Vowel allophony is largely dependent on stress and the palatalization of neighboring consonants:
In native words, /e/ only follows unpaired (i.e. the retroflexes and /t͡s/) and palatalized consonants. After palatalized consonants (but not before), it is a mid vowel ([e̞] or [ɛ̝]), while a following palatalized consonant raises it to [e]. Another allophone, an open-mid [ɛ] occurs word-initially and never before or after palatalized 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] and respectively.
In words borrowed from other languages, it is often the case that /e/ does not follow a palatalized consonant until the word has been fully adopted into Russian. For instance, шофёр (from French chauffeur) was pronounced [ʂoˈfɛr] in the early twentieth century but is now pronounced [ʂɐˈfʲor]. On the other hand, the pronunciations of words such as отель [ɐˈtɛlʲ] ('hotel') retain the hard consonants despite a long presence in the language.
For most speakers, /o/ is a mid vowel but it can be more open for some speakers. Between palatalized consonants or simply following a one, /o/ is centralized to [ɵ̞] as in тётя [ˈtʲɵ.tʲə] ('aunt').
As with the other back vowels, /u/ is centralized between palatalized consonants, as in чуть [t͡ɕʉtʲ] ('narrowly'). When unstressed, /u/ becomes near-close.
Unstressed vowels tend to merge together. /o/ and /a/ generally have the same unstressed allophones and unstressed /e/ becomes /i/ (picking up its unstressed allophones). Russian orthography (as opposed to that of linguistically similar Belarusian) does not reflect vowel reduction.
The realization of unstressed /o/ and /a/ goes as follows:
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 on unstressed /о/ and /a/.
In addition to this, the unstressed high vowels /i/ and /u/ become lax (or near-close) as in ютиться [jʉ̞ˈtʲit͡sə] ('to huddle'), этап [ɪˈtap] ('stage'), дышать [dɨ̞ˈʂatʲ] ('to breathe'), and мужчина [mʊˈɕɕinə] ('man').
In weakly stressed positions, vowels may become voiceless between two voiceless consonants: выставка [ˈvɨstə̥fkə] ('exhibition'), потому что ('because'). This may also happen in cases where only the following consonant is voiceless: череп [t͡ɕerʲɪ̥p] ('skull').
The first part of diphthongs are subject to the same allophony as their constituent vowels. Examples of words with diphthongs: яйцо [jɪjˈt͡so] ('egg'), ей [jej] ('her' instr), действенный [ˈdʲejstvʲɛnnɨj] ('effective'). /ij/ (written <ий> or <ый>) is a common adjectival affix where it is often unstressed; at normal conversational speed, such unstressed endings may be monophthongized to [ɪ̟].
| Dental & |
|Plosive||hard||/p/ /b/||/t/ /d/||/k/ /g/|
|soft||/pʲ/ /bʲ/||/tʲ/ /dʲ/||/kʲ/ [gʲ]|
|Fricative||hard||/f/ /v/||/s/ /z/||/ʂ/ /ʐ/||/x/|
|soft||/fʲ/ /vʲ/||/sʲ/ /zʲ/||/ɕɕ/ /ʑʑ/||[xʲ]|
A series of reductionist approaches made by many structuralists have postulated an underlying deep structure wherein palatalized consonants are the result of phonological processes. Despite such proposals, linguists have long agreed that the underlying structure of Russian is closer to that of its acoustic properties, namely that palatalized consonants are phonemes in their own right.
Russian features a general retrograde assimilation of voicing and palatalization. In longer clusters, this means that multiple consonants may be palatalized despite their underlyingly (and orthographically) being unpalatalized. The process of voicing assimilation applies across word-boundaries when there's no pause between words.
When /v(ʲ)/ precedes and follows obstruents, the voicing of the cluster is goverened 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 'to the widow') while a voiceless obstruent will devoice all segments (e.g. без впуска 'without an admission').
/t͡ɕ/, /t͡s/, and /x/ have voiced allophones before voiced obstruents, as in дочь бы ('a daughter would' [I like to have]) and плацдарм [plɐd͡zˈdarm] ('bridge-head').
Other than /mʲ/ and /nʲ/, nasals and liquids devoice between voiceless consonants or a voiceless consonant and a pause: контрфорс [ˌkontr̥ˈfors] ('buttress').
Because velar consonants are unpaired, palatalization contrasts do not exist, especially before front vowels. Allophonically, they become palatalized as in короткий [kɐˈrotkʲɪj] ('short') unless there is a word boundary, in which case they are plain (e.g. к Ивану 'to Ivan').
Before plain dental consonants, /r/, /rʲ/, labial and dental consonants are plain: орла [ɐrˈla] ('eagle' gen. sg).
Before palatalized labial and dental consonants or /lʲ/, dental consonants (other than /t͡s/) are palatalized.
Velar consonants are palatalized when preceding /i/; within words, this means that velar consonants are never followed by [ɨ].
/x/ assimilates the palatalization of the following velar consonant легких [ˈlʲɵxʲkʲɪx] ('lungs' gen. pl).
Palatalization assimilation of labial consonants before labial consonants is in free variation with nonassimilation, that is бомбить ('to bomb') is either [bɐmˈbʲitʲ] or [bɐmʲˈbʲitʲ] depending on the individual speaker.
When plain /n/ precedes its palatalized cognate, it is also palatalized (see gemination). This is slightly less common across affix boundaries.
In addition to this, dental stridents conform to the place of articulation (not just the palatalization) of following postalveolars: с частью [ˈɕɕasʲtʲju] ('with a part'). In careful speech, this does not occur across word boundaries.
Russian has the rare features of nasals not typically assimilating place of articulation. For example, both /n/ and /nʲ/ appear before retroflex consonants: деньжонки [dʲɪnʲˈʐonkʲɪ] ('money' (scornful)) and ханжой [xɐnˈʐoj] ('hypocrite' instr.). In the same context, other coronal consonants are always plain. The velar nasal is an allophone before velar consonants in some words (функция [ˈfuŋk.t͡sɨjə] 'function'), but not in most other words like банк [bank] ('bank').
For speakers who pronounce [ɕt͡ɕ] instead of [ɕɕ], words like общий ('common') also constitute clusters of this type.
Clusters of four consonants are possible, but not very common, especially within a morpheme. Some potential clusters are deleted as well. For example, dental plosives are dropped between a dental continuant and a dental nasal: лестный [ˈlʲɛsnɨj] ('flattering').
/n/ and /nʲ/ are the only consonants that can be geminated.
The historic transformation of /g/ into /v/ in the genitive case (and also the accusative for animate entities) of masculine singular adjectives and pronouns is not reflected in the modern Russian orthography: его [jɪˈvo] ('his/him'), белого [ˈbʲɛ.lə.və] ('white' gen. sg.), синего [ˈsʲi.nʲɪ.və] ('blue' gen. sg.). Orthographic г also represents /x/ when it precedes other velar sounds.
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').
Stress in Russian may fall on any syllable, and may shift within an inflexional paradigm: до́ма [ˈdo.mə] ('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. Russian also has an intonation pattern similar to that of English.
Like all Slavic languages, Russian was originally a language of open syllables. All syllables ended in vowels (as in Fijian and Hawaiian), and consonant clusters, in far lesser variety than today, existed only at the start of a syllable.
The loss of the nasal vowels (the yuses of ancient Cyrillic), which had themselves developed from Indo-European [-en-]/[-an-]/[-on-] before a consonant — usually dental or labial — and at word boundaries. Non-nasalized vowels took their place, possibly iotated or with softening of the preceding consonant:
Borrowings in the Finno-Ugric 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-/-tl- to -l-:
A tendency for greater maintenance of intermediate ancient [-s-], [-k-], etc. before frontal vowels, than in other Slavic languages, the so-called incomplete second and third palatalizations:
Pleophony or "full-voicing" (polnoglasie, 'полногласие' [pə.lnɐˈgla.sʲɪ.jə]), 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.
A greater variety of palatalized phonemes, and the systematic palatalization of consonants before /e/ and /i/.
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 than before. The sound represented by <щ> was much more commonly pronounced as /ɕt͡ɕ/ than it is today. Today's common and standard pronunciation of <щ> is /ɕɕ/.
The development of stressed /e/ into /o/ when between a palatalized consonant and a plain one:
This has led to a number of alternations:
|бере́чь||to protect||берёг||he protected|
|бере́зник||birch forest||берёза||birch tree|
|ве́дреный||fine, good||вёдро||fine weather|
|вле́чь||to attract||влёк||he attracted|
|гре́зить||to dream||грёза||a dream|
|жере́бчик||stallion (diminutive)||жерёбая||with foal|
|жечь||to burn||жёг||he burned|
|зе́млю||earth (acc. sg.)||чернозём||black earth|
|изреше́чивать||to pierce with holes||решёта||sieves|
|лечь||to lie down||лёг||he lay down|
|наве́ртит||he/she/it will twist||навёртывать||to twist|
|пе́нь||stump||пёнышек||dear, little stump|
|пере́дний||front (adj)||перёд||front (noun)|
|пе́рья||feathers||пёрышко||dear, little feather|
|пе́стрядь||colored cotton cloth||пёстрый||variegated|
|пе́чь||to bake||пёк||he baked|
|предре́чь||to foretell||предрёк||he foretold|
|пренебре́чь||to neglect||пренебрёг||he neglected|
|просве́рливать||to bore, drill||свёрла||borers, drills|
|проче́сть||to read||прочёл||he read|
|реме́нь||strap||ремённый||made of straps|
|семь||seven||сам-сём||with six others|
|стере́чь||to guard||стерёг||he guarded|
|тве́рдь||firm foundation||твёрдый||hard, firm|
|тете́рька||heath hen||тетёрка||heath hen|
|те́чь||to flow||тёк||it flowed|
|тре́плет||wears out||трёпаный||worn out|
|шесть||six||сам-шо́ст||with five others|
Loanwords from Church Slavonic reintroduced /e/ between a soft consonant and a hard one, including:
A number of Russian's phonological features 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.