Russian phonology

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This article discusses the phonological system of standard Russian based on the Moscow dialect (unless otherwise noted). For discussion of other dialects, 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 sets:

Russian has vowel reduction in unstressed syllables. This feature is found in English, but not in most other Slavic languages, such as Polish, Czech, and Serbo-Croatian.


Russian has five or six vowels in stressed syllables, /a e i o u/ and in some analyses /ɨ/, but only two or three vowels in unstressed syllables: /a i u/ after hard consonants and /i u/ after soft ones.

Front Central Back
Close i (ɨ) u
Mid e o
Open a

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.

Russian vowel chart by Jones & Trofimov (1923:55)

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 икать 'to produce the sound и' and ыкать '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 готов About this sound [ɡɐˈtof] ('ready' predicate, m.) and готовить 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]


A quick index of vowel pronunciation
Phoneme Letter
Position Stressed Reduced
/a/ а (C)V [ä], [ɑ] [ə], [ɐ]
я CʲVC [ä] [ɪ]
CʲVCʲ [æ]
/e/ э VC [ɛ]
е CʲVC [ɛ̝]
э, е† CVC [ɛ] [ɪ̈]
CVCʲ [e]
/i/ и (Cʲ)V [i] [ɪ]
/ɨ/ ы, и (C)V [ɨ] [ɪ̈]
/o/ о (C)V [ ~ ɔ] [ə], [ɐ]
ё* CʲV [ɵ] [ɪ]
/u/ у (C)V [u] [ʊ]
ю CʲV(C)
CʲVCʲ [ʉ] [ʊ̈]
* 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 /a/ and /o/ merge (a phenomenon known as Russian: а́канье, tr. ákan'je); unstressed /e/ and /i/ merge (Russian: и́канье, tr. íkan'je); and all four unstressed vowels merge after soft consonants, except in absolute final position in a word. None of these mergers are represented in writing.

Front vowels[edit]

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, [ɪ̈] 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 [plɨ̠tʲ] ('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[edit]

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 [ˈpɑ̟lkə] ('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 mid-centralized to close-mid central [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[edit]

Russian unstressed vowels have lower intensity and lower energy. They are typically shorter than stressed vowels and tend to merge:[18]

  • /o/ and /a/ merge in most unstressed positions: for instance, валы 'bulwarks' and волы 'oxen' are both pronounced About this sound [vɐˈlɨ] .
  • Likewise, /e/ and /i/ merge in most unstressed positions: for instance, лиса 'fox' and леса 'forests' are both pronounced About this sound [lʲɪˈsa].
  • All four merge in most unstressed positions after soft consonants.

These mergers do not occur in all dialects. The merger of unstressed /e/ and /i/ in particular is less universal than that of unstressed /o/ and /a/; for example, speakers near the border with Belarus have the latter but not the former merger, distinguishing between лиса́ ('fox') and леса́ ('forests'), прожива́ть ('to reside') and прожева́ть ('to chew'), etc. The distinction between unstressed /e/ and /i/ is codified in some pronunciation dictionaries (Avanesov (1985:663), Zarva (1993:15)).

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.

Vowel mergers[edit]

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.[19] This is particularly visible in the realization of unstressed /o/ and /a/, where a less-reduced allophone [ɐ] contrasts with 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;[20] this article uses only the symbol [ɐ]) appears in the following positions:
    • In the syllable immediately before the stress, when a hard consonant precedes:[21] паро́м About this sound [pɐˈrom]  ('ferry'), трава́ About this sound [trɐˈva] ('grass').
    • In absolute word-initial position.[22]
    • In hiatus, when the vowel occurs twice without a consonant between; this is written ⟨aa⟩, ⟨ao⟩, ⟨oa⟩, or ⟨oo⟩:[22] 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 [ˈobləkə] ('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/),[23] where the pronunciation [ɪ̈] (which after /t͡s/ can be even lower [ɘ])[24] occurs. This always occurs when the spelling uses the soft vowel variants, e.g. жена́ About this sound [ʐɪ̈ˈna]  ('wife'), with underlying /o/.[citation needed] However, it also occurs in a few word roots where the spelling writes a hard /a/.[25][26] 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 [ɪ̈] after hard consonants (дыша́ть About this sound [dɪ̈ˈʂatʲ] ('to breathe')).

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

  • Vowels may not merge in foreign borrowings,[27][28][29] 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.[30][31] For example, жи́тели About this sound [ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲɪ] ('residents') contrasts with both (о) жи́теле About this sound [(o) ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲɛ] ('[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.[32]
Other changes[edit]

Unstressed /u/ is generally pronounced as a lax (or near-close) [ʊ], e.g. мужчина About this sound [mʊˈɕːinə]  ('man'). Between soft consonants, it becomes centralized to [ʉ̞], as in ютиться 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.[33][clarification needed]

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

Phonemic analysis[edit]

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:[34]

  • 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 treats [ɐ] as either /a/ or /o/, depending on morphological alternations or etymology. To make a determination, one must seek out instances where an unstressed morpheme containing [ɐ] in one word is stressed in another word. Thus, if the word [vɐˈlɨ] ('shafts') shows an alternation with [val] ('shaft'), then this instance of [ɐ] is an allophone of /a/. Meanwhile, [vɐˈlɨ] ('oxen') alternates with [vol] ('ox'), showing that this instance of [ɐ] is an allophone of /o/. If there are no alternations between stressed and unstressed syllables for a particular morpheme, then the assignment is based on etymology.
  • Some linguists[35] 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.


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].[36]


ʲ⟩ denotes palatalization, meaning the center of the tongue is raised during and after the articulation of the consonant. Phonemes that have at different times been disputed are enclosed in parentheses.

Consonant phonemes
Labial Dental,
Palatal Velar
hard soft hard soft hard soft hard soft
Nasal m n
Stop voiced b d ɡ (ɡʲ)
voiceless p t k ()
Affricate t͡s (t͡sʲ) t͡ɕ
Fricative f s ʂ ɕː x ()
voiced v z ʐ (ʑː) (ɣ)
Approximant l j
Trill r
  • Most consonant phonemes come in hard–soft pairs (exceptions are listed below). There is a marked tendency of Russian hard consonants to be velarized, though this is a subject of some academic dispute.[37][38] Velarization is clearest before the front vowels /e/ and /i/.[39][40]
    • /ʐ/ and /ʂ/ are always hard in native words (even if spelling contains a "softening" letter after them, as in жена, шёлк, жить, мышь, жюри, парашют etc.), and for most speakers also in foreign proper names, mostly of French or Lithuanian origin (e.g. Гёльджюк [ˈɡʲɵlʲdʐʊk], Жён Африк [ˈʐon ɐˈfrʲik], Жюль Верн [ˈʐulʲ ˈvɛrn], Герхард Шюрер [ˈɡʲɛrxərt ˈʂurɨr], Шяуляй, Шяшувис).[41] Long phonemes /ʑː/ and /ɕː/ do not pattern in the same ways that other hard–soft pairs do.[citation needed]
    • /t͡s/ is generally listed among the always-hard consonants, however certain foreign proper names, including those of Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian, or German origin (e.g. Цюрупа, Пацюк, Цявловский, Цюрих), as well as loanwords (e.g., хуацяо, from Chinese) contain a soft [t͡sʲ].[42] The phonemicity of a soft /t͡sʲ/ is supported by neologisms that come from native word-building processes (e.g. фрицёнок, шпицята).[citation needed] However, according to Yanushevskaya & Bunčić (2015), /t͡s/ really is always hard, and realizing it as palatalized [t͡sʲ] is considered "emphatically non-standard", and occurs only in some regional accents.[43]
    • /t͡ɕ/ and /j/ are always soft.
    • /ɕː/ is also always soft. A formerly common pronunciation of /ɕ/+/t͡ɕ/[44] indicates the sound may be two underlying phonemes: /ʂ/ and /t͡ɕ/, thus /ɕː/ can be considered as a marginal phoneme. In today's most widespread pronunciation, [ɕt͡ɕ] appears (instead of [ɕː]) for orthographical -зч-/-сч- where ч- starts a words's root, and -з/-с belongs to a preposition or a "clearly distinguishable" prefix (e.g. без часов About this sound [bʲɪɕt͡ɕɪˈsof] , 'without a clock'; расчертить About this sound [rɐɕt͡ɕɪrˈtʲitʲ], 'to rule'); in all other cases /ɕː/ is used (щётка [ˈɕːɵtkə], грузчик [ˈɡruɕːɪk], переписчик [pʲɪrʲɪˈpʲiɕːɪk], счастье [ˈɕːæsʲtʲjə], мужчина [mʊˈɕːinə], исщипать [ɪɕːɪˈpatʲ], расщепить [rəɕːɪˈpʲitʲ] etc.)
    • The marginal[45] phoneme /ʑː/ is used only by speakers of the conservative Moscow accent, and is somewhat obsolete. The corresponding modern pronunciation is hard [ʐː].[46] This sound may derive from an underlying /zʐ/ or /sʐ/: заезжа́ть [zə(ɪ̯)ɪˈʑːætʲ]. In modern accent it can only be formed by assimilative voicing of [ɕː] (including across words): вещдо́к [vʲɪʑːˈdok]. For more information, see alveolo-palatal consonant and retroflex consonant.
  • /ʂ/ and /ʐ/ are somewhat concave apical postalveolar.[47] They may be described as retroflex, e.g. by Hamann (2004), but this is to indicate that they are not laminal nor palatalized; not to say that they are subapical.[48]
  • Hard /t, d, n/ are laminal denti-alveolar [t̪, d̪, n̪]; unlike in many other languages, /n/ does not become velar [ŋ] before velar consonants.[49]
  • Hard /l/ has been variously described as pharyngealized apical alveolar [l̺ˤ][50] and velarized laminal denti-alveolar [l̪ˠ].[38][51][52] Because of that, some scholars[53] transcribe it /ɫ/ even in phonemic transcription. This article uses /l/ for simplicity.
  • Hard /r/ is postalveolar, typically a trill [r̠].[54]
  • Soft /rʲ/ is an apical dental tap [ɾ̪ʲ] or, less often, an apical dental trill [r̪ʲ].[54]
  • Soft /tʲ, dʲ, nʲ/ are laminal alveolar [t̻ʲ, d̻ʲ, n̻ʲ]; as indicated in the transcription, in case of the first two the tongue is raised enough to produce slight frication.[55]
  • Soft /lʲ/ is either laminal alveolar [l̻ʲ] or laminal denti-alveolar [l̪ʲ].[50][56]
  • /t͡s, s, sʲ, z, zʲ/ are dental [t̪͡s̪, s̪, s̪ʲ, z̪, z̪ʲ],[57] i.e. dentalized laminal alveolar. They are pronounced with the blade of the tongue very close to the upper front teeth, with the tip of the tongue resting behind lower front teeth.
  • A marginal phoneme /ɣ/ occurs instead of /ɡ/ in certain interjections: ага, ого, угу, эге, о-го-го, э-ге-ге, гоп. (Thus, there exists a minimal pair of homographs: ага About this sound [ɐˈɣa]  'aha!' vs ага About this sound [ɐˈɡa] 'agha'). The same sound [ɣ] can be found in бухгалтер (spelled ⟨хг⟩, though in цейхгауз, ⟨хг⟩ is [x]), optionally in габитус and in a few other loanwords. Also optionally (and less frequently than a century ago) [ɣ] can be used instead of [ɡ] in certain religious words (a phenomenon influenced by Church Slavonic pronunciation): Бога, Богу... (declension forms of Бог 'God'), Господь 'Lord' (especially in the exclamation Господи! 'Oh Lord!'), благой 'good'.
  • Some linguists (like I. G. Dobrodomov and his school) postulate the existence of a phonemic glottal stop /ʔ/. This marginal phoneme can be found, for example, in the word не-а About this sound [ˈnʲeʔə] . Claimed minimal pairs for this phoneme include суженный About this sound [ˈsʔuʐɨnɨj] 'narrowed' (a participle from сузить 'to narrow', with prefix с- and root -уз-, cf. узкий 'narrow') vs суженый About this sound [ˈsuʐɨnɨj] 'betrothed' (originally a participle from судить 'to judge', now an adjective; the root is суд 'court') and с Аней About this sound [ˈsʔanʲɪj] 'with Ann' vs Саней About this sound [ˈsanʲɪj] '(by) Alex'.[58][59]

There is some dispute over the phonemicity of soft velar consonants. Typically, the soft–hard distinction is allophonic for velar consonants: they become soft before front vowels, as in короткий About this sound [kɐˈrotkʲɪj] ('short'), unless there is a word boundary, in which case they are hard (e.g. к Ивану About this sound [k ‿ɨvanu] 'to Ivan').[60] Hard variants occur everywhere else. Exceptions are represented mostly by:

  • Loanwords:
    • Soft: гёзы, гюрза́, гяу́р, секью́рити, кекс, кяри́з, са́нкхья, хянга́;
    • Hard: кок-сагы́з, гэ́льский, акы́н, кэб (кеб), хэ́ппенинг.
  • Proper nouns of foreign origin:
    • Soft: Алигье́ри, Гёте, Гю́нтер, Гянджа́, Джокьяка́рта, Кёнигсберг, Кюраса́о, Кя́хта, Хью́стон, Хёндэ, Хю́бнер, Пюхяя́рви;
    • Hard: Мангышла́к, Гэ́ри, Кызылку́м, Кэмп-Дэ́вид, Архы́з, Хуанхэ́.

The rare native examples are fairly new, as most them were coined in the last century:

  • Soft: forms of the verb ткать 'weave' (ткёшь, ткёт etc., and derivatives like соткёшься); догёнок/догята, герцогёнок/герцогята; and adverbial participles of the type берегя, стерегя, стригя, жгя, пекя, секя, ткя (it is disputed whether these are part of the standard language or just informal colloquialisms)[citation needed];
  • Hard: the name гэ of letter ⟨г⟩, acronyms and derived words (кагебешник, днепрогэсовский), a few interjections (гы, кыш, хэй), some onomatopoeic words (гыгыкать), and colloquial forms of certain patronyms: Олегыч, Маркыч, Аристархыч (where -ыч is a contraction of standard language's patronymical suffix -ович rather than a continuation of ancient -ич).

In the mid-twentieth century, a small number of reductionist approaches made by structuralists[61] put forth that palatalized consonants occur as the result of a phonological processes involving /j/ (or palatalization as a phoneme in itself), so that there were no underlying palatalized consonants.[62] Despite such proposals, linguists have long agreed that the underlying structure of Russian is closer to that of its acoustic properties, namely that soft consonants are separate phonemes in their own right.[63]

Phonological processes[edit]

Final devoicing[edit]

Voiced consonants (/b/, /bʲ/, /d/, /dʲ/ /ɡ/, /v/, /vʲ/, /z/, /zʲ/, /ʐ/, and /ʑː/) are devoiced word-finally unless the next word begins with a voiced obstruent.[64] /ɡ/, in addition to becoming voiceless, also lenites to [x] in some words, such as бог [ˈbox].[citation needed]


Russian features general regressive assimilation of voicing and palatalization.[65] In longer clusters, this means that multiple consonants may be soft despite their underlyingly (and orthographically) being hard.[66] The process of voicing assimilation applies across word-boundaries when there is no pause between words.[67] Within a morpheme, voicing is not distinctive before obstruents (except for /v/, and /vʲ/ when followed by a vowel or sonorant). The voicing or devoicing is determined by that of the final obstruent in the sequence:[68] просьба About this sound [ˈprozʲbə]  ('request'), водка About this sound [ˈvotkə] ('vodka'). In foreign borrowings, this isn't always the case for /f(ʲ)/, as in Адольф Гитлер About this sound [ɐˈdolʲf ˈɡʲitlʲɪr] ('Adolf Hitler') and граф болеет ('the count is ill'). /v/ and /vʲ/ are unusual in that they seem transparent to voicing assimilation; in the syllable onset, both voiced and voiceless consonants may appear before /v(ʲ)/:

When /v(ʲ)/ precedes and follows obstruents, the voicing of the cluster is governed by that of the final segment (per the rule above) so that voiceless obstruents that precede /v(ʲ)/ are voiced if /v(ʲ)/ is followed by a voiced obstruent (e.g. к вдове [ɡvdɐˈvʲɛ] 'to the widow') while a voiceless obstruent will devoice all segments (e.g. без впуска [bʲɪs ˈfpuskə] 'without an admission').[69]

/t͡ɕ/, /t͡s/, and /x/ have voiced allophones ([d͡ʑ], [d͡z] and [ɣ]) before voiced obstruents,[64][70] as in дочь бы About this sound [ˈdod͡ʑ bɨ][71] ('a daughter would') and плацдарм About this sound [plɐd͡zˈdarm] ('bridge-head').

Other than /mʲ/ and /nʲ/, nasals and liquids devoice between voiceless consonants or a voiceless consonant and a pause: контрфорс About this sound [ˌkontr̥ˈfors]) ('buttress').[72]


Before /j/, paired consonants are normally soft as in пью About this sound [pʲju]  'I drink' and пьеса About this sound [ˈpʲjɛsə] 'theatrical play'. However the last consonant of prefixes and parts of compound words generally remains hard in the standard language: отъезд About this sound [ɐˈtjest] 'departure', Минюст About this sound [ˌmʲiˈnjust] 'Min[istry of] Just[ice]'; and only when prefix ends in /s/ or /z/, there exists an optional softening: съездить About this sound [ˈs(ʲ)jezʲdʲɪtʲ] ('to travel').

Paired consonants preceding /e/ are also soft; although there are exceptions from loanwords, alternations across morpheme boundaries are the norm.[73] The following examples[74] show some of the morphological alternations between a hard consonant and its soft counterpart:

hard soft

Velar consonants are soft when preceding /i/; within words, this means that velar consonants are never followed by [ɨ].[75]

Before hard dental consonants, /r/, labial and dental consonants are hard: орла About this sound [ɐrˈla] ('eagle' gen. sg).

Assimilative palatalization[edit]

Paired consonants preceding another consonant often inherit softness from it. This phenomenon in literary language has complicated and evolving rules with many exceptions, depending on what these consonants are, in what morphemic position they meet and to what style of speech the word belongs. In old Moscow pronunciation, softening was more widespread and regular; nowadays some cases that were once normative have become low colloquial or archaic. In fact, consonants can be softened to very different extent, become semi-hard or semi-soft.

The more similar the consonants are, the more they tend to soften each other. Also, some consonants tend to be softened less, such as labials and /r/.

Softening is stronger inside the word root and between root and suffix; it is weaker between prefix and root and weak or absent between a preposition and the word following.[76]

  • Before soft dental consonants, /lʲ/ and often soft labial consonants, dental consonants (other than /t͡s/) are soft.
  • /x/ is assimilated to the palatalization of the following velar consonant: лёгких About this sound [ˈlʲɵxʲkʲɪx] ) ('lungs' gen. pl.).
  • Palatalization assimilation of labial consonants before labial consonants is in free variation with nonassimilation, that is бомбить ('to bomb') is either [bɐmˈbʲitʲ] or [bɐmʲˈbʲitʲ] depending on the individual speaker.
  • When hard /n/ precedes its soft equivalent, it is also soft and likely to form a single long sound (see gemination). This is slightly less common across affix boundaries.

In addition to this, dental fricatives conform to the place of articulation (not just the palatalization) of following postalveolars: с частью About this sound [ˈɕːæsʲtʲju]) ('with a part'). In careful speech, this does not occur across word boundaries.

Russian has the rare feature of nasals not typically being assimilated in place of articulation. Both /n/ and /nʲ/ appear before retroflex consonants: деньжонки About this sound [dʲɪnʲˈʐonkʲɪ]) ('money' (scornful)) and ханжой About this sound [xɐnˈʐoj]) ('sanctimonious one' instr.). In the same context, other coronal consonants are always hard.

Consonant clusters[edit]

As a Slavic language, Russian has fewer phonotactic restrictions on consonants than many other languages,[77] allowing for clusters that would be difficult for English speakers; this is especially so at the beginning of a syllable, where Russian speakers make no sonority distinctions between fricatives and stops.[78] These reduced restrictions begin at the morphological level; outside of two morphemes that contain clusters of four consonants: встрет-/встреч- 'meet' ([ˈfstrʲetʲ/ˈfstrʲet͡ɕ]), and чёрств-/черств- 'stale' ([ˈt͡ɕɵrstv]), native Russian morphemes have a maximum consonant cluster size of three:[79]

3-Segment clusters
Russian IPA/Audio Translation
CCL скрыва́ть 'to hide'
CCC* ствол 'tree trunk'
LCL верблю́д 'camel'
LCC то́лстый 'thick'

For speakers who pronounce [ɕt͡ɕ] instead of [ɕː], words like общий ('common') also constitute clusters of this type.

2-Segment clusters
Russian IPA/Audio Translation
CC кость 'bone'
LC смерть 'death'
CL слепо́й 'blind'
LL го́рло 'throat'
CJ статья́ 'article'
LJ рья́ный 'zealous'

If /j/ is considered a consonant in the coda position, then words like айва́ ('quince') contain semivowel+consonant clusters.

Affixation also creates consonant clusters. Some prefixes, the best known being вз-/вс- ([vz-]/[fs-]), produce long word-initial clusters when they attach to a morpheme beginning with consonant(s) (e.g. |fs|+ |pɨʂkɐ| → вспы́шка [ˈfspɨʂkɐ] 'flash'). However, the four-consonant limitation persists in the syllable onset.[80][81]

Clusters of three or more consonants are frequently simplified, usually through syncope of one of them,[82] especially in casual pronunciation.[83] Various cases of relaxed pronunciation in Russian can be seen here.

All word-initial four-consonant clusters begin with [vz] or [fs], followed by a stop (or, in the case of [x], a fricative), and a liquid:

4-Segment clusters
Russian IPA/Audio Translation
(ему) взбрело (в голову) '(he) took it (into his head)'
взгляд 'gaze'
взгромоздиться 'to perch'
вздрогнуть 'to flinch'
всклокоченный 'disheveled'
вскрыть 'to unseal'
всплеск 'splash'
вспрыгнуть 'to jump up'
встлеть 'to begin to smolder'
встречать 'to meet'
всхлип 'whimper'
всхрапывать 'to snort'

Because prepositions in Russian act like clitics,[84] the syntactic phrase composed of a preposition (most notably, the three that consist of just a single consonant: к, с, and в) and a following word constitutes a phonological word that acts like a single grammatical word.[85] For example, the phrase с друзья́ми ('with friends') is pronounced [zdrʊˈzʲjæmʲɪ]. In the syllable coda, suffixes that contain no vowels may increase the final consonant cluster of a syllable (e.g. Ноя́брьск 'city of Noyabrsk' |noˈjabrʲ|+ |sk| → [nɐˈjabrʲsk]), theoretically up to seven consonants: *мо́нстрств [ˈmonstrstf] ('of monsterships').[86] There is usually an audible release between these consecutive consonants at word boundaries, the major exception being clusters of homorganic consonants.[87]

Consonant cluster simplification in Russian includes degemination, syncope, dissimilation, and weak vowel insertion. For example, /sɕː/ is pronounced [ɕː], as in расще́лина ('cleft'). There are also a few isolated patterns of apparent cluster reduction (as evidenced by the mismatch between pronunciation and orthography) arguably the result of historical simplifications.[88] For example, dental stops are dropped between a dental continuant and a dental nasal or lateral: ле́стный [ˈlʲesnɨj] 'flattering'.[89] Other examples include:

/vstv/ > [stv] чу́вство 'feeling' [88]
/lnt͡s/ > [nt͡s] со́лнце 'sun' [88]
/rdt͡s/ > [rt͡s] се́рдце 'heart'
/rdt͡ɕ/ > [rt͡ɕ] сердчи́шко 'heart' (diminutive)
/ndsk/ > [nsk] шотла́ндский 'Scottish' [88]
/stsk/ > [sk] маркси́стский 'Marxist' [88]

The simplifications of consonant clusters are done selectively; bookish-style words and proper nouns are typically pronounced with all consonants even if they fit the pattern. For example, the word голла́ндка is pronounced in a simplified manner [ɡɐˈlankə] for the meaning of 'Dutch oven' (a popular type of oven in Russia) and in a full form [ɡɐˈlantkə] for 'Dutch woman' (a more exotic meaning).

In certain cases, this syncope produces homophones, e.g. ко́стный ('bony') and ко́сный ('rigid'), both are pronounced About this sound [ˈkosnɨj].

Another method of dealing with consonant clusters is inserting an epenthetic vowel (both in spelling and in pronunciation), ⟨о⟩, after most prepositions and prefixes that normally end in a consonant. This includes both historically motivated usage and cases of its modern extrapolations. There are no strict limits when the epenthetic ⟨о⟩ is obligatory, optional, or prohibited. One of the most typical cases of the epenthetic ⟨о⟩ is between a morpheme-final consonant and a cluster starting with the same or similar consonant (e.g. со среды́ 'from Wednesday' |s|+ |srʲɪˈdɨ| → [səsrʲɪˈdɨ], not *с среды; ототру́ 'I'll scrub' |ot|+ |ˈtru| → [ɐtɐˈtru], not *оттру).

Supplementary notes[edit]

There are numerous ways in which Russian spelling does not match pronunciation. The historical transformation of /ɡ/ into /v/ in genitive case endings and the word for 'him' is not reflected in the modern Russian orthography: the pronoun его [jɪˈvo] 'his/him', and the adjectival declension suffixes -ого and -его. Orthographic г represents /x/ in a handful of word roots: легк-/лёгк-/легч- 'easy' and мягк-/мягч- 'soft'. There are a handful of words in which consonants which have long since ceased to be pronounced even in careful pronunciation are still spelled, e.g., the 'l' in солнце [ˈsont͡sə] ('sun').

/n/ and /nʲ/ are the only consonants that can be geminated within morpheme boundaries. Such gemination does not occur in loanwords.

Between any vowel and /i/ (excluding instances across affix boundaries but including unstressed vowels that have merged with /i/), /j/ may be dropped: аист [ˈa.ɪst] ('stork') and делает [ˈdʲɛləɪt] ('does').[90] (Halle (1959) cites заезжать and other instances of intervening prefix and preposition boundaries as exceptions to this tendency.)

Stress in Russian may fall on any syllable and words can contrast based just on stress (e.g. мука [ˈmukə] 'ordeal, pain, anguish' vs. [mʊˈka] 'flour, meal, farina'); stress shifts can even occur within an inflexional paradigm: до́ма [ˈdomə] ('house' gen. sg.) vs дома́ [dɐˈma] ('houses'). The place of the stress in a word is determined by the interplay between the morphemes it contains, as some morphemes have underlying stress, while others do not. However, other than some compound words, such as морозоустойчивый [mɐˌrozəʊˈstojtɕɪvɨj] ('frost-resistant') only one syllable is stressed in a word.[91]

/ɨ/ velarizes hard consonants: ты About this sound [tˠɨ]  ('you' sing.). /o/ and /u/ velarize and labialize hard consonants and labialize soft consonants: бок About this sound [bˠʷok] ('side'), нёс About this sound [nʲʷɵs] ('(he) carried').[92]

Between a hard consonant and /o/, a slight [w] offglide occurs, most noticeably after labial, labio-dental and velar consonants (e.g. мок, 'side' [mˠwok]).[93] Similarly, a weak palatal offglide may occur between certain soft consonants and back vowels (e.g. ляжка 'thigh' [ˈlʲjaʂkə]).[94]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See, for example, Ozhegov (1953:10); Barkhudarov, Protchenko & Skvortsova (1987:9); Chew (2003:61). The traditional name of ⟨ы⟩, еры [jɪˈrɨ] yery; since 1961 this name has been replaced from the Russian school practice (compare the 7th and 8th editions of the standard textbook of Russian for 5th and 6th grades: Barkhudarov & Kryuchkov (1960:4), and Barkhudarov & Kryuchkov (1961:20).
  2. ^ a b Chew 2003, p. 61.
  3. ^ Chew 2003, p. 62.
  4. ^ See, for example, Shcherba (1950:15); Matijchenko (1950:40–41); Zemsky, Kryuchkov & Svetlayev (1971:63); Kuznetsov & Ryzhakov (2007:6)
  5. ^ Thus, /ɨ/ is pronounced something like [ɤ̯ɪ], with the first part sounding as an on-glide Padgett (2003b:321)
  6. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, pp. 37-38.
  7. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 31.
  8. ^ a b Jones & Ward 1969, p. 33.
  9. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, pp. 41-44.
  10. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 193.
  11. ^ Halle 1959, p. 63.
  12. ^ As in Igor Severyanin's poem, Сегодня не приду . . .
  13. ^ a b Jones & Ward 1969, p. 50.
  14. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 56.
  15. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 62.
  16. ^ Crosswhite 2000, p. 167.
  17. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, pp. 67-69.
  18. ^ Crosswhite 2000, p. 112.
  19. ^ Avanesov 1975, p. 105-106.
  20. ^ Yanushevskaya & Bunčić (2015:225)
  21. ^ Padgett & Tabain 2005, p. 16.
  22. ^ a b Jones & Ward 1969, p. 51.
  23. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 194.
  24. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 38.
  25. ^ Avanesov 1985, p. 663.
  26. ^ Zarva 1993, p. 13.
  27. ^ Avanesov 1985, p. 663-666.
  28. ^ Zarva 1993, p. 12-17.
  29. ^ Halle 1959.
  30. ^ Avanesov 1975, p. 121-125.
  31. ^ Avanesov 1985, p. 666.
  32. ^ Zarva 1983, p. 16.
  33. ^ Wade, Terence Leslie Brian (2010). A Comprehensive Russian Grammar (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. p. 10. ISBN 978-1-4051-3639-6. 
  34. ^ Avanesov 1975, p. 37-40.
  35. ^ e.g. Avanesov (1975)
  36. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 37.
  37. ^ Padgett 2001, p. 7.
  38. ^ a b Ashby (2011:133): "Note that though Russian has traditionally been described as having all consonants either palatalized or velarized, recent data suggests that the velarized gesture is only used with laterals giving a phonemic contrast between /lʲ/ and /ɫ/ (...)."
  39. ^ Padgett 2003b, p. 319.
  40. ^ Because of the acoustic properties of [u] and [i] that make velarization more noticeable before front vowels and palatalization before back vowels Padgett (2003b) argues that the contrast before /i/ is between velarized and plain consonants rather than plain and palatalized.
  41. ^ See dicionaries of Ageenko & Zarva (1993) and Borunova, Vorontsova & Yes'kova (1983).
  42. ^ The dictionary Агеенко & Зарва (1993) explicitly says that the nonpalatalized pronunciation /t͡s/ is an error in such cases.
  43. ^ Yanushevskaya & Bunčić (2015:223)
  44. ^ See Avanesov's pronunciation guide in Borunova, Vorontsova & Yes'kova (1983:669)
  45. ^ Padgett 2003a, p. 42.
  46. ^ Yanushevskaya & Bunčić (2015:224)
  47. ^ Hamann 2004, p. 64.
  48. ^ Hamann 2004, p. 56, "Summing up the articulatory criteria for retroflex fricatives, they are all articulated behind the alveolar ridge, show a sub-lingual cavity, are articulated with the tongue tip (though this is not always discernible in the x-ray tracings), and with a retracted and flat tongue body."
  49. ^ Jones & Ward (1969:99 and 160)
  50. ^ a b Koneczna & Zawadowski (1956:?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:187)
  51. ^ Jones & Ward (1969:167)
  52. ^ Mathiassen (1996:23)
  53. ^ For example Ashby (2011:133) and Krech et al. (2009).
  54. ^ a b Skalozub (1963:?); cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:221)
  55. ^ Jones & Ward (1969:104–105 and 162)
  56. ^ Jones & Ward (1969:172). This source mentions only the laminal alveolar realization.
  57. ^ Zygis (2003:181)
  58. ^ Dobrodomov & Izmest'eva 2002.
  59. ^ Dobrodomov & Izmest'eva 2009.
  60. ^ Padgett 2003a, pp. 44, 47.
  61. ^ Stankiewicz 1962, p. 131.
  62. ^ see Lightner (1972) and Bidwell (1962) for two examples.
  63. ^ See Stankiewicz (1962) and Folejewski (1962) for a criticism of Bidwell's approach specifically and the reductionist approach generally.
  64. ^ a b Halle 1959, p. 22.
  65. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 156.
  66. ^ Lightner 1972, p. 377.
  67. ^ Lightner 1972, p. 73.
  68. ^ Halle 1959, p. 31.
  69. ^ Lightner 1972, p. 75.
  70. ^ Chew (2003:67 and 103)
  71. ^ Lightner 1972, p. 82.
  72. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 190.
  73. ^ Padgett 2003a, p. 43.
  74. ^ Lightner 1972, pp. 9–11, 12–13.
  75. ^ Padgett 2003a, p. 39.
  76. ^ Аванесов, Р. И. (1984). Русское литературное произношение. М.: Просвещение. pp. 145–167. 
  77. ^ Davidson & Roon 2008, p. 138.
  78. ^ Rubach 2000, p. 53.
  79. ^ Halle 1959, p. 57.
  80. ^ Ostapenko 2005, p. 143.
  81. ^ Proctor 2006, p. 2, 126.
  82. ^ Cubberley 2002, p. 80.
  83. ^ Shapiro 1993, p. 11.
  84. ^ Rubach 2000, p. 51.
  85. ^ Bickel & Nichols 2007, p. 190.
  86. ^ Toporov 1971, p. 155.
  87. ^ Zsiga 2003, p. 403.
  88. ^ a b c d e Cubberley 2002, p. 82.
  89. ^ Halle 1959, p. 69.
  90. ^ Lightner 1972, p. 130.
  91. ^ Lightner 1972, p. 4.
  92. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, pp. 79-80.
  93. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. 79.
  94. ^ Jones & Ward 1969, p. ?.


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Further reading[edit]