker to become conscious of the mechanics of word-production, to cultivate an awareness of the mouth and body that are producing (and performing) language. Navigating avant-garde poetry requires not only a keenly associative mind, but also a tongue, mouth, and lips both tame and daring enough to voice—and to enjoy— combinations of sounds that are at times rough and abrupt and at others lulling and hypnotizing. This type of bodily awareness was important to the avant-garde, who themselves demonstrated an acute interest in the body’s expressive potential, exploring the significance of gestures, and emphasizing the emotional suggestivity of handwriting, vocal performance, and even face-painting. And so, heeding contemporary theory on bodily awareness as an important element in students’ acquisition of the symbolic systems of a second language, I wish to construct a parallel between the “avant-garde body,” which I speak of on my site, and the speaking body of the student—a body which must accommodate itself not only to a new system of signs, but to a sense of embodiment in relation to the language and the culture that it is learning.[3]

This does not mean, however, that learning Russian should dissolve into avant-garde zaniness. On the contrary, I make it clear that reading and speaking avant-garde poetry means engaging with the aesthetic and socials concerns of a specific period in Russian cultural history. While reading and reciting avant-garde poetry, students are invited to become more aware of the avant-garde’s aesthetic strategies and values, its socio-cultural claims, its themes, and its most well-known texts: throughout my site I strive to explore, to varying degrees, the layers of linguistic and cultural meaning that are contained in the sonoric strands of avant-garde poetics. I strive not to judge or to criticize the avant-garde but to embrace its ideas on language and its poetic affinities in order to align them with the students’ experience of learning language. For example, when the Futurist poet and master of transensical verse Aleksei Kruchenykh calls for a language to act as an effective “hygiene for the throat,” I invite students to “cleanse” their tongues and throats of English (or whatever the language of their daily affairs may be) by voicing Kruchenykh’s transensical poem Vysoty (“Heights”).[4]

Another such metaphor I make use of is “Simple as Mooing,” which is in fact the title of an early collection of Vladimir Maiakovsky’s poetry, published in 1916. In Lesson 2.2, I ask students to “moo” so as to practice articulating the vowel «у»; this, in turn, leads to the rather difficult vowel «ы», which is produced under throat and mouth conditions similar to those of the «у».[5]

Here I’d like to step back a second and examine the site layout. My site unfolds across six lessons, and all are organized according to a specific poet. Lessons 1-2, which focus on Aleksei Kruchenykh’s transensical poetry, are designed for beginning students of Russian: they require no vocabulary, allow the instructor to question early on the relationship between sound and culturally and socially determined meaning. Here, too, students can enjoy two distinct readings of the same poem and, if they chose, may already grapple with the question of performance and interpretation. For example, after listening to Professor Harsha Ram read Kruchenykh’s notorious poem Dyr bul shchyl students may follow a link to Oleg Minin’s performance of the same poem at the Getty Center.[6]

In both of these inaugurating lessons I offer supplementary material on the interpretation of so-called “transensical poetry,” inviting students to examine how different letters and sound combinations acquire culturally specific meaning. For example, I tell students that critics have interpreted Dyr bul shchyl as an arrangement of sounds associated with a coming storm, and I ask students which of these sounds produce such an effect—and what sounds might express a comparable effect in languages they speak. And, with only the alphabet in hand, students are equipped with all the tools necessary to create a “transensical” poem in the spirit of Futurist Aleksei Kruchenykh. To this effect I have appended a handout inviting the students to compose their own “transensical” poetry.[7] I have used this assignment in my own and other instructors’ classrooms: it is a great way to “break the ice” with students and to urge them to lose inhibitions and to “play” with the Russian language as avant-garde poets would.

Moreover, I tell students that recent scholars of Kruchenykh’s poem insist on its verbal texture and the author’s claim that it is more “Russian”—and partially “Asiatic”—than the rhyming, referential poetry of the Russian Golden Age (think: Alexander Pushkin). Students who are just learning the Russian alphabet can readily identify which sounds distinguish Russian from those of their native tongue, so they already have a partial sense of what Kruchenykh was getting at. The supplementary material on interpretation urges any level of student to engage Russia’s avant-garde culture while introducing basic concepts such as paired vowels and the devoicing of consonants. I bring forth the latter concept by tracing “avant-garde” antics in contemporary youth culture, demonstrating how the Internet has curiously revived this type of language play in blogs, etc.[8]

Lesson three, an “Interlude with Akhmatova,” eases the students away from transensical verse and avant-garde ‘madness’ by highlighting one of the avant-garde’s more conventional contemporaries and one of Russia’s most famed female authors. I use Akhmatova’s two lapidary poems with obvious pedagogical greed, (re)introducing to students not only referential meaning but also highlighting how “sound play,” as a prominent feature of the transensical avant-garde, is relevant in poetry without the avant-garde’s utopian social and aesthetic pretenses. The Akhmatova interlude is also laden with fundamental concepts for both beginning and weathered students: all levels of students may develop a stronger sense of Russian phonetics in the sections I devote to palatalization, consonant assimilation, and vowel reduction. I end the Akhmatova interlude asking the students to consider how to translate the poems, keeping in mind that they should strive to preserve meaning while not fully neglecting alliteration, rhyme, and other sonoric qualities of the poems.[9] I choose to incorporate translation into the curriculum so as to stress the problem of aligning sound and sense in an object so tightly knit as a poem; moreover, with translation exercises I hope “to highlight differences in meaning between the L1 [the student’s first or native language] and the L2 [the student’s second language, i.e., Russian, in this case] version of the same text and to consider the extent to which translation is also an act of interpretation.” Here I am quoting the words of Chantelle Warner, whose article “Rethinking the role of language student in internationalizing higher education” has proven of immense value to my pedagogical strategies[10]

Lessons 4-6 are significantly more difficult across the board: here students encounter at times heady, at others playful, avant-garde poems—and they are invited not only to practice phonetics but also to conjoin the taming of the tongue with the juggling of a range of interpretive concerns as well as literary and cultural allusions. Here I bring to the fore questions of genre and its relation to gender (in the avant-garde lullabies of Elena Guro), and I emphasize further the culturally- and aesthetically-prescribed correlation between sound and genre.[11] For example, I encourage students to consider what, indeed, a lullaby should sound like, and how Guro’s lullabies might be considered “avant-garde.” To this end I provide the students with a canonical (and widely known) Russian lullaby and ask them to read it alongside Guro’s text, seeking similar and dissimilar themes, imagery, and sound patterning. I also deploy comparison as a heuristic device by asking students to compare Khlebnikov’s poems “Crude language” and “Tender language” to Guro’s soporific serenades, persuading students to see how poets construct idioms of “tenderness” and “aggression” on the basis of sound.[12]

I might also add here that the site is richly self-referential: early and late lessons refer to one another, so students may jump ahead or retrace their steps when necessary. This feature of the curriculum allows me to highlight the rich interconnections between avant-garde artists and their poetry while also reiterating phonetic and cultural concepts alike. What is more: many pages include visual art more or less contemporaneous to the poems. Although I emphasize literary culture and the impact of sound, I have made an effort to integrate the visual culture of the avant-garde as well.

In this rapid excursion through the various lessons I’ve plotted out on the site, I hope to show that I’ve designed a flexible curriculum—one that students may pursue in a linear fashion but also one instructors and students alike can “dip” into at various points throughout their teaching and language acquisition, respectively. And when one desires more than a poem or a few phonetic drills, the site, being an interactive one, can push the classroom beyond my obvious intention to promote good pronunciation: it easily serves as a staging ground for interesting classroom discussions on the interpretation of texts, compelling students to share impressions about sound and to develop strategies for practicing and interpreting poetic declamation and performance. An underlying goal here is to promote the experience of learning and speaking a language to the level of active classroom discussion. And, because I am interested in how students interpret and articulate their own learning experience, I have made certain pages on this website available to student input.

I have also created a page dedicated to student work: it features the “transensical” poetry of several students from Lisa Little’s Slavic 1 class.[13]

To close, I’d like to share a few more pages. In the section on Maiakovsky I adduce a contemporary rock song entitled Guten Morgen, Maiakovsky, where various media (sound, video, text) are present, and I ask students consolidate these various forms in their interpretation of the text.[14] Where this page exploits the media-rich possibilities of the Internet, a final page on Maiakovsky deprives us of sound, harking back to the era of silent film and making light of non-verbal communication and performance strategies.[15] This page serves as a counterpoint to the opening lesson on Maiakovsky, where I invite students to listen to recordings of the poet’s own voice.[16]

And, to round things out, in the coda to my website I usher students into the early Soviet era, inviting them to participate in phonetic drills designed for workers, peasants, and soldiers as part of the Soviet regime’s mass literacy campaign. Here students are no longer just students: I encourage them to understand the pedagogical premises behind the phonetic drills represented on the literacy poster Sovety nabat naroda (“The Soviets are the alarm of the people”). Moreover, I return to the embodied experience of language learning, this time underscoring the “collective body” of learners in the Soviet period as well as in the here-and-now of the classroom. To this effect, I’ve recorded several members of the Berkeley Russian club—native speakers who—and there is of course a poignant irony here!—dutifully recite words and sentences as much relevant to proper pronunciation as to the construction of a Soviet subject capable of articulating ideologically correct utterances.[17] In this last section I wish to reveal to students the political relevance of pronunciation and to show how the idea of a “proper” pronunciation becomes fused with the political, ideological, and social exigencies of a particular historical period. Students will perhaps be keen to recognize that the Soviet regime’s earnest efforts to promote literacy in Russia, however admirable in breadth and effectiveness, bespeaks more than the social expansion of education, which it outwardly represents. Learning how to speak well means not only disciplining the tongue away from “non-standard” and “provincial” speech but also perhaps the zany sound play and “transense” of the early avant-garde. It also means constructing a politically and socially acceptable subject. Students are invited to discuss how varieties of pronunciation (not to mention varieties of utterances in pronunciation as well as in content) mark a person socially and politically and to consider how their verbal production in their native tongue(s) reflect upon their own social, political, geographical, and educational upbringings and current identities.

All of these activities and discussion topics demand that students learn not just proper pronunciation, which has obvious communicative benefits inasmuch as it enhances students’ “functional abilities” in Russian, but also help foster students’ capacities for “interpretation and translation, historical and political consciousness, social sensibility, and aesthetic perception”—in other words, those capacities outlined by the North American Modern Language Association’s Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages.[18] While pronunciation is treated as the primary functional ability, interpretation and aesthetic perception—and to some degree translation—constitute the correspondingly most important concepts conveyed and encouraged by my site.

A word for those of you who are wondering how difficult it is to design your own website for pedagogical purposes: the task is of course time-consuming—organizing a curriculum not blind to aesthetic and user-friendly concerns requires a good deal of design strategies, not to mention patience. But you need not devote yourself to late nights learning HTML coding! Here I might sound like Google has greased my paw to say this, but anyone with a Google email account can take advantage of Google’s free website design interface, “Google sites.” The interface is more or less intuitively designed, and it resembles that of a word processor, so you will not have to deal with the coding (although you can access the HTML script and tweak it if you want). Any frills (like the sound-bit boxes I have integrated) require a bit of an extra effort, but Google’s help forums made that process relatively painless for me.[19]

The good news is that websites can undergo constant maintenance and improvement, so you can adapt it to your and your students’ current needs. I, for one, plan to continue tweaking and enriching this website over the course of this summer while teaching intensive Russian here at Berkeley. I also plan to add a subsequent section to my site called “Sounds of the Revolution,” where I will explore how sounds represented in poetry reflect and express the historical experience of the Russian Revolution and the early days of the Soviet regime.

I would like to close with a few words of gratitude to all of those who have made this project possible. First of all, I would like to thank Lisa Little of the Slavic department for initially encouraging me to apply for the BLC grant and for her tireless counseling and enthusiastic support. I would like to thank Mark Kaiser, Claire Kramsch, and Sirpa Tuomainen for their challenging and constructive criticism throughout the semester; I would also like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mara Jacobsen and Wakae Kambara for their warmth, camaraderie and support. An enormous word of thanks goes out to the handful of readers whose voices I’ve recorded. Without them this project would be deprived of its very vitality. I am simply delighted, I must say, that the BLC has provided me with the occasion to construct a lasting pedagogical tool for Berkeley Slavic instructors. Moreover, I will take this project, and the fascinating experience of making it, beyond Berkeley, as a “Noah’s ark” of the many voices of teachers and friends alike who have nourished me throughout my graduate career.

[1]        Live from Russia!: Russian Stage One, 2nd Ed., vol. 1 (Kendall Hunt, 2008) seems to do make the most earnest effort at this, taking on vowel reduction, hard and soft consonants, devoicing and the all-important question of intonation in the introductory unit of the book; Golosa: A basic course in Russian, 4th Ed., Book 1 (Prentice Hall, 2007) is admirable in that its authors lend special attention to vowel reduction and its transliteration, in addition to other basic phonetic concepts, but this once again occurs in a rapid-paced, preliminary chapter. In its opening pages Nachalo, 2nd Ed., Book 1 (McGraw-Hill, 2001) emphasizes letter-recognition and individual phonemes in comparison to English sounds, where available, treating pronunciation questions such as palatalization at the end of lesson one and assimilation and consonant devoicing only at the tail end of lesson two—again quite brusquely, and without reiteration of the concepts in later chapters.

[2]        These problematic points include phonemes such as «ж», «ш», «щ», «ц», «х», «ч», «э», «у», «ы» in addition to various phonological concepts such as palatalization, voicing/devoicing, etc.

[3]        On language pedagogy and embodiment, see Claire Kramsch, The Multilingual Subject (Oxford University Press, 2010), especially Chapter 7 (“Teaching the Multilingual Subject,” pp. 188-211).

See also my page “The Avant-Garde Body”:

[4]        “Heights”:

[5]        Lesson 2.2:

[6]        Lesson 2.3, with link to Minin’s performance at the bottom of the page:

[7]        See the “Class assignment” attachment appended to Lesson 2.3 (the link to this lesson is just above this footnote).

[8]        Lesson: 1.2:

[9]        Lesson 3.5:

[10]      See Warner’s article in the L2 Journal, vol. 3 (2011), p. 7; available online at:

[11]      Lesson 4.1:

[12]      Lesson 5.4: and

Lesson 5.5:

[13]      See student work at:

[14]      Lesson 6.6:

[15]      Lesson 6.7:

[16]      Lesson 6.1:

[17]      Lesson 7, “Articulating Ideology”:

[18]      Cited in Claire Kramsch, The Multilingual Subject, pp. 190-1.

[19]      For more information on Google sites, see: