Did Russian use to be a tonal language?

I'm reading a book on how the Russian language has evolved (Päivi Saurio: Poimintoja venäjän kielen historiasta). At the very end there's a short mention of something rather interesting (my translation):

"In ancient Russian there used to be a word intonation – rising and descending. If the intonation was rising, o was pronounced closed, and if the intonation was descending it was pronounced wider. In modern Russian you can find this difference in different cases: кот – sg.G котá, дом – sg.G дóма. The same difference on intonation is also reflected in fully pronounced combinations* – the old rising intonation and the old closed o: ворóда, огорóд and the old descending intonation: вóрон, гóрод."

*täysääntymäyhtymissä (in Finnish)

What I find especially interesting in this is the correlation between the current word stress and the old intonation pattern. The stressed syllable seems to have been the one pronounced higher than the rest of the word (which seems to explain why the stressed syllable is pronounced longer and clearer and not necessarily more forcefully like it would in Finnish, for example).

Sadly that's all there is on the subject in this book, so if anyone knows more about it, I'd be really interested to hear! I'm on a mission to figure out some regularities on Russian word stress (the fastest way to get me to do something is to say it's impossible), and this might help :)

February 28, 2016


Hi there. I am a native speaker I am pretty sure Russian has never been a tonal language and thing you are talking about has nothing to do with tonal languages. It's just that the length of a vowel and the way it is pronounced meant something. the same like in English there are long and short, open and closed vowels, and you have to pronounce them properly to make sense, but it does not make English a tonal language. So I don;t think you'll be able to find anything useful if you searched for tonal Russian:). May I ask you to be more specific on what you are looking for about stress, and then maybe we can help you?

February 28, 2016

Thank you for your reply :) What I'm actually looking for is any rules on word stress in Russian. I see people say: "there's no rule, you just have to memorize it", and I hate to memorize stuff. I'd much rather understand the linguistic processes that have led to whatever it is I'm trying to learn (before this it was the noun gender in French – there's a rule for that). I was reading the book I mentioned more for general information on how Russian has evolved, and there were a lot of interesting things. This paragraph on intonation just took me by surprise, since like I said, the intonation patterns in old Russian seem to correlate with stress in the present day Russian. It doesn't sound like anything that would actually help me with coming up with a working rule, though :D Nevertheless, it's very interesting :)

February 28, 2016

I am a native speaker and it is very hard for me to understand old Russian.

though I can understand most of Ukrainian and Bulgarian without learning

February 28, 2016

I didn't even try to read the text samples in the book :D I'll save those for when I can put two words together to form a sentence :)

February 28, 2016

Say better "the ancient texts are hard to read". If it's written with modern letters, it's quite readable. I think that written Bulgarian is well understood by russians because of the same script. Polish may be closer I think but it's harder to recognize.

March 6, 2016

I'm a linguistics student, so I think it will help you to know the difference between tone and a tonal language. Tone is simply the pitch that you use when making sounds. All languages have tone, because everyone has to make some pitch when they talk. Most languages use tone to provide context, like how in english our pitch will rise at the end of a sentence to indicate a question. A Tonal language however is one where the tone affects the actual meaning of the word. Sometimes, however tone gets mixed in with tense, for example, I'm learning norwegian right now, and I read somewhere that the word for pronounce and pronunciation are spelled the same in Norwegian, but the difference in pronunciation includes the tone you use to say it. Russian might have been a tonal language in the way that norwegian is, and that tone could have shifted mostly to stress, but it never would have been a tonal language like chinese is where every sound has to be a specific tone to make sense to people. Hope this helps!

February 28, 2016

Yes I should have specified that I was thinking "tonal the way Swedish is", which has minimal pairs only differentiated by tone/stress, I suppose in the same way as in Norwegian. I never meant to compare it with Chinese :)

February 28, 2016

Good to know, sorry I couldn't tell you anything new. :)

February 28, 2016

This is called a pitch accent. Swedish has it as well, and it's very prominent in Japanese, which has no stress accent at all.

March 2, 2016

Try not to confuse "tone" and "intonation". Every language has "intonation", not every language has contrastive tone as in inherent feature of the lexicon.

February 28, 2016

I'm a native Norwegian, and it took me a moment to realize what you meant with your example. The verb "to pronounce" and the noun "pronunciation" are both written exactly the same: "Uttale".

However, as draquila correctly points out, this is due to what is called pitch accent, which separates between "grave" and "acute" accents. These words are called minimal pairs, and even though they're written the same, they're pronounced differently, depending on what you want to say.

Wikipedia naturally has a pretty good explanation for how this works in Norwegian and Swedish:

Sadly nothing for Russian. Only West South Slavic languages.

Just figured I'd chip in! This is an informative thread.

April 27, 2017

Wow, how did you find your way here after so much time! Thank you for bringing me back to this thread. I need to get back to figuring out this stress thing.

April 27, 2017

Oh, haha, I only just now realized that these messages were a year old! I thought I was contributing to an ongoing discussion. I probably read "1 year ago" as "1 hour ago".

April 27, 2017

It's cool. I'd forgotten most of the things said in this thread and now that I've actually finished the Russian tree and can even put two words together it was nice to reread it all.

April 27, 2017

Yes, English has 4 main tones, though they reflect feeling and intention rather than meaning per se. Tones: falling tone (usually for a statement), rising tone (a question), rise-fall (usually surprise) and fall-rise (usually to express doubt or skepticism) Questions don't always use a falling tone, I think. Usually one word in the sentence attracts the tone. I've often wondered how natural this is, and especially in other languages, and how to express the same feelings in a tonal language which relies on tone to capture the "dictionary' meaning for each word. I've been trying to learn Mandarin, and miss the ability to express a feeling through tone.

July 7, 2019

It's possible that by ancient Russian, they meant Proto-Slavic/Common Slavic, which did apparently retain the pitch accent of Proto-Indo-European. Now only the Southwest Slavic branch has this feature. By the time Old East Slavic emerged, the pitch accent had already been converted into the stress-based system of today.

Since the free, mobile stress pattern is coming from possibly as far back as PIE (which itself is reconstructed to have had unpredictable stress), I would be surprised if there were usable rules, which is a shame for us! If only Russian orthography would use accents.

February 28, 2016

According to Zaliznyak, there were once solid rules in Old East Slavic (a.k.a. древнерусский язык "the Ancient Rus-sian language"). In general, it worked as follows: each morpheme, including prepositions, knew if it "wants" to be stressed, wants a stress right after it or doesn't care. Apparently, the final stress was determined by the first morpheme that has to say something about stress. If all morphemes in the words are "weak" and do not care, the first syllable was stressed.

The modern system, however, is the result of the decay of the old stress rules, and is only on its way to stabilisation. Realistically, it will take another thousand years (or even more) for this collection of competing patterns and tricks to turn into a new stable system.

February 28, 2016

Thank you very much!

So the stress system is a mess because of the change in preferred syllable pattern (from closed syllables to open ones)? I kind of suspected that would be the case.

I'm not sure I understand your explanation, though. Would these articles be about the process? De l'accentuation protoslave à l’accentuation russe (Ot praslavjanskoj akcentuacii k russkoj). Lois de l'accentuation des monosyllabes masculins russes (1977).

The university library had nothing by Zaliznyak :(

February 28, 2016

Oh wow, thank you! A nice dose of etymology might just be enough of a "rule" for me, since I just love etymology :)

On the other hand, it might be possible to come up with rules that would serve Russian lerners even though they were not linguistically sound ones. As the language changes it's possible to start analyzing it in different ways – which practically means thinking of rules that weren't there before. I know it works with Finnish!

February 28, 2016

I agree, it's really interesting. It would be interesting to see how Lithuanian inherited the system from Proto-Baltic/Proto-Balto-Slavic compared to how the Slavic system is realized in Chakavian now...but that's a big undertaking! :) As for Russian itself, I'll be glad to know if you make any discoveries. :)

February 28, 2016


Однажды в Китае я услышала русскую речь. Вокруг много людей говорили по-китайки, но сквозь их голоса я услышала русский язык. Я пошла на звук русской речи и увидела источник звука. Я ошиблась, - это был буддистский монах, который монотонно читал длинную мантру.

Приблизительно так воспринимается русский язык в тональной языковой среде.


Once in China I heard Russian speech. There are a lot of people spoke Chinese, but through their voices I heard Russian language. I went to the sound of Russian speech and saw the source of the sound. I was wrong - it was the Buddhist monk, who monotonously recited a long mantra.

About the way Russian language is perceived in a tonal language environment.



Один корейский чиновник хорошо знал русский язык. Ему нравилось на открытии мероприятий говорить длинные речи. Но он неправильно ставил ударения в словах. Слушатели старательно пытались понять, что он говорит. Но это было невозможно. Из-за неправильных ударений терялся смысл речи. Переводчик тоже не мог помочь, потому что чиновник говорил по-русски.

Он хорошо знал русский язык, но неправильно ставил ударения. В диалогах проблем не было, потому что у русско-говорящего собеседника было время, чтобы в уме для себя перестроить фразу и понять смысл. А длинные монологи не понимал никто.


One Korean official knew the Russian language. He liked the opening events to speak long speeches. But he incorrectly put accents in words. The students diligently tried to understand what he said. But it was impossible. Due to the wrong accents caused the loss of the sense of speech. The interpreter also could not help, because the official spoke Russian.

He knew the Russian language, but incorrectly put the emphasis. In the dialogues was not a problem, because Russian-speaking interlocutor was in the mind to restructure the phrase and understand the meaning. But long monologues nobody understood.


March 3, 2016

It could have something similar to Norwegian, you stress the first syllable and then further stress the next syllable

February 28, 2016
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