Discourse Grammar for First-Year Russian through Russian Films

Valentina Zaitseva, University of Washington

This paper presents an overview of problems with Bryzgunova’s 1977 Intonational Contours (IC) system and suggests an alternative approach to teaching intonation and word order based on Yokoyama 1987 and 2001. It also explores the ways to “distill” basic principles of Yokoyama’s system for classroom use in order to enable the students to deal with authentic materials at early stages. The analysis of a selection of excerpts from 50 films deals with such structure-related aspects of discourse as intonation and word order, intonation with question-words, ellipsis, reported speech, as well as politeness.

While the video-clips deal with the same topics as in textbooks for beginning students of Russian, their analysis reveal important discourse functions of intonation and word order that have been overlooked or, as in (1), misrepresented:

(1)        “English has a similar intonation contour, but it is highly marked for rudeness. In contrast, in Russian IC-2 is in no way considered rude.” (Robin et al 2003: 24, Golosa   Workbook II)

In fact, there are many situations in which IC- 2 implemented on a question-word like in (2a) would be perceived by Russians as extremely rude:

(2)        a. CHEJ eto chemodan? (Golosa Workbook I, p. 31)   vs.       b. CHEJ eto CHEMODAN?

In contrast to polite inquiries (2b), questions with the intonation of (2a) are rude if asked initially by a stranger, unless s/he has some authority status. Unfortunately, apart from popular and misleading recommendations like “IC-1 is for statements, IC-2 for questions” Bryzgunova’s system provides no basis for the choice.  

Two basic intonation types described by Yokoyama not only cover the same areas as seven ICs, but also provide information on their Neutral/Non-neutral status and the principled ways to link word order and intonation.

Two intonation patterns could be introduced to the beginners along with the sound system. In pedagogically simplified terms, Neutral intonation corresponds to a rhythmic pattern found in words that end in a stressed syllable, while Non-neutral, to the sharp fall on stressed syllable and the rapid undertone “mumble” of whatever comes after it:

(3)        a.         NEUTRAL (Type-I):                b.         NON-NEUTRAL (Type-II):

                        DOM                                                   DÓma.                                                

                        DOMÁ                                                            KTÓ vy?           

                        doROGÓJ                                           DORÓ ga.         

                        kak ZOVÚT                                        ZÓVÚT kak?    ZÓVÚT kak tebia?                                          

(4)        A little girl:        Zdravstvujte.

            Ivan:                 Skazhi mne, pozhalujsta,  tebia KÁK zovut?  (Limita)

The clip in (4) illustrates the child-adult use of ‘you’ along with a function of Non-neutral intonation/ word order which Ivan uses to establish closeness with the girl.


Among intonation functions discussed in the paper is non-/cooperative behavior illustrated in (5):


            (5)        a. Eto NE MOJ pocherk.

                        b. Eto ne moj POCHERK.  (Mesto vstrechi izmenit’ nel’zia

Both utterances are denials, but (5b) produced by the accused during interrogation also conveys a forceful refusal to cooperate.



Bryzgunova, E. A. 1977. Zvuki i intonatsija russkoj rechi. Moscow: Russkij jazyk.

Robin, R. et al. 2003. Golosa. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall

Yokoyama, O.T. 1987. Discourse and Word order. Benjamins:  Amsterdam-Philadelphia

__________ 2001. “Neutral and Non-neutral Intonation in Russian: A Reinterpretation of

                        IK System.” Die Welt der Slaven XLVI, 1-26