This article discusses the phonological system of standardRussian 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 (/tɕ ɕː/ and marginally or dialectically /ʑː/).
Russian vowel chart by Jones & Trofimov (1923:55). The symbol ⟨i̝⟩ stands for a positional variant of /i/ raised in comparison with the usual allophone of /i/, not a raised cardinal [i] which would result in a consonant.
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.
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 allophony of the stressed variant of the open /a/ is largely the same, yet no scholar considers [ä] and [æ] to be separate phonemes (which they are in e.g. Slovak).
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⟩.
Rare instances of word-initial [ɨ], including the minimal pair и́кать 'to produce the sound и' and ы́кать 'to produce the sound ы'), as well as borrowed names and toponyms, like Ыб[ɨp] (help·info), the name of a river and several villages in the Komi Republic.
Morphological alternations like гото́в[ɡʌˈtof] ('ready' predicate, m.) and гото́вить[ɡʌˈtovʲɪtʲ] ('to get ready' trans.) between palatalized and non-palatalized consonants.
The most popular view among linguists (and the one taken up in this article) is that of the Moscow school, though Russian pedagogy has typically taught that there are six vowels (the term phoneme is not used).
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.
"(C)" represents a hard consonant, a vowel, /j/, or an utterance boundary.
* Reduced ⟨ё⟩ is written as ⟨е⟩.
† ⟨е⟩ after a hard consonant is used mostly in loanwords (except if word-initial). ⟨э⟩ is always (C)V.
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 the absolute final position in a word. None of these mergers are represented in writing.
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, 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. Between soft consonants, stressed /i/ is raised, as in пить[pʲi̝tʲ] (help·info) ('to drink'). When preceded and followed by coronal or dorsal consonants, [ɨ] is fronted to [ɨ̟]. After a cluster of a labial and /ɫ/, [ɨ] is retracted, as in плыть[pɫɨ̠tʲ] ('to float'); it is also slightly diphthongized to [ɯ̟ɨ̟].
In native words, /e/ only follows unpaired (i.e. the retroflexes and /ts/) 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. Preceding hard consonants retract /e/ to [ɛ̠] and [e̠] so that жест ('gesture') and цель ('target') are pronounced [ʐɛ̠st] and [tse̠lʲ] respectively.
In words borrowed from other languages, /e/ often follows hard consonants; this foreign pronunciation usually persists in Russian for many years until the word is more fully adopted into Russian. For instance, шофёр (from French chauffeur) was pronounced [ʂoˈfɛr] in the early twentieth century, but is now pronounced [ʂʌˈfʲɵr]. On the other hand, the pronunciations of words such as отель[ʌˈtelʲ] ('hotel') retain the hard consonants despite a long presence in the language.
Between soft consonants, /a/ becomes [æ], as in пять[pʲætʲ] (help·info) ('five'). When not following a soft consonant, /a/ is retracted to [ɑ̟] before /ɫ/ as in палка[ˈpɑ̟ɫkə] ('stick').
As with the other back vowels, /u/ is centralized to [ʉ] between soft consonants, as in чуть[tɕʉtʲ] ('narrowly'). When unstressed, /u/ becomes near-close; central [ʉ̞] between soft consonants, centralized back [ʊ] in other positions.
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:
/o/ has merged with /a/: for instance, валы́ 'bulwarks' and волы́ 'oxen' are both pronounced /vaˈɫi/, phonetically [vʌˈɫɨ].
/e/ has merged with /i/: for instance, лиса́ (lisá) 'fox' and леса́ 'forests' are both pronounced /lʲiˈsa/, phonetically [lʲɪˈsa].[example needed]
/a/ and /o/ have merged with /i/ after soft consonants: for instance, ме́сяц (mésjats) 'month' is pronounced /ˈmʲesʲits/, phonetically [ˈmʲesʲɪts].
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 [vʌˈɫɨ]). 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 vowels (except /o/) are 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]). The same applies for vowels starting a word.
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 the closely relatedBelarusian) does not reflect vowel reduction. This can be seen in Russian не́бо (nébo) as opposed to Belarusian не́ба (néba) "sky", both of which can be phonemically analyzed as /ˈnʲeba/.
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. This is particularly visible in the realization of unstressed /o/ and /a/, where a less-reduced allophone [ʌ] appears alongside a more-reduced allophone [ə].
The pronunciation of unstressed /o ~ a/ is as follows:
[ʌ] (sometimes transcribed as [ɐ]; the latter is phonetically correct for the standard Moscow pronunciation, whereas the former is phonetically correct for the standard Saint Petersburg pronunciation; this article uses only the symbol [ʌ]) appears in the following positions:
In the syllable immediately before the stress, when a hard consonant precedes:паро́м[pʌˈrom] (help·info) ('ferry'), трава́[trʌˈva] ('grass').
In hiatus, when the vowel occurs twice without a consonant between; this is written ⟨aa⟩, ⟨ao⟩, ⟨oa⟩, or ⟨oo⟩:сообража́ть[sʌʌbrʌˈʐatʲ] ('to use common sense, to reason').
[ə] appears elsewhere, when a hard consonant precedes: о́блако[ˈobɫəkə] ('cloud').
In absolute word-final position, [ʌ] may occur instead, especially at the end of a syntagma.
When a soft consonant or /j/ precedes, both /o/ and /a/ merge with /i/ and are pronounced as [ɪ]. Example: язы́к[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/, /ts/), where the pronunciation [ɨ̞] occurs. This always occurs when the spelling uses the soft vowel variants, e.g. жена́[ʐɨ̞ˈna] (help·info) ('wife'), with underlying /o/. However, it also occurs in a few word roots where the spelling writes a hard /a/. Examples:
These processes occur even across word boundaries as in под морем[pʌd‿ˈmorʲɪm] ('under the sea').
The pronunciation of unstressed /e ~ i/ is [ɪ] after soft consonants and /j/, and word-initially (эта́п[ɪˈtap] ('stage')), but [ɨ̞] after hard consonants (дыша́ть[dɨ̞ˈʂatʲ] ('to breathe')).
There are a number of exceptions to the above vowel-reduction rules:
Vowels may not merge in foreign borrowings, particularly with unusual or recently borrowed words such as ра́дио, [ˈradʲɪo] (help·info) 'radio'. In such words, unstressed /a/ may be pronounced as [ʌ], 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.
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. For example, жи́тели[ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲɪ] ('residents') contrasts with both (о) жи́теле[(ʌ) ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲɪ̞] ('[about] a resident') and жи́теля[ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲə] ('(of) a resident'). Also, хо́дит[ˈxodʲɪt] ('he goes') and хо́дят[ˈxodʲət] ('they go').
If the first vowel of ⟨oa⟩, or ⟨oo⟩ belongs to the conjunctions но ('but') or то ('then'), it is not reduced, even when unstressed.
Unstressed /u/ is generally pronounced as a lax (or near-close) [ʊ], e.g. мужчи́на[mʊˈɕːinə] (help·info) ('man'). Between soft consonants, it becomes centralized to [ʉ̞], as in юти́ться[jʉ̞ˈtʲitsə] ('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 [tsə], i.e. hard instead of with its soft counterpart, since [ts], 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].
In weakly stressed positions, vowels may become voiceless between two voiceless consonants: вы́ставка[ˈvɨstə̥fkə] ('exhibition'), потому́ что[pə̥tʌˈmu ʂtə] ('because'). This may also happen in cases where only the following consonant is voiceless: че́реп[ˈtɕerʲɪ̥p] ('skull').
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:
The Saint Petersburg phonology school assigns allophones to particular phonemes. For example, any [ʌ] 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, [ʌ] is analyzed as either |a| or |o|. To make a determination, one must seek out instances where an unstressed morpheme containing [ʌ] in one word is stressed in another word. Thus, because the word валы́[vʌˈɫɨ] ('shafts') shows an alternation with вал[vaɫ] ('shaft'), this instance of [ʌ] belongs to the morphophoneme |a|. Meanwhile, волы́[vʌˈɫɨ] ('oxen') alternates with вол[voɫ] ('ox'), showing that this instance of [ʌ] 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 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, [ɪ] represents the weak phoneme /ɪ/, 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[jɪjˈtso] (help·info) ('egg'), ей[jej] ('her' dat.), де́йственный[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].
⟨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.
Most consonant phonemes come in hard–soft pairs, except for always-hard /ts, ʂ, ʐ/ and always-soft /tɕ, ɕː, j/ and formerly or marginally /ʑː/. There is a marked tendency of Russian hard consonants to be velarized or uvularized, though this is a subject of some academic dispute. Velarization is clearest before the front vowels /e/ and /i/, and with labial and velar consonants as well as the lateral. As with palatalization, it results in vowel colouring and diphthongisation when stressed, in particular with /i~ɨ/, realized approximately as [ɯi̯] or [ɤ̯ɪ]. Its function is to make the contrast between hard and soft consonants perceptually more salient, and the less salient the contrast is otherwise (such as labial consonants being universally the most resistant to palatalization), the higher the velarization degree.
/ʐ/ and /ʂ/ are always hard in native words (even if spelling contains a "softening" letter after them, as in жена, шёлк, жить, and мышь). A few loanwords are spelled with ⟨жю⟩ or ⟨шю⟩; authoritative pronunciation dictionaries prescribe hard pronunciation for some of them (e.g. брошюра, парашют, амбушюр, шюцкор) but soft for other ones (e.g. пшют, фишю); жюри may be pronounced either way. The letter combinations ⟨жю⟩, ⟨жя⟩, ⟨жё⟩, ⟨шю⟩, ⟨шя⟩, and ⟨шё⟩ also occur in foreign proper names, mostly of French or Lithuanian origin. Notable examples include Гёльджюк (Gölcük, Kocaeli), Жён Африк (Jeune Afrique, Жюль Верн (Jules Verne), Герхард Шюрер (Gerhard Schürer), Шяуляй (Šiauliai), and Шяшувис (Šešuvis). The dictionary of Ageenko & Zarva (1993) prescribes soft pronunciation in these names. However, since the cases of soft ⟨ж⟩ and ⟨ш⟩ are marginal and not universally pronounced as such, ⟨ж⟩ and ⟨ш⟩ are generally considered always-hard consonants, and the long phonemes /ʑː/ and /ɕː/ are not considered their soft counterparts, as they do not pattern in the same ways that other hard–soft pairs do.
/ts/ 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 [tsʲ]. The phonemicity of a soft /tsʲ/ is supported by neologisms that come from native word-building processes (e.g. фрицёнок, шпицята). However, according to Yanushevskaya & Bunčić (2015), /ts/ really is always hard, and realizing it as palatalized [tsʲ] is considered "emphatically non-standard", and occurs only in some regional accents.
/tɕ/ and /j/ are always soft.
/ɕː/ is also always soft. A formerly common pronunciation of /ɕ/+/tɕ/ indicates the sound may be two underlying phonemes: /ʂ/ and /tɕ/, thus /ɕː/ can be considered as a marginal phoneme. In today's most widespread pronunciation, [ɕtɕ] appears (instead of [ɕː]) for orthographical -зч-/-сч- where ч- starts the root of a word, and -з/-с belongs to a preposition or a "clearly distinguishable" prefix (e.g. без часо́в[bʲɪɕtɕɪˈsof] (help·info), 'without a clock'; расчерти́ть[rəɕtɕɪrˈtʲitʲ], 'to rule'); in all other cases /ɕː/ is used (щётка[ˈɕːɵtkə], гру́зчик[ˈɡruɕːɪk], перепи́счик[pʲɪrʲɪˈpʲiɕːɪk], сча́стье[ˈɕːæsʲtʲjə], мужчи́на[mʊˈɕːinə], исщипа́ть[ɪɕːɪˈpatʲ], расщепи́ть[rəɕːɪˈpʲitʲ] etc.)
The marginally phonemic sound [ʑː] is largely obsolete except in the more conservative standard accent of Moscow, in which it only occurs in a handful of words. Insofar as this soft pronunciation is lost, the corresponding hard [ʐː] replaces it. This sound may derive from an underlying /zʐ/ or /sʐ/: заезжа́ть[zə(ɪ̯)ɪˈʑːætʲ], modern [zə(ɪ̯)ɪˈʐːatʲ]. For most speakers, it can most commonly 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 concaveapical postalveolar. 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. They also tend to be at least slightly labialized, including when followed by unrounded vowels.
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.
Hard /ɫ/ has been variously described as pharyngealized apical alveolar [l̺ˤ] and velarized laminal denti-alveolar [l̪ˠ].
Hard /r/ is postalveolar, typically a trill [r̠].
Soft /rʲ/ is an apical dental trill [r̪ʲ], usually with only a single contact.
Soft /tʲ, dʲ, nʲ/ are laminal alveolar [t̻ʲsʲ, d̻ʲzʲ, n̻ʲ]. In the case of the first two, the tongue is raised just enough to produce slight frication as indicated in the transcription.
Soft /lʲ/ is either laminal alveolar [l̻ʲ] or laminal denti-alveolar [l̪ʲ].
/ts, s, sʲ, z, zʲ/ are dental [t̪s̪, s̪, s̪ʲ, z̪, z̪ʲ], 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 the lower front teeth.
The voiced /v, vʲ/ are often realized with weak friction [v̞, v̞ʲ] or even as approximants [ʋ, ʋʲ], particularly in spontaneous speech.
A marginal phoneme /ɣ/ occurs instead of /ɡ/ in certain interjections: ага́, ого́, угу́, эге, о-го-го́, э-ге-ге, гоп. (Thus, there exists a minimal pair of homographs: ага́[ʌˈɣa] (help·info) 'aha!' vs ага́[ʌˈɡa] 'agha'). The same sound [ɣ] can be found in бухга́лтер (spelled ⟨хг⟩, though in цейхга́уз, ⟨хг⟩ is [x]), optionally in га́битус 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): Бо́га[ˈboɣə], Бо́гу[ˈboɣʊ]... (declension forms of Бог[ˈbox] 'God'), Госпо́дь[ɣʌˈspotʲ] 'Lord' (especially in the exclamation Го́споди![ˈɣospədʲɪ] 'Oh Lord!'), благо́й[bɫʌˈɣɵj] '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 не́-а[ˈnʲeʔə] (help·info). Claimed minimal pairs for this phoneme include су́женный[ˈsʔuʐɨnɨj] 'narrowed' (a participle from су́зить 'to narrow', with prefix с- and root -уз-, cf. у́зкий 'narrow') vs су́женый[ˈsuʐɨnɨj] 'betrothed' (originally a participle from суди́ть 'to judge', now an adjective; the root is суд 'court') and с А́ней[ˈsʔanʲɪj] 'with Ann' vs Са́ней[ˈsanʲɪj] '(by) Alex'.
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 коро́ткий[kʌˈrotkʲɪj] ('short'), unless there is a word boundary, in which case they are hard (e.g. к Ива́ну[k‿ɨˈvanʊ] 'to Ivan'). Hard variants occur everywhere else. Exceptions are represented mostly by:
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);
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 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. 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.
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. In other words, their voiceless equivalent will be used (see table on the right).
рассказ (story, tale) sounds like расскас[rɐˈskas]
нож (knife) sounds like нош[noʂ]
Иванов (Ivanov) sounds like Иваноф[ɪvɐˈnof]; and so on.
Г also represents voiceless [x] word-finally in some words, such as бог[ˈbox]. This is related to the use of the marginal (or dialectal) phoneme /ɣ/ in some religious words (see Consonants).
Basically, when a voiced consonant comes before an voiceless one, its sound will shift to its voiceless equivalent (see table).
Example: Ложка (spoon) sounds like Лошка [ˈɫoʂkə].
That happens because ж is a voiced consonant, and it comes before the voiceless к.
The same logic applies when a voiceless consonant comes before a voiced one (except в). In this case, the sound of the former will change to its voiced equivalent.
Example: сделать (to do) sounds like зделать [ˈzʲdʲeɫətʲ].
Russian features general regressive assimilation of voicing and palatalization. In longer clusters, this means that multiple consonants may be soft despite their underlyingly (and orthographically) being hard. The process of voicing assimilation applies across word-boundaries when there is no pause between words.
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:просьба[ˈprozʲbə] (help·info) ('request'), водка[ˈvotkə] ('vodka'). In foreign borrowings, this isn't always the case for /f(ʲ)/, as in Адольф Гитлер[ʌˈdolʲf 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[ɡvdʌˈvʲe] 'to the widow') while a voiceless obstruent will devoice all segments (e.g. без впуска[bʲɪs ˈfpuskə] 'without an admission').
/tɕ/, /ts/, and /x/ have voiced allophones ([dʑ], [dz] and [ɣ]) before voiced obstruents, as in дочь бы[ˈdodʑ bɨ] ('a daughter would'), плацдарм[pɫʌdzˈdarm] ('bridge-head') and горох готов[ɡɐˈroɣ ɡɐˈtof] ('peas are ready').
Other than /mʲ/ and /nʲ/, nasals and liquids devoice between voiceless consonants or a voiceless consonant and a pause: контрфорс[ˌkontr̥ˈfors]) ('buttress').
Before /j/, paired consonants (that is, those that come in a hard-soft pair) are normally soft as in пью[pʲju] 'I drink' and бью[bʲju] 'I hit'. However, the last consonant of prefixes and parts of compound words generally remains hard in the standard language: отъезд[ʌˈtjest] 'departure', Минюст[ˌmʲiˈnjust] 'Min[istry of] Just[ice]'; when the prefix ends in /s/ or /z/ there may be an optional softening: съездить[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. The following examples show some of the morphological alternations between a hard consonant and its soft counterpart:
Velar consonants are soft when preceding /i/, and never occur before [ɨ] within a word.
Before hard dental consonants, /r/, labial and dental consonants are hard: орла[ʌrˈɫa] ('eagle' gen. sg).
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 differing extents, 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.
Before soft dental consonants, /lʲ/ and often soft labial consonants, dental consonants (other than /ts/) are soft.
/x/ is assimilated to the palatalization of the following velar consonant: лёгких[ˈlʲɵxʲkʲɪx] (help·info)) ('lungs' gen. pl.).
Palatalization assimilation of labial consonants before labial consonants is in free variation with nonassimilation, such that бомбить ('to bomb') is either [bʌmˈbʲitʲ] or [bʌmʲˈbʲitʲ] 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[ˈɕːæsʲtʲjʊ]) ('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[dʲɪnʲˈʐonkʲɪ]) ('money' (scornful)) and ханжой[xʌnˈʐoj]) ('sanctimonious one' instr.). In the same context, other coronal consonants are always hard.
Assimilative palatalization also occurs across word boundaries as in других гимназий[drʊˈɡʲiɣʲ ɡʲɪmˈnazʲɪj].
As a Slavic language, Russian has fewer phonotactic restrictions on consonants than many other languages, 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. These reduced restrictions begin at the morphological level; outside of two morphemes that contain clusters of four consonants: встрет-/встреч- 'meet' ([ˈfstrʲetʲ/ˈfstrʲetɕ]), and чёрств-/черств- 'stale' ([ˈtɕɵrstv]), native Russian morphemes have a maximum consonant cluster size of three:
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|+ |pɨʂkə| → вспы́шка[ˈfspɨʂkə] 'flash'). However, the four-consonant limitation persists in the syllable onset.
Clusters of three or more consonants are frequently simplified, usually through syncope of one of them, especially in casual pronunciation. 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:
(ему) взбрело (в голову)
'(he) took it (into his head)'
'to jump up'
'to begin to smolder'
Because prepositions in Russian act like clitics, 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. This can create a 4-consonant onset cluster not starting in [vz] or [fs]; for example, the phrase в мгнове́ние ('in an instant') is pronounced vmɡnɐˈvʲenʲɪje.
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| → [nʌˈjabrʲsk]), theoretically up to seven consonants: *мо́нстрств[ˈmonstrstf] ('of monsterships'). There is usually an audible release of plosives between these consecutive consonants at word boundaries, the major exception being clusters of homorganic consonants.
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. For example, dentalstops are dropped between a dental continuant and a dental nasal or lateral: ле́стный[ˈlʲesnɨj] 'flattering'. Other examples include:
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 [ɡʌˈɫankə] for the meaning of 'Dutch oven' (a popular type of oven in Russia) and in a full form [ɡʌˈɫantkə] for 'Dutch woman' (a more exotic meaning).
In certain cases, this syncope produces homophones, e.g. ко́стный ('bony') and ко́сный ('rigid'), both are pronounced [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| → [ʌtʌˈtru], not *оттру).
Stress in Russian is phonemic and therefore unpredictable. It may fall on any syllable, and can vary drastically in similar or related words. For example, in the following table, in the numbers 50 and 60, the stress moves to the last syllable, despite having a structure similar to, say, 70 and 80:
Words can also contrast based just on stress (e.g. му́ка[ˈmukə] 'ordeal, pain, anguish' vs. мука́[mʊˈka] 'flour, meal, farina'). Stress shifts can even occur within an inflexional paradigm: до́ма[ˈdomə] ('house' gen. sg., or 'at home') vs дома́[dʌˈma] ('houses'). The place of the stress in a word is determined by the interplay between the morphemes it contains, as morphemes may be obligatorily stressed, obligatorily unstressed, or variably stressed.
Generally, only one syllable in a word is stressed; this rule, however, does not extend to most compound words, such as моро́зоусто́йчивый[mʌˌrozəʊˈstojtɕɪvɨj] ('frost-resistant'), which have multiple stresses, with the last of them being primary.
Phonologically, stressed syllables are mostly realised not only by the lack of aforementioned vowel reduction, but also by a somewhat longer duration than unstressed syllables. More intense pronunciation is also a relevant cue, although this quality may merge with prosodical intensity. Pitch accent has only a minimal role in indicating stress, mostly due to its prosodical importance, which may prove a difficulty for Russians identifying stressed syllables in more pitched languages.
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[ˈsontsɨ] ('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[ˈdʲeɫəɪt] ('does'). (Halle (1959) cites заезжать and other instances of intervening prefix and preposition boundaries as exceptions to this tendency.)
/i/velarizes hard consonants: ты[tˠɨ] (help·info) ('you' sing.). /o/ and /u/ velarize and labialize hard consonants and labialize soft consonants: бок[bˠʷok] ('side'), нёс[nʲʷɵs] ('(he) carried')./o/ is a diphthong [ʊ̯o] or even a triphthong [ʊ̯ɔʌ̯], with a closer lip rounding at the beginning of the vowel that gets progressively weaker, particularly when occurring word-initially or word-finally under stress.
A weak palatal offglide may occur between certain soft consonants and back vowels (e.g. ляжка 'thigh' [ˈlʲi̯aʂkə]).
^/o/ has merged with /i/ if words such as тепло́/tʲiˈpɫo/ 'heat' are analyzed as having the same morphophonemes as related words such as тёплый/ˈtʲopɫij/ 'warm', meaning that both of them have the stem |tʲopl-|. Alternatively, they can be analyzed as having two different morphophonemes, |o| and |e|: |tʲopɫ-| vs. |tʲepɫ-| (compare те́плиться[ˈtʲeplʲɪt͡sə] 'to glimmer, to gleam'). In that analysis, |o| does not occur in тепло́, so |o| does not merge with |i|. Historically, the |o| developed from |e|: see History of the Russian language § The yo vowel.
^ abcdRussian language course "Russo Sem Mestre" (Portugese for Russian without Master), by Custódio Gomes Sobrinho
^ abAshby (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/ (...)."
^ 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.
^Ageenko & Zarva (1993) and Borunova, Vorontsova & Yes'kova (1983) prescribe the soft pronunciation, the more recent «Словарь трудностей русского произношения» (М. Л. Каленчук, Р. Ф. Касаткина, 2001) states the hard pronunciation as the main variant and the soft pronunciation as admissible but obsolescent.
^The dictionary Ageenko & Zarva (1993) explicitly says that the nonpalatalized pronunciation /ts/ is an error in such cases.
^Yanushevskaya & Bunčić (2015:224) "The /ʃʲː/ consonant has no voiced counterpart in the system of phonemes. However, in conservative Moscow standard and only in a handful of lexical items the combination /ʒʒ/ may be pronounced with palatalisation, e.g. drožži 'yeast' as [ˈd̪rʊoˑʒʲːɪ] instead of [ˈd̪rʊɔˑʒːɨ], although this realisation is now also somewhat obsolete."}}
^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."
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