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Vowel reduction in Russian

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Vowel reduction in Russian differs in the standard language and in dialects. Several ways of reduction (and its absence) are distinguished.

There are five vowel phonemes in Standard Russian. Vowels tend to merge together when they areunstressed. 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 that этап ('stage') is pronounced [ɪˈtap] and мужчина ('man') is [mʊˈɕːinə].

Russian orthography does not reflect vowel reduction and this can cause confusion for beginning students of Russian.

Back vowels

Other than in Northern Russian dialects as well as those of Kaluga, Kostroma and Vologda, Russian speakers have a strong tendency to merge unstressed /a/ and /o/. This is called akanye (аканье) and contrasts with okanye (оканье) pronunciations. The way this works in Standard Russian goes as follows:

  • After hard (non-palatalized) consonants, both reduce to [ə] or [ɐ]; [ɐ] appears in the syllable immediately before the stress and in absolute word-initial position. Examples: паром [pɐˈrom] ('ferry'), облако [ˈobləkə] ('cloud'), трава [trɐˈva] ('grass').
    • When ‹аа›, ‹ао›, ‹оа›, or ‹оо› is written in a word, it indicates [ɐ.ɐ] so that соображать ('to deliberate') is pronounced [sɐ.ɐ.brɐˈʐatʲ].
    • In prepositions, these processes occur even across word boundaries, as in под морем [pɐˈd‿morʲɪm] ('under the sea'), на обороте[nɐ.ɐbɐˈrotʲɪ] ('on the reverse side', 'overleaf'). This does not occur in other parts of speech.
  • Both /o/ and /a/ merge with /i/ after palatalized consonants and /j/ (/o/ is written as ‹е› in these positions). This occurs for /o/ after retroflex consonants as well. Examples: жена [ʐɨ̞ˈna] ('wife'), язык [jɪˈzɨk] ('tongue').

Across certain word-final suffixes, the reductions do not completely apply. In certain suffixes, after palatalized consonants and /j/, /a/ and/o/ (which is written as ‹е›) can be distinguished from /i/ and from each other: по́ле ('field' nom. sg. neut.) is different from по́ля ('field' sg. gen.), and these final sounds differ from the realization of /i/ in such position.

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

  • Firstly, /o/ is not always reduced in foreign borrowings, eg радио, [ˈra.dʲɪ.o] ('radio'), the common pattern for this exception is: final unstressed "о" preceded by a another vowel (e.g. Антонио, какао, стерео), compare with моно, фото, where the final unstressed "о" is reduced to [ə].
  • Secondly, some speakers pronounce /a/ as /i/ after retroflex consonants /ʐ/ and /ʂ/ (thereby mimicking the reduction of /o/); this pronunciation generally applies only to жалеть [ʐɨˈlʲetʲ] ('to regret'), к сожалению [ksə.ʐɨˈlʲe.nʲɪ.ju] ('unfortunately'), and oblique cases of лошадь ('horse'), such as лошадей [lə.ʂɨˈdʲej].
  • Thirdly, /i/ replaces /a/ after /ts/ in the oblique cases of some numerals, eg. двадцати, [dvə.tsɨˈtʲi] ('twenty').

Front vowels

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

In registers that feature absence of this 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 [prʲe̱ˈdatʲ] respectively. Yekanye pronunciation is coupled with a stronger tendency for unstressed /a/ and /o/ to be pronounced as /i/ is.

Speakers may switch between the two types of pronunciation due to various factors, the strongest likely being speed of pronunciation.

Yakanye

Yakanye (яканье) is the term used to describe the pronunciation of unstressed /e/ and /a/ following palatalized consonants, and preceding a stressed syllable as /a/ rather than /ɪ/ (e.g. несли is pronounced [nʲasˈlʲi], not [nʲɪsˈlʲi]).

This style is observed east of Moscow, particularly in Ryazan Oblast, as expressed in a Russian quip (with liberal yakanye):

Orthography Standard pronunciation Yakanye pronunciation English language version
А у нас в Рязани [ɐ u nəs vrʲɪˈzanʲɪ] [a u nəs vrʲaˈzanʲə] And here in Ryazan
пироги с глазами. [pʲɪrɐˈɡʲɪ z ɡlɐˈzamʲə] [pʲɪˈroɡʲɪ z ɡlaˈzamʲə] Pies are with eyes:
Их едят, [ɪxʲ jɪˈdʲat], [ɪxʲ jaˈdʲŠtʲ], While being eaten,
а они глядят. [ɐ ɐˈnʲi ɡlʲɪˈdʲat] [ə aˈnʲi ɡlʲaˈdʲŠtʲ] They stare at you.

This example also demonstrates another feature of dialects in this area: palatalized final /t/ in the 3rd person forms of verbs.

Effects on spelling

Due to vowel reduction, some words have spelling that contradicts their etymology, such as паром (instead of пором[1] that was standard spelling before Ushakov's dictionary), каравай (instead of коровай[2], standard spelling until the reform of 1956), свидетель (instead of сведетель[3] with long history).

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