Vowel reduction in Russian

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Vowel reduction in Russian differs in the standard language and dialects, which differ from one another. Several ways of vowel reduction (and its absence) are distinguished.

There are five vowel phonemes in Standard Russian. Vowels tend to merge when they are unstressed. The vowels /a/ and /o/ have the same unstressed allophones for a number of dialects and reduce to an unclear schwa. Unstressed /e/ may become more central if it does not merge with /i/.

Other types of reduction are phonetic, such as that of high vowels (/i/ and /u/), which become near-close so этап ('stage') is pronounced [ɨˈtap], and мужчина ('man') is pronounced [mʊˈɕːinə].

Russian orthography does not reflect vowel reduction, which can confuse foreign-language learners.

Back vowels[edit]

Other than in Northern Russian dialects[1] as well as those of Kostroma and Vologda, Russian speakers have a strong tendency to merge unstressed /a/ and /o/, called akanye (аканье). It contrasts with okanye (оканье) pronunciations. It works in Standard Russian as follows:

  • After hard (non-palatalised) consonants, standard phonological rules prescribe a two-level reduction. The stressed vowel is normally the longest and the only place (with certain exceptions) that the sound [o] is permitted. In the syllable immediately before the stress[2] and in absolute word-initial position,[3] both reduce to [ɐ] (sometimes also transcribed as [ʌ]). In all other locations, /a/ and /o/ are reduced further to a short [ə]:[4] паром [pɐˈrom] ('ferry'), облако [ˈobləkə] ('cloud'), трава [trɐˈva] ('grass'). In practice, the second reduction has a gradient character: if the vowel in question is pronounced for enough time (such as by hyperarticulation), it may be pronounced as [ɐ]. Shorter durations have the effect of gradually transforming [ɐ] into schwa. It has been argued recently that the change of sound quality during second-degree reduction is merely an artifact of duration-dependent "phonetic undershoot",[5][6] when the speaker intends to pronounce [ɐ], but the limited time reduces the likelihood of the tongue being able to arrive at the intended vowel target.[7]
  • In fast speech, reduction ultimately may result in the vowel being dropped altogether, with the preceding consonant slightly lengthened or turned into a syllabic consonant: сапоги [sːpɐˈɡʲi], vs. [səpɐˈɡʲi] ('boots'), потолок [pːtɐˈlok] ('ceiling'), десять [ˈdʲesʲtʲ] ('ten').[8]
  • When 〈аа〉, 〈ао〉, 〈оа〉, or 〈оо〉 is written in a word, it indicates [ɐ.ɐ] so соображать ('to realise') is pronounced [sɐ.ɐ.brɐˈʐatʲ].[3]
  • In prepositions, the processes occur even across word boundaries, as in под морем [pɐˈd‿morʲɪm] ('under the sea'), на обороте [nɐ.ɐbɐˈrotʲɪ] ('on the reverse side', 'overleaf'). It does not occur for other parts of speech.
  • Both /o/ and /a/ merge with /i/ after palatalised consonants and /j/ (/o/ is written as 〈е〉 in those positions). It occurs for /o/ after retroflex consonants as well.[9] Examples: жена [ʐɨ̞ˈna] ('wife'), язык [jɪˈzɨk] ('tongue').

Across certain word-final suffixes, the reductions do not completely apply.[10] In certain suffixes, after palatalised consonants and /j/, /a/ and /o/ (which is written as 〈е〉) can be distinguished from /i/ and from each other: по́ле [ˈpolʲɪ] ('field' nominative singular neuter) is different from по́ля [ˈpolʲə] ('field' singular genitive), and the final sounds differ from the realisation of /i/ in that position.[citation needed]

There are a number of exceptions to the above comments regarding the akanye:

  • /o/ is not always reduced in foreign borrowings:[10] радио [ˈradʲɪ.o] ('radio'). The common pattern for this exception is the final unstressed "о" being preceded by another vowel (Антонио, какао, стерео). Compare with моно, фото whose final unstressed "о" is reduced to [ə].[citation needed]
  • Speakers with old-Moscovian reflexes pronounce /a/ as /ɨ/ after retroflex consonants /ʐ/ and /ʂ/ (thereby mimicking the reduction of /o/); that pronunciation generally applies only to жалеть [ʐɨˈlʲetʲ] ('to regret'), к сожалению [ksəʐɨˈlʲenʲɪju] ('unfortunately'), and oblique cases of лошадь [ˈloʂətʲ] ('horse'), such as лошадей [lə.ʂɨˈdʲej].
  • /ɨ/ replaces /a/ after /t͡s/ in the oblique cases of some numerals: двадцать [ˈdvat͡sɨtʲ] ('twenty').

Front vowels[edit]

The main feature of front vowel reduction is ikanye (Иканье), the merger of unstressed /e/ with /i/. Because /i/ has several allophones (depending on both stress and proximity to palatalised consonants), unstressed /e/ is pronounced as one of these allophones and not actually as the close front unrounded vowel. For example, семена ('seeds') is pronounced [sʲɪmʲɪˈna], цена ('price') [t͡sɨ̞ˈna].

In registers without the merger (yekanye or еканье), unstressed /e/ is more retracted. Even then, however, the distinction between unstressed /e/ and unstressed /i/ is most clearly heard in the syllable just before the stress. Thus, придать ('to add to') contrasts with предать ('to betray'). The two are pronounced [prʲɪˈdatʲ] and [prʲe̠ˈdatʲ] respectively. Yekanye pronunciation is coupled with a stronger tendency for both unstressed /a/ and /o/ to be pronounced the same as /i/.

Speakers may switch between the two types of pronunciation because of various factors, the most important factor likely being speed of pronunciation.

Yakanye[edit]

Yakanye (яканье) is the pronunciation of unstressed /e/ and /a/ following palatalised consonants preceding a stressed syllable as /a/ rather than /i/ (несли is pronounced [nʲasˈlʲi], not [nʲɪsˈlʲi]).

The non-standard rural pronunciation is observed in most Southern Russian dialects, as expressed in a Russian quip (with liberal yakanye):

Orthography Standard pronunciation Yakanye pronunciation Translation
А у нас в Рязани [ə‿ʊ‿ˈnas v‿rʲɪˈzanʲɪ] [a w nəs wrʲaˈzanʲə] And we have in Ryazan
пироги с глазами. [pʲɪrɐˈɡʲɪ z‿ɡlɐˈzamʲɪ] [pʲaˈroɣʲɪ z ɣlaˈzamʲə] Pies with eyes:
Их едят, [ɪx jɪˈdʲat] [ɪxʲ jaˈdʲætʲ] While being eaten,
а они глядят. [ɐ‿ɐˈnʲi ɡlʲɪˈdʲat] [ə aˈnʲi ɣlʲaˈdʲætʲ] They stare at you.

The example also demonstrates other features of Southern dialects: palatalised final /t/ in the 3rd person forms of verbs, [ɣ] instead of [ɡ] and [w] instead of [u] (in some places) and [v].

Spelling[edit]

Vowel reduction makes some words have spellings that contradict their etymology, such as паром (instead of пором that was standard spelling before Ushakov's dictionary), каравай (instead of коровай, the standard spelling until the reform of 1956), свидетель (instead of сведетель, with a long history).

In the closely related Belarusian language, words are often pronounced the same way as in Russian, but their reduced pronunciation is reflected directly in the spelling such as in the name of the country itself: Белоруссия vs. Беларусь ('white Rus') has the final unstressed vowel in the prefix бел[о|а]- ('white') spelled 'о' in Russian but 'а' in Belarusian.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Hamilton, William S. (1980), Introduction to Russian Phonology and Word Structure, Slavica Publishers 
  • Sussex, Roland (1992), "Russian", in W. Bright, International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (1st ed.), New York: Oxford University Press 
  • Barnes, Jonathan (January 11, 2004), Vowel Reduction in Russian: The Categorical and the Gradient (PDF), Boston, MA 

External links[edit]

  • The Language of the Russian Village (A dialect atlas for use in Russian junior high school. Maps 12 and 13 shows the extent of vowel reduction in Russian dialects.) (Russian)