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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