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This article discusses the phonological system of standard Russian based on the Moscow dialect (unless otherwise noted). For discussion of other dialects, see Russian dialects. Most descriptions of Russian describe it as having five vowel phonemes, though there is some dispute over whether a sixth vowel, /ɨ/, is separate from /i/. Russian possesses 34 consonants, which can be divided into two sets:
A long-standing dispute among linguists is whether Russian possesses five vowel phonemes or six; that is, scholars disagree as to whether [ɨ] constitutes an allophone of /i/ or if there is an independent phoneme /ɨ/. The five-vowel analysis, taken up by the Moscow school, rests on the complementary distribution of [ɨ] and [i], with the former occurring after hard (non-palatalized) consonants and [i] elsewhere.
The six-vowel view, held by the Saint-Petersburg (Leningrad) phonology school, points to several phenomena to make its case:
The most popular view among linguists (and that taken up in this article) is that of the Moscow school, though Russian pedagogy has typically taught that there are six vowels (the term phoneme is not used).
Reconstructions of Proto-Slavic show that *i and *y were separate phonemes. On the other hand, numerous alternations between the two sounds in Russian indicate clearly that at one point the two sounds were reanalyzed as allophones of each other.
|A quick index of vowel pronunciation|
|/a/||V, CV(C), CʲV(C)|
|а|| [ä], [ɑ]|
|/o/||V, CV||о||[o̞]||[ə], [ɐ]|
|/e/||V, CV||э, е||[ɛ]||[ɪ̈]|
|/ɨ/ *||V, CV||ы, и||[ɨ]||[ɪ̈]|
|/i/ *||V, CʲV||и||[i]||[ɪ]|
|* distinction is disputed|
× written as 〈е〉 in this position
Russian vowels are subject to considerable allophony, subject to both stress and the palatalization of neighboring consonants. In most unstressed positions, in fact, only three phonemes are distinguished after hard consonants, and only two after soft consonants. Unstressed /a/ and /o/ merge (a phenomenon known as akan'je); unstressed /e/ and /i/ merge (ikan'je); and all four unstressed vowels merge after soft consonants, except in absolute final position in a word. None of these mergers are represented in writing.
When a preceding consonant is hard, /i/ is retracted to [ɨ]. Formant studies in Padgett (2001) demonstrate that [ɨ] is better characterized as slightly diphthongized from the velarization of the preceding consonant, implying that a phonological pattern of using velarization to enhance perceptual distinctiveness between hard and soft consonants is strongest before /i/. When unstressed, /i/ becomes near-close; that is, [ɨ̞] following a hard consonant and [ɪ] in most other environments. Between soft consonants, both stressed and unstressed /i/ are raised, as in пить [pʲi̝tʲ] (help·info) ('to drink') and маленький [ˈmalʲɪ̝nʲkʲɪj] (help·info) ('small'). When preceded and followed by coronal or dorsal consonants, [ɨ] is fronted to [ɨ̟]. After a labial + /l/ cluster, [ɨ] is retracted, as in плыть [plɨ̠tʲ] (help·info) ('to float'); it is also slightly diphthongized to [ɯ̟ɨ̟].
In native words, /e/ only follows unpaired (i.e. the retroflexes and /t͡s/) and soft consonants. After soft consonants (but not before), it is a mid vowel ([e̞] or [ɛ̝]), while a following soft consonant raises it to [e]. Another allophone, an open-mid [ɛ] occurs word-initially and never before or after soft consonants (hereafter [ɛ̝] is represented without the diacritic for simplicity). Preceding hard consonants retract /e/ to [ɛ̠] and [e̠] so that жест ('gesture') and цель ('target') are pronounced [ʐɛ̠st] (help·info) and [t͡se̠lʲ] (help·info) respectively.
In words borrowed from other languages, /e/ rarely follows soft consonants; this foreign pronunciation often persists in Russian for many years until the word is more fully adopted into Russian. For instance, шофёр (from French chauffeur) was pronounced [ʂoˈfɛr] (help·info) in the early twentieth century, but is now pronounced [ʂɐˈfʲɵr] (help·info). On the other hand, the pronunciations of words such as отель [ɐˈtɛlʲ] (help·info) ('hotel') retain the hard consonants despite a long presence in the language.
Between soft consonants, /a/ becomes [æ], as in пять [pʲætʲ] (help·info) ('five'). When not following a soft consonant, /a/ is retracted to [ɑ̟] before /l/ as in палка [ˈpɑ̟lkə] (help·info) ('stick').
These mergers do not occur in all dialects. The merger of unstressed /e/ and /i/ in particular is less universal than that of unstressed /o/ and /a/ (e.g. speakers near the border with Belarus have the latter but not the former merger, distinguishing between лиса́ ('fox') and леса́ ('forests'), прожива́ть ('to reside') and прожева́ть ('to chew'), etc.). The distinction between unstressed /e/ and /i/ is codified in some pronunciation dictionaries Avanesov (1985:663) Zarva (1993:15).
As a result, in most unstressed positions, only three vowel phonemes are distinguished after hard consonants (/u/ vs. /a ~ o/ vs. /e ~ i/), and only two (/u/ vs. /a ~ o ~ e ~ i/) after soft consonants. For the most part, Russian orthography (as opposed to that of closely related Belarusian) does not reflect vowel reduction.
In terms of actual pronunciation, there are at least two different levels of vowel reduction: vowels are less reduced when a syllable immediately precedes the stressed one, and more reduced in other positions. This is particularly visible in the realization of unstressed /o/ and /a/, where a less-reduced allophone [ɐ] contrasts with a more-reduced allophone [ə].
The pronunciation of unstressed /o ~ a/ is as follows:
The pronunciation of unstressed /e ~ i/ is [ɪ] after soft consonants and /j/, and word-initially (эта́п [ɪˈtap] (help·info) ('stage')), but [ɨ] after hard consonants (дышать [dɨ̞ˈʂatʲ] (help·info)} ('to breathe')).
There are a number of exceptions to the above vowel-reduction rules:
Unstressed /u/ is generally pronounced as a lax (or near-close) [ʊ], e.g. мужчина [mʊˈɕːinə] (help·info) ('man'). Between soft consonants, it becomes centralized to [ʉ̞], as in ютиться [jʉ̞ˈtʲit͡sə] (help·info)} ('to huddle').
Note a spelling irregularity in /s/ of the reflexive suffix -ся: with a preceding -т- in third-person present and a -ть- in infinitive, it is pronounced as [t͡sə], i.e. hard instead of with its soft counterpart due to the affricate [t͡s] (as in ц) being a phoneme always hard in the traditional Russian phonology. In other forms both pronunciations [sə] and [sʲə] alternate for a speaker with some usual form-dependent preferences.[clarification needed]
In weakly stressed positions, vowels may become voiceless between two voiceless consonants: выставка [ˈvɨstə̥fkə] (help·info) ('exhibition'), потому что [pə̥tɐˈmu ʂtə] (help·info) ('because'). This may also happen in cases where only the following consonant is voiceless: череп [t͡ɕerʲɪ̥p] (help·info) ('skull').
Because of mergers of different phonemes in unstressed position, the assignment of a particular phone to a phoneme requires phonological analysis. There have been different approaches to this problem:
Russian diphthongs all end in a non-syllabic [i̯], an allophone of /j/ and the only semivowel in Russian. In all contexts other than after a vowel, /j/ is considered an approximant consonant. Phonological descriptions of /j/ may also classify it as a consonant even in the coda. In such descriptions, Russian has no diphthongs.
The first part of diphthongs are subject to the same allophony as their constituent vowels. Examples of words with diphthongs: яйцо [jɪjˈt͡so] (help·info)} ('egg'), ей [jej] (help·info) ('her' dat.), действенный [ˈdʲejstvʲɪnnɨj] (help·info) ('effective'). /ij/ (written -〈ий〉 or -〈ый〉) is a common inflexional affix of adjectives, participles, and nouns, where it is often unstressed; at normal conversational speed, such unstressed endings may be monophthongized to [ɪ̟].
〈ʲ〉 denotes palatalization, meaning the center of the tongue is raised during and after the articulation of the consonant. Phonemes that have at different times been disputed are enclosed in parentheses.
|Stop||p b||pʲ bʲ||t̪ d̪||tʲ dʲ||k ɡ||(kʲ) (ɡʲ)|
|Fricative||f v||fʲ vʲ||s̪ z̪||sʲ zʲ||ʂ ʐ||(ɕː) (ʑː)||x||(xʲ)|
There is some dispute over the phonemicity of soft velar consonants. Typically, the soft–hard distinction is allophonic for velar consonants: they become soft before front vowels, as in короткий [kɐˈrotkʲɪj] (help·info) ('short'), unless there is a word boundary, in which case they are hard (e.g. к Ивану [k ‿ɨvanu] (help·info) 'to Ivan'). Hard variants occur everywhere else. Exceptions are represented mostly by:
The rare native examples are fairly new, as most them were coined in the last century:
In the mid-twentieth century, a small number of reductionist approaches made by structuralists put forth that palatalized consonants occur as the result of a phonological processes involving /j/ (or palatalization as a phoneme in itself), so that there were no underlying palatalized consonants. Despite such proposals, linguists have long agreed that the underlying structure of Russian is closer to that of its acoustic properties, namely that soft consonants are separate phonemes in their own right.
Voiced consonants (/b/, /bʲ/, /d/, /dʲ/ /ɡ/, /v/, /vʲ/, /z/, /zʲ/, /ʐ/, and /ʑː/) are devoiced word-finally unless the next word begins with a voiced obstruent. /ɡ/, in addition to becoming voiceless, also lenites to [x] in some words, such as бог [ˈbox].
Russian features a general retrograde assimilation of voicing and palatalization. In longer clusters, this means that multiple consonants may be soft despite their underlyingly (and orthographically) being hard. The process of voicing assimilation applies across word-boundaries when there is no pause between words.
Within a morpheme, voicing is not distinctive before obstruents (except for /v/, and /vʲ/ when followed by a vowel or sonorant). The voicing or devoicing is determined by that of the final obstruent in the sequence: просьба [ˈprozʲbə] (help·info) ('request'), водка [ˈvotkə] (help·info) ('vodka'). In foreign borrowings, this isn't always the case for /f(ʲ)/, as in Адольф Гитлер [ɐˈdolʲf ˈɡʲitlʲɪr] (help·info) ('Adolf Hitler') and граф болеет ('the count is ill'). /v/ and /vʲ/ are unusual in that they seem transparent to voicing assimilation; in the syllable onset, both voiced and voiceless consonants may appear before /v(ʲ)/:
When /v(ʲ)/ precedes and follows obstruents, the voicing of the cluster is governed by that of the final segment (per the rule above) so that voiceless obstruents that precede /v(ʲ)/ are voiced if /v(ʲ)/ is followed by a voiced obstruent (e.g. к вдове [ɡvdɐˈvʲɛ] 'to the widow') while a voiceless obstruent will devoice all segments (e.g. без впуска [bʲɪs ˈfpuskə] 'without an admission').
/t͡ɕ/, /t͡s/, and /x/ have voiced allophones ([d͡ʑ], [d͡z] and [ɣ]) before voiced obstruents, as in дочь бы [ˈdod͡ʑ bɨ] (help·info) ('a daughter would') and плацдарм [plɐd͡zˈdarm] (help·info) ('bridge-head').
Before /j/, paired consonants are normally soft as in пью [pʲju] (help·info) 'I drink' and пьеса [ˈpʲje.sə] (help·info) 'theatrical play'. However the last consonant of prefixes and parts of compound words generally remains hard in the standard language: отъезд [ɐˈtjest] (help·info) 'departure', Минюст [ˌmʲiˈnjust] (help·info) 'Min[istry of] Just[ice]'; and only when prefix ends in /s/ or /z/, there exists an optional softening: съездить [ˈs(ʲ)je.zʲdʲɪtʲ] (help·info) ('to travel').
Paired consonants preceding /e/ are also soft; although there are exceptions from loanwords, alternations across morpheme boundaries are the norm. The following examples show some of the morphological alternations between a hard consonant and its soft pair:
Velar consonants are soft when preceding /i/; within words, this means that velar consonants are never followed by [ɨ].
Paired consonants preceding another consonant often inherit softness from it. This phenomenon in literary language has complicated and evolving rules with many exceptions, depending on what these consonants are, in what morphemic position they meet and to what style of speech the word belongs. In old Moscow pronunciation, softening was more widespread and regular; nowadays some cases that were once normative have become low colloquial or archaic. In fact, consonants can be softened to very different extent, become semi-hard or semi-soft.
The more similar the consonants are, the more they tend to soften each other. Also, some consonants tend to be softened less, such as labials and /r/.
Softening is stronger inside the word root and between root and suffix; it is weaker between prefix and root and weak or absent between a preposition and the word following.
In addition to this, dental fricatives conform to the place of articulation (not just the palatalization) of following postalveolars: с частью [ˈɕːæsʲtʲju] (help·info)) ('with a part'). In careful speech, this does not occur across word boundaries.
Russian has the rare feature of nasals not typically being assimilated in place of articulation. Both /n/ and /nʲ/ appear before retroflex consonants: деньжонки [dʲɪnʲˈʐonkʲɪ] (help·info)) ('money' (scornful)) and ханжой [xɐnˈʐoj] (help·info)) ('hypocrite' instr.). In the same context, other coronal consonants are always hard. A partial exception to this is the velar nasal, which occurs as an allophone before velar consonants in some words (функция [ˈfuŋk.t͡sɨjə] (help·info)) 'function'), but not in most other words like банк [bank] ('bank').
As a Slavic language, Russian has fewer phonotactic restrictions on consonants than many other languages, allowing for clusters that would be difficult for English speakers; this is especially so at the beginning of a syllable, where Russian speakers make no sonority distinctions between fricatives and stops. These reduced restrictions begin at the morphological level; outside of two morphemes that contain clusters of four consonants: встрет-/встреч- 'meet' ([ˈfstretʲi]), and чёрств-/черств- 'stale' ([ˈt͡ɕɵrstv]), native Russian morphemes have a maximum consonant cluster size of three:
For speakers who pronounce [ɕt͡ɕ] instead of [ɕː], words like общий ('common') also constitute clusters of this type.
If /j/ is considered a consonant in the coda position, then words like айва ('quince') contain semivowel+consonant clusters.
Affixation also creates consonant clusters. Some prefixes, the best known being вз-/вс- ([vz-]/[fs-]), produce long word-initial clusters when they attach to a morpheme beginning with multiple consonants (e.g. |vz| + |blʲesk| → взблеск [ˈvzblʲesk] 'flash'). However, the four-consonant limitation persists in the syllable onset.
All word-initial four-consonant clusters begin with [vz] or [fs], followed by a stop (or, in the case of [x], a fricative), and a liquid:
|(ему) взбрело (в голову)||[vzbrʲɪˈlo]||'(he) took it (into his head)'|
|взгромоздиться||[vzɡrəmɐˈzʲdʲitsə] (help·info))||'to perch'|
|вспрыгнуть||[ˈfsprɨɡnʊtʲ] (help·info))||'to jump up'|
|встлеть||[ˈfstlʲetʲ]||'to begin to smolder'|
|встречать||[fstrʲɪˈt͡ɕætʲ] (help·info))||'to meet'|
|всхрапывать||[ˈfsxrapɨvətʲ] (help·info))||'to snort'|
Because prepositions in Russian act like clitics, the syntactic phrase composed of a preposition (most notably, the three that consist of just a single consonant: к, с, and в) and a following word constitutes a phonological word that acts like a single grammatical word. For example, the phrase с друзья́ми ('with friends') is pronounced [zdrʊˈzʲjæmʲɪ]. In the syllable coda, suffixes that contain no vowels may increase the final consonant cluster of a syllable (e.g. Ноябрьск 'city of Noyabrsk' |noˈjabrʲ| + |sk| → [nɐˈjabrʲsk]), theoretically up to seven consonants: *монстрств [ˈmonstrstf] ('of monsterships'). There is usually an audible release between these consecutive consonants at word boundaries, the major exception being clusters of homorganic consonants.
Consonant cluster simplification in Russian includes degemination, syncope, dissimilation, and weak vowel insertion. For example, /sɕː/ is pronounced [ɕː], as in расщелина ('cleft'). There are also a few isolated patterns of apparent cluster reduction (as evidenced by the mismatch between pronunciation and orthography) arguably the result of historical simplifications. For example, dental stops are dropped between a dental continuant and a dental nasal or lateral: лестный [ˈlʲesnɨj] 'flattering'. Other examples include:
The simplifications of consonant clusters are done selectively; bookish-style words and proper nouns are typically pronounced with all consonants even if they fit the pattern. For example, the word голландка is pronounced in a simplified manner [ɡɐˈlankə] for the meaning of 'Dutch oven' (a popular type of oven in Russia) and in a full form [ɡɐˈlantkə] for 'Dutch woman' (a more exotic meaning).
In certain cases, this syncope produces homophones, e.g. костный ('bone') and косный ('rigid'), both are pronounced [ˈkosnɨj].
Another method of dealing with consonant clusters is inserting an epenthetic vowel (both in spelling and in pronunciation), 〈о〉, after most prepositions and prefixes that normally end in a consonant. This includes both historically motivated usage and cases of its modern extrapolations. There are no strict limits when the epenthetic 〈о〉 is obligatory, optional, or prohibited. One of the most typical cases of the epenthetic 〈о〉 is between a morpheme-final consonant and a cluster starting with the same or similar consonant (e.g. со среды 'from Wednesday' |s| + |srʲɪˈdɨ| → [səsrʲɪˈdɨ], not *с среды; ототру 'I'll scrub' |ot| + |ˈtru| → [ɐtɐˈtru], not *оттру).
There are numerous ways in which Russian spelling does not match pronunciation. The historical transformation of /ɡ/ into /v/ in genitive case endings and the word for 'him' is not reflected in the modern Russian orthography: the pronoun его [jɪˈvo] 'his/him', and the adjectival declension suffixes -ого and -его. Orthographic г represents /x/ in a handful of word roots: легк-/лёгк-/легч- 'easy' and мягк-/мягч- 'soft'. There are a handful of words in which consonants which have long since ceased to be pronounced even in careful pronunciation are still spelled, e.g., the 'l' in солнце [ˈso.nt͡sə] ('sun').
/n/ and /nʲ/ are the only consonants that can be geminated within morpheme boundaries. Such gemination does not occur in loanwords.
Between any vowel and /i/ (excluding instances across affix boundaries but including unstressed vowels that have merged with /i/), /j/ may be dropped: аист [ˈa.ɪst] ('stork') and делает [ˈdʲɛləɪt] ('does'). (Halle (1959) cites заезжать and other instances of intervening prefix and preposition boundaries as exceptions to this tendency.)
Stress in Russian may fall on any syllable and words can contrast based just on stress (e.g. мука [ˈmukə] 'ordeal, pain, anguish' vs. [mʊˈka] 'flour, meal, farina'); stress shifts can even occur within an inflexional paradigm: до́ма [ˈdomə] ('house' gen. sg.) vs дома́ [dɐˈma] ('houses'). The place of the stress in a word is determined by the interplay between the morphemes it contains, as some morphemes have underlying stress, while others do not. However, other than some compound words, such as морозоустойчивый [mɐˌrozəʊˈstojtɕɪvɨj] ('frost-resistant') only one syllable is stressed in a word.
Non-open back vowels velarize preceding hard consonants: ты [tˠɨ] (help·info) ('you' sing.). /o/ and /u/ labialize all consonants: бок [bʷok] (help·info) ('side'), нёс [nʲʷɵs] (help·info) ('(he) carried'). 
Like all Slavic languages, Old Russian was a language of open syllables. All syllables ended in vowels, and consonant clusters, in far lesser variety than today, existed only in the syllable onset. However, by the time of the earliest records, Old Russian already showed characteristic divergences from Common Slavonic.
Around the tenth century, Russian may have already had paired coronal fricatives and sonorants so that /s/ /z/ /n/ /l/ /r/ could have contrasted with /sʲ/ /zʲ/ /nʲ/ /lʲ/ /rʲ/, though any possible contrasts were limited to specific environments. Otherwise, palatalized consonants appeared allophonically before front vowels. When the yers were lost, the palatalization initially triggered by high vowels remained, creating minimal pairs like данъ /dan/ ('given') and дань /danʲ/ ('tribute'). At the same time, [ɨ], which was already a part of the vocalic system, was reanalyzed as an allophone of /i/ after hard consonants, prompting leveling that caused vowels to alternate according to the preceding consonant rather than vice versa.
The nasal vowels (spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet with yuses), which had developed from Common Slavic *eN and *oN before a consonant, were replaced with nonnasalized vowels, possibly iotated or with softening of the preceding consonant:
Borrowings in the Uralic languages with interpolated /n/ after Common Slavonic nasal vowels have been taken to indicate that the nasal vowels did exist in East Slavic until some time possibly just before the historical period.
Simplification of Common Slavic *dl and *tl to *l:
A tendency for greater maintenance of intermediate ancient [-ɡ-], [-k-], etc. before frontal vowels, than in other Slavic languages, the so-called incomplete second and third palatalizations:
Pleophony or "full-voicing" (polnoglasie, 'полногласие' [pəlnɐˈɡlasʲɪɪ]), that is, the addition of vowels on either side of /l/ and /r/ between two consonants. Church Slavonic influence has made it less common in Russian than in modern Ukrainian and Belarusian:
Major phonological processes in the last thousand years have included the absence of the Slavonic open-syllable requirement, achieved in part through the loss of the ultra-short vowels, the so-called fall of the yers, which alternately lengthened and dropped (the yers are given conventional transcription rather than precise IPA symbols in the Old Russian pronunciations):
The loss of the yers has led to geminated consonants and a much greater variety of consonant clusters, with attendant voicing and/or devoicing in the assimilation:
Consonant clusters thus created were often simplified:
The development of OR ѣ /ě/ (conventional transcription) into /(j)e/, as seen above. This development has caused by far the greatest of all Russian spelling controversies. The timeline of the development of /ě/ into /e/ or /je/ has also been debated.
Sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth century, the allophone of /i/ before velar consonants changed from [ɨ] to [i] with subsequent palatalization of the velars.
The retroflexing of postalveolars: /ʒ/ became [ʐ] and /ʃ/ become [ʂ]. This is considered a "hardening" since retroflex sounds are difficult to palatalize. At some point, /t͡s/ resisted palatalization, which is why it is also "hard" although phonetically it is no different from before. The sound represented by 〈щ〉 was much more commonly pronounced /ɕt͡ɕ/ than it is today. Today's common and standard pronunciation of 〈щ〉 is /ɕː/.
This has led to a number of alternations:
|вле́чь||to attract||влёк||he attracted|
|жечь||to burn||жёг||he burned|
|лечь||to lie down||лёг||he lay down|
|шесть||six||сам-шёст||six-fold; with five others|
Note that the /e/ that derives from the long obsolete vowel, yat (ѣ) did not undergo this change except for a short list of words as of about a century ago. Nowadays, the change has been reverted in two of those exceptional words.
A number of the phonological features of Russian are attributable to the introduction of loanwords (especially from non-Slavic languages), including:
Many double consonants have become degeminated, though they are still written with two letters in the orthography. (In a 1968 study, long [tː] remains long in only half of the words that it appears written in, while long [fː] only a sixth of the time. The study, however, did not distinguish spelling from actual historical pronunciation, since it included loanwords in which consonants were written doubled but never pronounced long in Russian.)