Vowel reduction in Russian

Vowel reduction in Russian

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 are unstressed. 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[1] 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, standard phonological rules prescribe a two-level reduction. The stressed vowel is normally the longest, and it is the only place (with certain exceptions) where the sound [o] is permitted. In the syllable immediately before the stress[2] and in absolute word-initial position,[3] both reduce to shorter [ɐ] (sometimes also transcribed as [ʌ]). In all other locations, vowels /a/ and /o/ are reduced further to a short, poorly enunciated [ə] ("schwa" or "er").[4] Examples: паром [pɐˈrom] ('ferry'), облако [ˈobləkə] ('cloud'), трава [trɐˈva] ('grass'). In practice, the second reduction has a gradient character: if the vowel in question is afforded enough duration (e.g. due to hyperarticulation), it may be pronounced as [ɐ]. Shorter durations have the effect of gradually transforming [ɐ] into schwa. It has been argued recently that the change of sound quality during second-degree reduction is merely an artifact of duration-dependent "phonetic undershoot",[5][6] the situation where the speaker intends to pronounce [ɐ], but the limited time budget makes it physically impossible for the tongue to arrive at the intended vowel target.[7] During fast speech, reduction ultimately may result in the vowel being dropped altogether, and the preceding consonant slightly lengthened or turned into a syllabic consonant: сапоги [s:pɐˈgɪ], vs. [səpɐˈgɪ] ('boots'), потолок [p:tɐˈlok] (ceiling), десять [ˈdʲesʲtʲ] (ten).[8]
    • 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].[3]
    • 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.[9] Examples: жена [ʐɨ̞ˈna] ('wife'), язык [jɪˈzɨk] ('tongue').

Across certain word-final suffixes, the reductions do not completely apply.[10] 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 [ˈpolʲɪ] ('field' nom. sg. neut.) is different from по́ля [ˈpolʲə] ('field' sg. gen.), and these final sounds differ from the realization of /i/ in such position.[citation needed]

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

  • Firstly, /o/ is not always reduced in foreign borrowings,[10] e.g. радио, [ˈra.dʲɪ.o] ('radio'), the common pattern for this exception is: final unstressed "о" preceded by another vowel (e.g. Антонио, какао, стерео), compare with моно, фото, where the final unstressed "о" is reduced to [ə].[citation needed]
  • 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 [ˈloʂətʲ] ('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 [prʲe̠ˈdatʲ] 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 (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 non-standard rural pronunciation is observed in most of Southern Russian dialects as expressed in a Russian quip (with liberal yakanye):

Orthography Standard pronunciation Yakanye pronunciation English language version
А у нас в Рязани [ə‿ʊ‿ˈnas v‿rʲɪˈzanʲɪ] [a w nəs wrʲaˈzanʲə] And we have in Ryazan
пироги с глазами. [pʲɪrɐˈɡʲɪ z‿ɡlɐˈzamʲɪ] [pʲaˈroɣʲɪ z ɣlaˈzamʲə] Pies with eyes:
Их едят, [ɪx jɪˈdʲat] [ɪxʲ jaˈdʲætʲ] While being eaten,
а они глядят. [ɐ‿ɐˈnʲi ɡlʲɪˈdʲat] [ə aˈnʲi ɣlʲaˈdʲætʲ] They stare at you.

This example also demonstrates another feature of Southern dialects: palatalized final /t/ in the 3rd person forms of verbs, [ɣ] instead of [ɡ] , and [w] instead of [u] (in some places) and [v].

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 with long history).

In the closely related Belarusian language, words are often pronounced the same way as in Russian, but their reduced pronunciation is reflected directly in morphology: for example, Russian молоко / Belarusian малако "milk"; Russian голова / Belarusian галава "head"; Russian плечо / Belarusian плячо "shoulder" (an example of yakanye). The same pattern is even demonstrated by the name of the country: Белоруссия vs. Беларусь "white Rus", where the final unstressed vowel in the prefix бел[о|а]- "white" is spelled 'о' in Russian and 'а' in Belarusian.



Further reading

  • Hamilton, William S. (1980), Introduction to Russian Phonology and Word Structure, Slavica Publishers 
  • Sussex, Roland (1992), "Russian", in W. Bright, International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (1st ed.), New York: Oxford University Press .

External links

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  • The Language of the Russian Village (A dialect atlas for use in Russian junior high school. Maps 12 and 13 shows the extent of vowel reduction in Russian dialects.) (Russian)

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