How to Talk Dirty in Russian: Distinctive Feature Theory and Screwing With Epaulettes

September 11, 2013 | Lewd Linguist

“Come in, have a seat! Shall I make tea? I’ve got plenty of vodka! Want some cherries? Bread? I could cook you some chicken…”

This is invariably how I’m greeted whenever I meet someone Russian. It doesn’t matter if he opens the door naked, if we’re just going to watch TV, or if the camera’s already facing the St. Andrew’s cross, you’re about to drink half a bottle of vodka and the fridge is over there. Make yourself at home.

Russian has 160 million native speakers (277 million total), is an official UN language and served as mise-en-scène to my high school years, learning to drink in my post-Soviet friends’ basements. If it weren’t for the Russian lesbian-like-esque-ish pop duo t.A.T.u, I would never have learned to whittle my sexuality down to “yeah, fine, gay” for the sake of appearances.

Russia itself is not always so hospitable to gays, especially considering recent anti-“homosexual propaganda” laws, responsible for an LGBT witch hunt, but they’re a great tune for officials to whistle while they turn their backs to neo-Nazi thug posses kidnapping and torturing whoever they perceive as gay. t.A.T.u. described the Russian sentiment towards gays with the title of their last album, Управление Отбросами [uprʌvʲˈlʲenʲɪjɪ ɐdˈbrosʌmʲɪ] “Waste Management.” They were forced to rename it Весёлые Улыбки [vʲɪˈsʲɵlɨjɪ uˈlɨbʲkʲɪ] “Happy Smiles.”

Fortunately, my experience has mostly involved the safety of Brighton Beach, where the miasma of hostility is mostly population density and resting bitchface (Russia’s biggest export). If you die here, it’s for regular New York reasons. Many areas without widespread gay acceptance compensate with beard marriages or “topping isn’t gay” (see also: Arabic). Despite the traditionalism that Brighton Beach exudes, the Grindr scene has plenty of hammers and sickles.

One sunny afternoon in Brighton Beach, I was going shot-for-shot with a stoic muscle bear.
I was starting to feel pretty drunk (бухой /buˈxɔj/), and took a chance to freshen up.

Мне надо отлить, где туалет? [mʲnʲe ˈnadʌ ʌtʲˈlʲitʲ, gdʲe tʊʌˈlʲet]
I’ve got to piss, where’s the bathroom?

Oтлить “to piss” is called a perfective verb in Russian. Verbs in Slavic languages generally come in pairs, one perfective which describes an event, and one imperfective which describes a process or habit. Had I replaced отлить with its imperfective form отливать [ʌtʲlʲɪˈvatʲ], my need to urinate would just be explained as a bodily function, and not a pressing issue.

In the bathroom, I splashed some water on my face and stripped down to my underwear before coming back to the living room. My host smirked.

Ты возбуждённый? У тебя уже стояк. [tɨ vʌzbʊʐˈdʲɵnːɨj? u tʲɪˈbʲa ʊˈʐɛ stʌˈjak]
You horny? You’ve already got a boner.

I wasn’t alone. Seeing the bulge through his pants, I could tell it was a кишкоправ [kʲɪʂkʌˈprav] (“gut-straightener”, named after a Finnish knife). I got on my knees and played the part of вафлёр [vafʲˈlʲɵr] “fellator.”

By now you must be wondering why there are so many [ʲ] symbols in the transcriptions. This sign denotes palatalization, bringing the back of the tongue towards the roof of the mouth, giving a consonant a “y”-like quality. Russian’s distinct sound comes from palatalization, and most consonants have a palatalized and non-palatalized variant (for example, /v/ in водка /ˈvodka/ but /vʲ/ in вискарь /ˈvʲiskarʲ/ “whiskey”).

What’s interesting about Russian palatalization, however, is not which sounds come in these pairs, but which don’t. The “velar” phonemes /k/ /g/ /x/ don’t come in pairs, as they use the back of the tongue already. Of the “coronal” phonemes that use the front of the tongue, /s/ and /z/ can distinguish palatalization while /ʂ/ /ʐ/ /ɕ/ /ts/ /tɕ/ can not.

But why these in particular? The answer lies in Distinctive Feature Theory, an attempt to break down speech sounds into articulatory/phonetic qualities (“features”) the way the brain does. For example, the feature [±voice] describes whether the voice box is vibrating. /s/ is [-voice] while /z/ is [+voice]. [±anterior] describes whether a sound is made in front of the alveolar ridge (the bump behind the teeth) or behind it. [+distributed] means that a sound is made with the slippery shaft of the tongue while [-distributed] sounds use just the tip.

Here are the features of our coronals:

At a glance, it seems like there’s no way to separate /s/ /z/ from the rest with features.
However, if you take into consideration that until recently, /ts/ used to be /tʲ/ which is [-anterior], it’s easy to see that [anterior] is what motivates whether a sound in Russian can be palatalized. This is called a diachronic analysis, it explains the hangover (бодун [bʌˈdun]) by looking to the one-night stand (блядки [ˈblʲadkʲɪ]) before it.

My own one-night stand was getting increasingly difficult. We’d tried встать раком [vstatʲ ˈrakʌm] “doggy style” and ебать с эполетами [jɪˈbatʲ s ɛpʌˈlʲetʌmɪ] “fucking with epaulettes” (legs-on-shoulders) but it just didn’t seem to work.

He asked:

 Мне пора дрочить? Хочешь быть моeй блядошкой? [mnʲe pʌˈra drʌˈtɕitʲ ? ˈxotɕɨɕ bɨtʲ [mʌˈjej ˈblʲadʌɕkʌj?]
Should I jerk off? Want to be my cumdumpster?

I responded heartily:

Пожалуйста! [pʌˈʐalʉstʌ]
By all means!

He pulled out and straddled my chest. As the sun set, his sweat glistened with increasingly dramatic chiaroscuro. The scene was nearly porn-perfect; there was just one problem:

Ты спускал в мой глаз! [tɨ spʊˈskal v moj glaz]
You came in my eye!

And with that my “happy smiles” became “waste management” once again.

How to Talk Dirty in Hindi: The Perceptual Vowel Space, Pussy and Rainbows
How to Talk Dirty in Danish: Laryngeal Features and Manmeat
How to Talk Dirty in Arabic: Nonconcatenative Morphology and Cocks