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Struggling with Russian Phonology

Hi, can somebody explain or give some tips on Russian phonology Palatazation Vowel reduction and Stress. So hard TT_TT

November 10, 2015


[deactivated user]

    About palatisation. Most consonants have a "hard" and "soft" (palatised) version. In IPA transcription, we mark it /ʲ/. In Cyrillic transcription, we mark it with a prime or an apostrophe: [’].

    The letters А, О, У, Ы, Э show that the previous consonant is hard (not palatised):

    • ла /la/~[ла],
    • ло /lo/~[ло],
    • лу /lu/~[лу],
    • лы /lɨ/~[лы],
    • лэ /le/~[лэ].

    The letters Е, Ё, И, Ю, Я (when used after consonants) show that the previous consonant is soft:

    • ле /lʲe/~[л’э],
    • лё /lʲo/~[л’о],
    • ли /lʲi/~[л’и],
    • лю /lʲu/~[л’у],
    • ля /lʲa/~[л’а].

    When used in the beginning of the word or after vowels, Е, Ё, Ю, Я mark combinations of j with the correpsonding vowel: е /je/, ё /jo/, ю /ju/, я /ja/. J used to be called called «yot» in Russian, so we call Е, Ё, Ю, Я yotified vowel letters.

    (N.B. This is about phonology. Pronetically, after palatised consonants and j, the vowels sound a bit differently. After soft vowels, /a/, /o/, /u/ become closer to [æ], [œ], [y]. This is not marked in transcription, because it's not a phonological distinction: it depends on the consonants. However, if your native language distinguishes a~ä, o~ö, u~ü, you might think of я, ё, ю as representing (j)ä, (j)ö, (j)ü. Not sure if this helps?)


    To mark softness of a consonant not followed by a vowel, we use a soft sign: Ь. So, ль is /lʲ/~[л’].

    It used to have a pair, ъ (hard sign). But most hard signs were dropped in 1917 (before this, we used to write столъ instead of стол), so hardness is assumed by default. Nowadays the hard sign (ъ) is written only in rare cases of hard consonant + j + vowel (дъе /dje/~[дје], дъё /djo/~[дјо], дъю /dju/~[дју], дъя /dja/~[дја]). However, in my practice, they're usually assimilated in normal speech (дъе sounds /dʲje/, as if written дье), except the very careful slow speech. So you can just treat Ъ as a variant of Ь. (Although some people would disagree.)

    When several consonants come together, previous consonants may or may not be assimilated depending on the consonants involved, dialect and speed of the speech. For example, Л usually doesn't assimilate other consonants (С in след remains hard: /slʲet/~[сл’э́т]), but Т does (С in стена is usually soft: /sʲtʲɪ'na/~[с’т’иᵉна́]). In general, softness of non-last consonant in a consonant cluster can vary, so it's not very important.

    Some consonants are always hard: ж /ʐ/~[ж], ш [ʂ]~[ш], ц [ts]~[ц]. Some consonants are always soft: ч /tʃ/~[ч], щ /ʃ:/~[ш̄’]. When consonant is always soft or always hard, the letter to be used (а/я, е/э, и/ы, о/ё, у/ю) is determined by the tradition.

    /j/~[j] is considered a soft consonant, even though it's not technically palatised, it's palatal.

    Sorry, I can't really make it clearer, but please ask questions about what's unclear! I'll write about the reduction later.


    On "tradition": tradition is also, I believe, the source for the -шь ending for "ты", which would otherwise be nonsensical since ш can never be soft in modern Russian.


    This deserves its own post. Even, a sticky.

    [deactivated user]

      Stress. Usually every word has a stressed syllable. Stressed syllable is pronounced more carefully, longer and louder.

      In IPA transcription, we usually mark stress with the ' mark before syllable: /mɐ'ʂɨnə/. In Cyrillic transcription (and in Cyrillic writing in general), we mark stress with acute accent: маши́на [мʌшы́нъ].

      Itʼs impossible to tell which syllable will get stress. You have to learn stress for every word (and sometimes for each form, because different cases and different verb forms may move stress).

      There is a tool to insert stress into Russian text: http://easypronunciation.com/en/add-stress-marks-to-russian-text — however, it's not completely automatic. It cannot be completely automatic, because sometimes stress depends on the meaning (за́мок /'zamək/~[за́мък] 'castle' — замо́к /zɐ'mok/~[зʌмо́к] 'lock'; уже́ /u'ʐe/~[ужэ́] 'already' — у́же /'uʐə/~[у́жъ] 'narrower') and computers cannot understand the meaning of the text... yet.

      While we don't usually mark the stress if a word has just one syllable, this is actually ambiguous, because sometimes words have no stress at all. Usually prepositions and different grammar particles don't have stress.

      When a word is composed of 2 roots, it may have a secondary stress. In IPA, we mark it with a ˌ sign before the syllable: /ˌslogədʲɪ'lʲenʲijɪ/. In Cyrillic, it's marked by grave accent: слòгоделéние [слòгъдʼиᵉлʼéнʼьjь]. For all practical reasons, it's same as the main stress.

      N. B. If a word in a dictionary has two acute signs, it usually means the stress is variable and can fall on either syllable.


      Vowel reduction.

      Vowel reduction depends on the dialect. Basically, thereʼs only one reduction that is required: unstressed /o/ sounds as /a/. Without it, you will sound wrong. Not reducing other vowels won't make you sound wrong: in fact, it will be a careful pronounciation.

      Also, vowel reduction happens in fast speech. In slow speech, less reduction happens. So if you speak slowly, you may want to ignore the vowel reduction (except /o/—/a/ merging)! Reduction sounds OK in fast speech. If you reduce too much in slow speech, you won't sound natural. So you might want to read what's written.


      But if you want a description, here it is.

      The description below is what expected to happen in Standard Russian. Even here in Belarus it's not 100% same as in the description below.

      There are 3 stages of reduction.

      \1. Stressed syllables have the no reduction. All vowels are pronounced clearly.

      \2. Partial reduction happens:

      • before a stressed syllable,
      • in first syllables of the word,
      • and sometimes the word endings.

      In partially reduced syllables, the following phonemes merge:

      • /o/~[о] and /а/~[а] are pronounced in the same way (written /ɐ/~[ʌ]),
      • /e/~[э] and /i/~[и] are pronounced in the same way (written /ɪ/~[иᵉ]).

      \3. Maximum degree of reduction is in all the other syllables. In these syllables, only 3 vowels are distinguished:

      • /u/ (because it has a lip rounding that distinguishes it from other phonemes),
      • after j and soft consonants, all vowels except /u/~[у] become /ɪ/~[ь],
      • after hard consonants, after vowels and in the beginning of the word, all the vowels except /u/~[у] become /ə/~[ъ].

      N. B. In Cyrillic transcription, [ъ] and [ь] are very short vowels.

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