How To Understand Russian Vowel Reduction

A few months ago, I showed you how easy it is to learn the Russian alphabet. If you've been through that, you should already be able to read Russian text, sound out words, and even recognize several cognates. Today, I want to take a look at the really interesting phenomenon of Russian vowel reduction.

In spite of having a much more user-friendly alphabet than we're used to in English (and please, don't try to tell me Cyrillic is hard!), Russian is not a phonetic language. That is due to unpredictable stress on words, and also to a really interesting feature called vowel reduction.

In a nut-shell, vowel reduction symply describes the way in which unstressed vowels are pronounced with less phonetic clarity than stressed vowels. Fortunately, the reduction is entirely predictable once you know where the stress falls in a word.

Perhaps the best example of vowel reduction is in the word молоко (milk), which is pronounce "muh-lah-KO". (Actually, when you really get the attitude of Russian pronunciation it's more like "mulla-KOha", but we're not going to get into that!)

So why are three o's each pronounced differently? It has to do with their position in relation to the stressed syllable.

The vowel in the stressed syllable is always annunciated clearly. In the word молоко, the final syllable has the stress, so that vowel sounds like "OH".

А and О

The letters a and o, are both pronounced as "ah" when they appear in the syllable immediately before the stressed syllable. And in all other positions, they make the "uh" sound generally indicated by a schwa.

Thus, молоко is "mu-la-KO", because the stress is on the third syllable. Яблако is "YA-bluh-kuh", because the stress is on the first syllable. Наоборот sounds like "nuh-uh-bah-ROT", because the stress is at the end. So now, hopefully, you won't be confused at why the word протягивает sounds like "pra-TYA-gee-vuh-eet", or осторожно sounds like "uh-sta-ROZH-na".

Е and Я

The soft vowels е ("ye") and я ("ya"), both have a tendency to reduce to и ("ee") when they're not in the stressed position. Therefore, the word телефон sounds like "tee-lee-FON", the word семена is "see-mee-NA", and the word лягушка comes out like "lee-GOO-shka".

Special cases with А

There is a tendency to turn the а into an и ("ee") when it follows the letters ж, ш, and ц in an unstressed syllable. For example, пожалеть may sound more like "puh-zhi-LYET", and семнадцать almost always sounds like "seem-NAHD-tseet".

Those three rules describe everything you need to know about vowel reduction in Russian. There are other forms in which it can manifest, but they're not universal so they're not worth worrying over.

If you learn what I've described here and apply it when you speak Russian, you will find that not only will other people understand you better and compliment your pronunciation, but it will also help you to better understand what other people are saying to you! No more wondering why the word you heard sounds nothing like the word you saw written.

And now that you know how to perform Russian vowel reduction, you should be able to look up any word on WordReference (or your favorite Russian dictionary) and based on the position of the stressed syllable, you should be able to pronounce it almost perfectly even if you've never heard it before.

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  • So when is the Russian book coming out? :D

  • Is this why sometime the его is pronounced as "yevo" ?Спасиба !

  • It's pronounced like this every time, actually :) “ye-VO”

  • Oh, okay! Are there any other examples where г is pronounced differently?

  • If there's interest, I'll write one. ;)

  • What you're seeing isn't vowel reduction, but a separate phenomenon. The г is often pronounced like a в when it appears between vowels, including the words его "ye-VO", сегодня "sye-VOD-nya", and all instances of the masculine and neuter genetive adjective endings -его and -ого (которого "ka-TOR-uh-vuh", лучшего "LOOCH-shee-vuh", нового "NO-vuh-vuh", и т.д. "etc.").Also, спасибо is spelled with an о on the end. Remember, vowel reduction! :)

  • Besides what Randy said, there are some more examples:1. г is pronounced [k] when it's at the absolute end of the word due to unvoicing final vocalized consonants: луг is pronounced as [luk], плуг as [pluk], друг as [druk]... you get the drift.2. г is pronounced [h] in some words: Бог [boh] for example. It's due to unvoicing as well, because Богом would be [BO-gom] with a voiced [g].3. г is pronounced [γ] (like a voiced [h]) in words like ага [aγa] and ого [oγo].ага and ого may well be pronounced with a [g] - it's perfectly correct, but in conversational speech the sound is [γ].One more point about Russian pronunciation in general: try not to move your lips much, i.e. don't articulate meticulously. Russian is generally spoken with lips hardly parting :)James — if you're seriously studying Russian, feel free to ask questions, I'm ready to help :)

  • Ha! Thanks! I'm surprised my iPod didn't pick up on it.

  • Спосибо! Thank you for the help so far and if you're happy to help in the future then thats great!

  • Now you're overcorrecting. Спасибо. One a, one o.

  • Okay! One last go- спасибо. I need to practise writing it seems. My spelling is atrocious. Thanks Randy, for the correction and patience.

  • This is completely unrelated, but Google just did a toolbar pagerank update today and you've gone from PR0 to PR4: congrats!! :D

  • Я люблю изутать языкы! You inspired me to start studying some Russian, hah :D It's a very cool language!

  • Fantastic! It is indeed a very cool language. My favorite.By the way, it's языки. The к can never be followed by ы.

  • Ah, I haven't gotten a chance to look at those spelling rules yet - thanks!

  • How can I learn all the rules and exceptions about the Vowel Reduction?

  • Hi, first off, really informative article, thanks! Was wondering, what about the word for beauty “красавица”? Should it be pronounced /kra'savitsi/ or /kra'savitsə/? Since а after ц should be pronounced /i/, why do online dictionaries pronounce it /ə/?

    Thanks in advance

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