Russian phonology

This article discusses the phonological system of standard Russian based on the Moscow dialect (unless otherwise noted). For an overview of dialects in the Russian language, see Russian dialects. Most descriptions of Russian describe it as having five vowel phonemes, though there is some dispute over whether a sixth vowel, /ɨ/, is separate from /i/. Russian has 34 consonants, which can be divided into two types:

Russian also distinguishes hard consonants from soft (palatalized) consonants and from consonants followed by /j/, making four sets in total: /C Cʲ Cj Cʲj/, although /Cj/ in native words appears only at morpheme boundaries. Russian also preserves palatalized consonants that are followed by another consonant more often than other Slavic languages do. Like Polish, it has both hard postalveolars (/ʂ ʐ/) and soft ones (/t͡ɕ ɕː ʑː/).

Russian has vowel reduction in unstressed syllables. This feature also occurs in a minority of other Slavic languages like Belarusian and Bulgarian, and is also found in English, but not in most other Slavic languages, such as Czech, Polish and most varieties of Serbo-Croatian.

Vowels

Front Central Back
Close i (ɨ) u
Mid e o
Open a
Russian vowel chart by Jones & Trofimov (1923:55).
Russian stressed vowel chart according to their formants and surrounding consonants, from Timberlake (2004:31, 38). C is hard (non-palatalized) consonant, Ç is soft (palatalized) consonant. This chart uses frequencies to represent the basic vowel triangle of the Russian language.

Russian has five or six vowels in stressed syllables, /i, u, e, o, a/ and in some analyses /ɨ/, but in most cases these vowels have merged to only two to four vowels when unstressed: /i, u, a/ (or /ɨ, u, a/) after hard consonants and /i, u/ after soft ones.

A long-standing dispute among linguists is whether Russian has five vowel phonemes or six; that is, scholars disagree as to whether [ɨ] constitutes an allophone of /i/ or if there is an independent phoneme /ɨ/. The five-vowel analysis, taken up by the Moscow school, rests on the complementary distribution of [ɨ] and [i], with the former occurring after hard (non-palatalized) consonants and [i] elsewhere.

The six-vowel view, held by the Saint-Petersburg (Leningrad) phonology school, points to several phenomena to make its case:

  • Native Russian speakers' ability to articulate [ɨ] in isolation: for example, in the names of the letters ⟨и⟩ and ⟨ы⟩.[1]
  • Rare instances of word-initial [ɨ], including the minimal pair и́кать 'to produce the sound и' and ы́кать 'to produce the sound ы'),[2] as well as borrowed names and toponyms, like Ыб About this sound[ɨp] , the name of a river and several villages in the Komi Republic.
  • Morphological alternations like гото́в About this sound[ɡɐˈtof] ('ready' predicate, m.) and гото́вить About this sound[ɡɐˈtovʲɪtʲ] ('to get ready' trans.) between palatalized and non-palatalized consonants.[3]

The most popular view among linguists (and that taken up in this article) is that of the Moscow school,[2] though Russian pedagogy has typically taught that there are six vowels (the term phoneme is not used).[4]

Reconstructions of Proto-Slavic show that *i and *y (which correspond to [i] and [ɨ]) were separate phonemes. On the other hand, numerous alternations between the two sounds in Russian indicate clearly that at one point the two sounds were reanalyzed as allophones of each other.[citation needed]

Allophony

A quick index of vowel pronunciation
Phoneme Letter
(typically)
Position Stressed Reduced
/a/ а (C)V [ä] [ə], [ɐ]
я CʲVC [a] [ɪ]
CʲVCʲ [æ]
/e/ э VC [ɛ]
е CʲVC [ɛ̝]
э, е† CVC [ɛ] [ɨ̞]
CVCʲ [e]
/i/ и (Cʲ)V [i] [ɪ]
/ɨ/ ы, и (C)V [ɨ] [ɨ̞]
/o/ о (C)V [ ~ ɔ] [ə], [ɐ]
ё* CʲV [ɵ] [ɪ]
/u/ у (C)V [u] [ʊ]
ю CʲV(C)
CʲVCʲ [ʉ] [ʉ̞]
* Reduced ⟨ё⟩ is written as ⟨е⟩.
† ⟨е⟩ is used in most loans (except if word-initial)
or after ц, ш, ж.

Russian vowels are subject to considerable allophony, subject to both stress and the palatalization of neighboring consonants. In most unstressed positions, in fact, only three phonemes are distinguished after hard consonants, and only two after soft consonants. Unstressed /o/ and /a/ have merged to /a/ (a phenomenon known as Russian: а́канье, tr. ákan'je); unstressed /i/ and /e/ have merged to /i/ (Russian: и́канье, tr. íkan'je); and all four unstressed vowels have merged after soft consonants, except in absolute final position in a word. None of these mergers are represented in writing.

Front vowels

When a preceding consonant is hard, /i/ is retracted to [ɨ]. Formant studies in Padgett (2001) demonstrate that [ɨ] is better characterized as slightly diphthongized from the velarization of the preceding consonant,[5] implying that a phonological pattern of using velarization to enhance perceptual distinctiveness between hard and soft consonants is strongest before /i/. When unstressed, /i/ becomes near-close; that is, [ɨ̞] following a hard consonant and [ɪ] in most other environments.[6] Between soft consonants, both stressed and unstressed /i/ are raised,[7] as in пить About this sound[pʲi̝tʲ]  ('to drink') and маленький About this sound[ˈmalʲɪ̝nʲkʲɪj] ('small'). When preceded and followed by coronal or dorsal consonants, [ɨ] is fronted to [ɨ̟].[8] After a cluster of a labial and /l/, [ɨ] is retracted, as in плыть About this sound[pɫɨ̠tʲ] ('to float'); it is also slightly diphthongized to [ɯ̟ɨ̟].[8]

In native words, /e/ only follows unpaired (i.e. the retroflexes and /t͡s/) and soft consonants. After soft consonants (but not before), it is a mid vowel [ɛ̝] (hereafter represented without the diacritic for simplicity), while a following soft consonant raises it to close-mid [e]. Another allophone, an open-mid [ɛ] occurs word-initially and between hard consonants.[9] Preceding hard consonants retract /e/ to [ɛ̠] and [e̠][10] so that жест ('gesture') and цель ('target') are pronounced About this sound[ʐɛ̠st] and About this sound[t͡se̠lʲ] respectively.

In words borrowed from other languages, /e/ rarely follows soft consonants; this foreign pronunciation often persists in Russian for many years until the word is more fully adopted into Russian.[11] For instance, шофёр (from French chauffeur) was pronounced About this sound[ʂoˈfɛr] in the early twentieth century,[12] but is now pronounced About this sound[ʂɐˈfʲɵr]. On the other hand, the pronunciations of words such as отель About this sound[ɐˈtɛlʲ] ('hotel') retain the hard consonants despite a long presence in the language.

Back vowels

Between soft consonants, /a/ becomes [æ],[13] as in пять About this sound[pʲætʲ]  ('five'). When not following a soft consonant, /a/ is retracted to [ɑ̟] before /l/ as in палка About this sound[ˈpɑ̟ɫkə] ('stick').[13]

For most speakers, /o/ is a mid vowel [], but it can be more open [ɔ] for some speakers.[14] Following a soft consonant, /o/ is centralized and raised to [ɵ] as in тётя About this sound[ˈtʲɵtʲə] ('aunt').[15][16]

As with the other back vowels, /u/ is centralized to [ʉ] between soft consonants, as in чуть About this sound[t͡ɕʉtʲ] ('narrowly'). When unstressed, /u/ becomes near-close; central [ʉ̞] between soft consonants, centralized back [ʊ] in other positions.[17]

Unstressed vowels

Russian unstressed vowels have lower intensity and lower energy. They are typically shorter than stressed vowels, and /a e o i/ in most unstressed positions tend to undergo mergers for most dialects:[18]

  • /o/ has merged with /a/: for instance, валы́ 'bulwarks' and волы́ 'oxen' are both pronounced /vaˈlɨ/, phonetically About this sound[vɐˈɫɨ].
  • /e/ has merged with /i/ (or /i/ and /ɨ/ if /ɨ/ is considered a phoneme): for instance, лиса́ (lisá) 'fox' and леса́ 'forests' are both pronounced /lʲiˈsa/, phonetically About this sound[lʲɪˈsa].[example needed]
  • /a o[clarification needed]/[19] have merged with /i/ after soft consonants: for instance, ме́сяц (mésjats) 'month' is pronounced /ˈmʲesʲit͡s/, phonetically About this sound[ˈmʲesʲɪt͡s].

The merger of unstressed /e/ and /i/ in particular is less universal in the pretonic (pre-accented) position than that of unstressed /o/ and /a/. For example, speakers of some rural dialects as well as the "Old Petersburgian" pronunciation may have the latter but not the former merger, distinguishing between лиса́ [lʲɪˈsa] and леса́ [lʲɘˈsa], but not between валы́ and волы́ (both [vɐˈɫɨ]). The distinction in some loanwords between unstressed /e/ and /i/, or /o/ and /a/ is codified in some pronunciation dictionaries (Avanesov (1985:663), Zarva (1993:15)), for example, фо́рте [ˈfortɛ] and ве́то [ˈvʲeto].

Unstressed /e/ is sometimes preserved word-finally, for example in second-person plural or formal verb forms with the ending -те, such as де́лаете ("you do") /ˈdʲeɫajitʲe/ (phonetically [ˈdʲeɫə(j)ɪtʲe]).[citation needed]

As a result, in most unstressed positions, only three vowel phonemes are distinguished after hard consonants (/u/, /a ~ o/, and /e ~ i/), and only two after soft consonants (/u/ and /a ~ o ~ e ~ i/). For the most part, Russian orthography (as opposed to that of closely related Belarusian) does not reflect vowel reduction. This can be seen in Russian не́бо (nébo) as against Belarusian не́ба (néba) "sky", both of which can be phonemically analyzed as /ˈnʲeba/.

Vowel mergers

In terms of actual pronunciation, there are at least two different levels of vowel reduction: vowels are less reduced when a syllable immediately precedes the stressed one, and more reduced in other positions.[20] This is particularly visible in the realization of unstressed /o/ and /a/, where a less-reduced allophone [ɐ] appears alongside a more-reduced allophone [ə].

The pronunciation of unstressed /o ~ a/ is as follows:

  1. [ɐ] (sometimes transcribed as [ʌ]; the former is phonetically correct for the standard Moscow pronunciation, whereas the latter is phonetically correct for the standard Saint Petersburg pronunciation;[21] this article uses only the symbol [ɐ]) appears in the following positions:
    • In the syllable immediately before the stress, when a hard consonant precedes:[22] паро́м About this sound[pɐˈrom]  ('ferry'), трава́ About this sound[trɐˈva] ('grass').
    • In absolute word-initial position.[23]
    • In hiatus, when the vowel occurs twice without a consonant between; this is written ⟨aa⟩, ⟨ao⟩, ⟨oa⟩, or ⟨oo⟩:[23] сообража́ть About this sound[sɐ.ɐbrɐˈʐatʲ] ('to use common sense, to reason').
  2. [ə] appears elsewhere, when a hard consonant precedes: о́блако About this sound[ˈobɫəkə] ('cloud').
  3. When a soft consonant or /j/ precedes, both /o/ and /a/ merge with /i/ and are pronounced as [ɪ]. Example: язы́к About this sound[jɪˈzɨk] 'tongue'). /o/ is written as ⟨e⟩ in these positions.
    • This merger also tends to occur after formerly soft consonants now pronounced hard (/ʐ/, /ʂ/, /t͡s/),[24] where the pronunciation [ɨ̞] (which after /t͡s/ can be even lower [ɘ])[25] occurs. This always occurs when the spelling uses the soft vowel variants, e.g. жена́ About this sound[ʐɨ̞ˈna]  ('wife'), with underlying /o/.[citation needed] However, it also occurs in a few word roots where the spelling writes a hard /a/.[26][27] Examples:
  4. These processes occur even across word boundaries as in под морем [pɐd‿ˈmorʲɪm] ('under the sea').

The pronunciation of unstressed /e ~ i/ is [ɪ] after soft consonants and /j/, and word-initially (эта́п About this sound[ɪˈtap] ('stage')), but [ɨ̞] after hard consonants (дыша́ть About this sound[dɨ̞ˈʂatʲ] ('to breathe')).

There are a number of exceptions to the above vowel-reduction rules:

  • Vowels may not merge in foreign borrowings,[28][29][30] particularly with unusual or recently borrowed words such as ра́дио, About this sound[ˈradʲɪ.o]  'radio'. In such words, unstressed /a/ may be pronounced as [ɐ], regardless of context; unstressed /e/ does not merge with /i/ in initial position or after vowels, so word pairs like эмигра́нт and иммигра́нт, or эмити́ровать and имити́ровать, differ in pronunciation.[citation needed]
  • Across certain word-final inflections, the reductions do not completely apply. For example, after soft or unpaired consonants, unstressed /a/, /e/ and /i/ of a final syllable may be distinguished from each other.[31][32] For example, жи́тели About this sound[ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲɪ] ('residents') contrasts with both (о) жи́теле About this sound[(ɐ) ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲɪ̞] ('[about] a resident') and жи́теля About this sound[ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲə] ('of a resident').
  • If the first vowel of ⟨oa⟩, or ⟨oo⟩ belongs to the conjunctions но ('but') or то ('then'), it is not reduced, even when unstressed.[33]
Other changes

Unstressed /u/ is generally pronounced as a lax (or near-close) [ʊ], e.g. мужчи́на About this sound[mʊˈɕːinə]  ('man'). Between soft consonants, it becomes centralized to [ʉ̞], as in юти́ться About this sound[jʉ̞ˈtʲit͡sə] ('to huddle').

Note a spelling irregularity in /s/ of the reflexive suffix -ся: with a preceding -т- in third-person present and a -ть- in infinitive, it is pronounced as [t͡sə], i.e. hard instead of with its soft counterpart, since [t͡s], normally spelled with ⟨ц⟩, is traditionally always hard. In other forms both pronunciations [sə] and [sʲə] alternate for a speaker with some usual form-dependent preferences: in the outdated dialects, reflexive imperative verbs (such as бо́йся, lit. "be afraid yourself") may be pronounced with [sə] instead of modern (and phonetically consistent) [sʲə].[34]

In weakly stressed positions, vowels may become voiceless between two voiceless consonants: вы́ставка About this sound[ˈvɨstə̥fkə] ('exhibition'), потому́ что About this sound[pə̥tɐˈmu ʂtə] ('because'). This may also happen in cases where only the following consonant is voiceless: че́реп About this sound[ˈt͡ɕerʲɪ̥p] ('skull').

Phonemic analysis

Because of mergers of different phonemes in unstressed position, the assignment of a particular phone to a phoneme requires phonological analysis. There have been different approaches to this problem:[35]

  • The Saint Petersburg phonology school assigns allophones to particular phonemes. For example, any [ɐ] is considered as a realization of /a/.
  • The Moscow phonology school uses an analysis with morphophonemes (морфоне́мы, singular морфоне́ма). It treats a given unstressed allophone as belonging to a particular morphophoneme depending on morphological alternations, or on etymology (which is often reflected in the spelling). For example, [ɐ] is analyzed as either |a| or |o|. To make a determination, one must seek out instances where an unstressed morpheme containing [ɐ] in one word is stressed in another word. Thus, because the word валы́ [vɐˈɫɨ] ('shafts') shows an alternation with вал [vaɫ] ('shaft'), this instance of [ɐ] belongs to the morphophoneme |a|. Meanwhile, волы́ [vɐˈɫɨ] ('oxen') alternates with вол [voɫ] ('ox'), showing that this instance of [ɐ] belongs to the morphophoneme |o|. If there are no alternations between stressed and unstressed syllables for a particular morpheme, then the assignment is based on etymology.
  • Some linguists[36] prefer to avoid making the decision. Their terminology includes strong vowel phonemes (the five) for stressed vowels plus several weak phonemes for unstressed vowels: thus, [ɐ] represents the weak phoneme /ɐ/, which contrasts with other weak phonemes, but not with strong ones.

Diphthongs

Russian diphthongs all end in a non-syllabic [i̯], an allophone of /j/ and the only semivowel in Russian. In all contexts other than after a vowel, /j/ is considered an approximant consonant. Phonological descriptions of /j/ may also classify it as a consonant even in the coda. In such descriptions, Russian has no diphthongs.

The first part of diphthongs are subject to the same allophony as their constituent vowels. Examples of words with diphthongs: яйцо́ About this sound[jɪjˈt͡so]  ('egg'), ей About this sound[jej] ('her' dat.), де́йственный About this sound[ˈdʲejstvʲɪnnɨj] ('effective'). /ij/, written ⟨-ий⟩ or ⟨-ый⟩, is a common inflexional affix of adjectives, participles, and nouns, where it is often unstressed; at normal conversational speed, such unstressed endings may be monophthongized to [ɪ̟].[37]