"Why isn't Vera answering?"
Translation:Почему Вера не отвечает?
If pronounced with a neutral intonation, your question means "Someone answers but it's not Vera. Why not Vera?". If, however, you emphasize "не отвечает" by a big pitch fall on ча-, your question will imply that you are a bit annoyed with Vera because whaterver she is doing at the moment, she doesn't deign to give you an answer.
My translation hints say that почему denotes cause, as in "what causes Vera to not answer?" whereas зачем denotes purpose, as in "what does Vera wish to achieve by not answering?". And while the latter is a possible way to interpret "why doesn't Vera answer?", the first interpretation is far more likely.
I just realized that «почему» is a great example of how stress affects vowel sounds:
• stressed о is like english "oh", but here it's an unstressed "ah" • unstressed е is like "ye" but here it's a stressed ē • stressed у is like "oo" but here it's an unstressed "oh"
Like many learners of Russian, from the beginning I understood the language to be very phonetic; this clearly is not the case! Any other good examples?
When under stress, Russian vowels are pronounced as follows:
"а" is pronounced like 'u' in 'ugly' or 'a' in 'father', e.g. пара (= pair, couple) is pronounced 'pah-ruh'; the letter "я" when it follows a consononant denotes the same sound as "a" plus serves as a palatalization marker for the preceding consonant - the words рад(=glad) and ряд(=row), therefore, only differ in the pronunciation of "р", the former being close to 'rut', the latter to 'ryut'. In the opening position, after a vowel or after ь or ъ "я" sounds like "yu" in "yummy", e.g. ясный(=сlear) 'yuss-nyy', яд(=poison) 'yut', каяк (=kayak) 'kuh-yuck'), дьяк (=a clerk in mideval Russia) 'dyuck'
"е" following a consonant and "э" are pronounced like 'e' in 'egg' or 'a' in the American version of 'cat'; otherwise "е" is pronounced like 'ye' in 'yes', e.g. если(=if) 'yeslee', подъезд (=a section in a block of apartments) 'pud-yest', это (=it, that, this) 'ettuh', поэт(=poet) 'puh-et'
"и" is pronounced like 'ee' in 'peek' or 'ea' in 'eagle';
"o" is prunounced like 'o' in 'boy' or 'or' or like 'a' in 'fall'. It is much more rounded than 'o' in 'dog' or 'aw' pronounced by an American and is very close to 'awe' pronounced by a Brit. "ё", which is always stressed, differs from "o" the same way as "я" differs from "a" or "е" differes from "э". Examples: ёлка (=fir tree, christmas tree) 'yole-kuh', поёт (=sings, is singing) 'puh-yote'
"у" sounds close to "oo" in "wood''. Make sure you always protrude your lips when pronouncing the Russian stressed "y" - more than you do, say, in 'moor'. The protrusion is not as extreme as it is in the French 'ou' in 'toujours', but quite close. "ю" is the same to "y" as "я" to "a".
"ы" is historically a diphthong, a combination of shwa and 'ee' sound'. Try saying "papa eats pasta" reducing the second 'a' in 'papa' as much as you can. The vowel you'll get after the second 'p' will be very close to Russian "ы" in, say, попытка (=attempt).
Russian vowels are known to have two degrees of 'reduction' or weakening of articulation.
The first degree of reduction occurs in the syllable which precedes the stressed one and in any opening unstressed syllable which starts with a vowel. In that position, "а" and "o" are both pronounced as "uh" in "uh-huh" or "u" in "update". Examples: aрбу́з (=watermelon) ‘ar-boos’, пото́к (=stream, flow) ‘puh-talk’, отвеча́й (=answer, respond) ‘ut-vitch-eye’, оси́на (=aspen tree) ‘uh-see-nuh’. "и", "э", "е" and "я" all sound close to 'i' in 'spit up' in the words пита́ние (=nutrition, diet), эта́п (=stage, phase), пята́к (=a five-kopeck coin or a snout of a pig) and пета́рда (=petard). "у" and "ы" are only slightly weaker than their stressed stressed versions.
The second degree of reduction occurs in all unstressed syllables except the one that immediately precedes the stressed syllable. The only exception is the opening syllable starting with a vowel, in which case we are dealing with the first degree reduction. At the second stage of reduction all vowels except "y" (represented by either "y" or "ю") turn into shwa or a sound similar to 'i' in 'bullit'. "у" becomes close to "u" in "full". In the sentence given for translation (Почему́ Ве́ра не отвеча́ет?), there are 4 vowels reduced to the second stage. They are represented by 'o' in 'почему', 'a' in "Вера", 'е' in 'не' and the second 'e' in "отвечает". In the 2nd degree reduction positions "а" and "o" can often be safely omitted in pronounciation and vowels represented by "и", "е" and "я" can be reduced to "й"; in other words, if you say, "Пчиму́ Ве́р нитвича́йт", it will still sound like a meaningful sentence.