russian pronunciation guide

5
Russian pronunciation guide On this page you will find only basic pronunciation rules which might be enough for you to pronounce Russian words more or less correct. Now let's discuss each letter of the Russian alphabet in their alphabetic order and see in what ways it can be pronounced. Russian language is almost phonetic that is there is one-to-one correspondence between the letters of the alphabet and the sounds. But this almost means that there are some exceptions. Well, first to be mentioned, there is no division into long and short vowels in Russian, that means that it is no matter how you pronounce a vowel: long or short, it won't change the word's meaning. The second is that almost all consonants in Russian appear in two forms: palatalized (soft) and non-palatalized (hard) ones. The term palatalized means that while pronouncing the sound the middle part of your tongue is lifted toward the hard palate and makes what is being uttered sound in a higher pitch what is perceived by us as softness. You can determine where your hard palate is by pronouncing the sound [j] like in "yes": it is where your tongue touches the upper jaw. Try to compare sounds [n] and [n'] ( ' denotes palatalization) in words "not" and "new": in the first one you pronounce [n] because the next [o] vowel is on open vowel and does not require your tongue to lift while pronouncing [n]; on the contrary, in the second word you pronounce [n'] because your tongue automatically adjusts to the pronunciation of the next [j] consonant and lifts toward the hard palate. You see that soft and hard consonants appear in both Russian and English but the difference is the following: in English for example you can't pronounce [n'] before [o] like in "not", you can pronounce it only in certain positions before the sounds with the similar articulation (e.g. [j] or [i:]), but in Russian the sound [n'] can appear before every sound no matter how it is articulated, for example there are two absolutely different in meaning words in Russian differing only in palatalization or non-palatalization of [n] consonant: "нос" [nos] (nose) and "нёс" [n'os] (past masculine form of "нести" (to carry), carried). Another example is "мат" [mat] (mate) and "мать" [mat'] (mother). Now you see that palatalization bears word differentiating function in Russian so you must manage to pronounce every Russian consonant in both hard (which is easy) and soft (more difficult) forms to be understood properly. As mentioned above you should always pronounce soft consonants by lifting the middle part of your tongue toward the hard palate. The problem is how to mark the softness of consonants in writing. This problem is solved differently in different languages: in Polish letter "i" is placed right after the consonant letter to denote its palatalization, Serbo-Croatian has special letters for each palatalized consonant since there are only four of them in it; if it were the same way in Russian we would have to use 15 additional letters in the alphabet which would be an unbearable burden on the language, so Russian uses two variants of vowel letters instead: it uses "я" after a consonant letter to mark both its softness and vowel [a] after it (compare мать (mother) and мять (to crumple)), "ё" - to mark the softness of preceding consonant and vowel [o] after it (compare вол (bullock, ox) and вёл ((he) was leading)), "ю" - softness of the consonant + vowel [u] after it, "е" - softness of the consonant + vowel denoted by letter "э" after it. Besides, letter "и" always denotes the softness of preceding consonant plus vowel [i] after it as well (e.g. один (one)) but the same vowel [i] can also be expressed by the letter "и" apart from the consonant (e.g. искать (to look for)), so "и" has no counterpart while "я", "ё",

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Russian language. Russian pronunciation guideOn this page you will find only basic pronunciation rules which might be enough for you to pronounce Russian words more or less correct.

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Page 1: Russian Pronunciation Guide

Russian pronunciation guide

On this page you will find only basic pronunciation rules which might be enough for

you to pronounce Russian words more or less correct.

Now let's discuss each letter of the Russian alphabet in their alphabetic order and see

in what ways it can be pronounced. Russian language is almost phonetic that is there

is one-to-one correspondence between the letters of the alphabet and the sounds. But

this almost means that there are some exceptions.

Well, first to be mentioned, there is no division into long and short vowels in Russian,

that means that it is no matter how you pronounce a vowel: long or short, it won't

change the word's meaning. The second is that almost all consonants in Russian

appear in two forms: palatalized (soft) and non-palatalized (hard) ones. The term

palatalized means that while pronouncing the sound the middle part of your tongue is

lifted toward the hard palate and makes what is being uttered sound in a higher pitch

what is perceived by us as softness. You can determine where your hard palate is by

pronouncing the sound [j] like in "yes": it is where your tongue touches the upper jaw.

Try to compare sounds [n] and [n'] ( ' denotes palatalization) in words "not" and

"new": in the first one you pronounce [n] because the next [o] vowel is on open vowel

and does not require your tongue to lift while pronouncing [n]; on the contrary, in the

second word you pronounce [n'] because your tongue automatically adjusts to the

pronunciation of the next [j] consonant and lifts toward the hard palate. You see that

soft and hard consonants appear in both Russian and English but the difference is the

following: in English for example you can't pronounce [n'] before [o] like in "not",

you can pronounce it only in certain positions before the sounds with the similar

articulation (e.g. [j] or [i:]), but in Russian the sound [n'] can appear before every

sound no matter how it is articulated, for example there are two absolutely different in

meaning words in Russian differing only in palatalization or non-palatalization of [n]

consonant: "нос" [nos] (nose) and "нёс" [n'os] (past masculine form of "нести" (to

carry), carried). Another example is "мат" [mat] (mate) and "мать" [mat'] (mother).

Now you see that palatalization bears word differentiating function in Russian so you

must manage to pronounce every Russian consonant in both hard (which is easy) and

soft (more difficult) forms to be understood properly. As mentioned above you should

always pronounce soft consonants by lifting the middle part of your tongue toward the

hard palate. The problem is how to mark the softness of consonants in writing. This

problem is solved differently in different languages: in Polish letter "i" is placed right

after the consonant letter to denote its palatalization, Serbo-Croatian has special letters

for each palatalized consonant since there are only four of them in it; if it were the

same way in Russian we would have to use 15 additional letters in the alphabet which

would be an unbearable burden on the language, so Russian uses two variants of

vowel letters instead: it uses "я" after a consonant letter to mark both its softness and

vowel [a] after it (compare мать (mother) and мять (to crumple)), "ё" - to mark the

softness of preceding consonant and vowel [o] after it (compare вол (bullock, ox) and

вёл ((he) was leading)), "ю" - softness of the consonant + vowel [u] after it, "е" -

softness of the consonant + vowel denoted by letter "э" after it. Besides, letter "и"

always denotes the softness of preceding consonant plus vowel [i] after it as well (e.g.

один (one)) but the same vowel [i] can also be expressed by the letter "и" apart from

the consonant (e.g. искать (to look for)), so "и" has no counterpart while "я", "ё",

Page 2: Russian Pronunciation Guide

"ю", "е" do have it. If there is no vowel following the soft consonant softness is

marked by the letter "ь" (soft sign), e.g. мать (mother), кольцо (ring).

Now let's go to the alphabet. In the following list Russian letters are on the left, their

rough pronunciation on the right.

• а - like "a" in "part" but shorter, e.g. зима (winter), дать (to give), да (yes).

• б - like "b" in "bone", e.g. банан (banana) (hard), берёза (birch) (soft)

• в - like "v" in "vast", e.g. ворота (gate) (hard), ковёр (carpet) (soft)

• г - like "g" in "get", e.g. город (town), огурец (cucumber) (both hard), гений

(genius) (soft)

• д - like "d" in "day", e.g. вода (water) (hard), делать (to do) (soft)

• е - at the beginning of the word, after all vowels and letters "ь" and "ъ" like

[je] in "yes", e.g. ель (fir), диета (diet), in other positions it marks the softness

of the preceding consonant (except "ж","ш" and "ц", e.g. женщина (woman),

шесть (six), цены (prices), and other consonants in some foreign words, e.g.

фонетика (phonetics)) and is pronounced almost like Russian "э", i.e. like "e"

in "let", e.g. петь (to sing), газета (newspaper)

• ё - at the beginning of the word, after all vowels and letters "ь" and "ъ" like

[jo] in "yawn" but shorter, e.g. ёж (hedgehog), даёт ((he) gives), бьёт ((he)

beats), in other positions it marks the softness of the preceding consonant

(except "ж" and "ш", e.g. шёлк (silk), жёлтый (yellow)) and is pronounced

like stressed Russian "о", i.e. like English "o" in "corn" but shorter, e.g. мёд

(honey), ковёр (carpet). Note that "ё" is always stressed in Russian.

• ж - like "g" in "rouge", e.g. жёлтый (yellow), жить (to live) (both hard); "ж"

is very seldom pronounced in soft form so in the previous examples letters "ё"

and "и" did not soften it.

• з - like "z" in "zest", e.g. звать (to call) (hard), зелёный (green) (soft)

• и - like "ee" in "teen" but shorter, e.g. зима (winter), пить (to drink). Note that

the consonant preceding "и" is always soft except for letters "ж", "ш" and "ц"

which are always hard in Russian (in these cases letter "и" is pronounced

identical to "ы"), e.g. жизнь (life), широкий (wide, masculine), цирк (circus).

• й - when beginning a syllable (very seldom) like "y" in "yes" or like "j" in

German "ja", e.g. йод (iodine), койот (coyote), when terminating a syllable -

like "y" in "may" ("й" is pronounced like a semivowel in this case so it is

called "и краткое" (и short)), e.g. мой (my), майка (T-shirt). Note that "й"

can have only soft form since it is a palatal sound, i.e. it is pronounced with

the tongue touching the hard palate, so it is already palatalized and can't be

pronounced without palatalization.

• к - like "k" in "kick" but not aspirated, e.g. корова (cow), сок (juice) (both

Page 3: Russian Pronunciation Guide

hard), кисть (paintbrush) (soft)

• л - like "l" in "look", e.g. голубь (pigeon) (hard), лес (forest) (soft)

• м - like "m" in "moon", e.g. мыть (to wash) (hard), место (place) (soft)

• н - like "n" in "not", e.g. она (she) (hard), они (they) (soft)

• о - like "o" in "port" but shorter, e.g. молоко (milk), дом (house)

• п - like "p" in "pay" but not aspirated, e.g. папа (dad) (hard), пиво (beer)

(soft)

• р - no exact counterpart in English but it is like rolled "r" in "rock" in Scottish

pronunciation, e.g. работать (to work) (hard), река (river) (soft)

• с - like "s" in "say", e.g. совет (advice) (hard), семья (family) (soft)

• т - like "t" in "time", e.g. тот (that, masculine) (hard), тень (shadow) (soft)

• у - like "oo" in "moon" but shorter, e.g. стул (chair), луна (moon)

• ф - like "f" in "fast", e.g. факел (torch) (hard), кофе (coffee) (soft)

• х - no exact counterpart in English since English "h" is pronounced as a

pharyngeal sound and Russian "х" is articulated by the back part of the tongue

touching the soft palate, it is rather like German "ch" in "Buch", e.g. плохой

(bad) (hard), хитрый (cunning, crafty) (soft)

• ц - like "ts" in "cats" (but pronounced as one sound) or like "Z" in German

"Zeit", e.g. отец (father), цыган (Gipsy) (both hard). Note that this consonant

never appears in soft form in Russian unlike Ukrainian and Belorussian.

• ч - like "ch" in "check", e.g. чай (tea), чёрный (black) (both soft). Note that

this consonant never appears in hard form unlike Belorussian

• ш - like "sh" in "shock" but not so soft, e.g. душа (soul), шум (noise) (both

hard). Note letter "ш" never denotes soft consonant since there is another letter

"щ" for this purpose

• щ - this letter denotes long and soft "ш" like "sh" in "she" but a bit softer and

longer, e.g. щука (pike), плащ (raincoat). Of course this letter can't appear in

hard form like "ш" can't appear in soft form

• ъ - this letter is not pronounced in Russian, it is usually a partitive sign

between the prefix and the root, it can only appear between a consonant and

letters "е", "ё", "ю", "я" which are then pronounced as at the beginning of the

word or after a vowel, i.e. with consonant [j] preceding a vowel: [je], [jo], [ju],

[ja] (in stressed position). Example: подъехать (to drive up), объявление

(advertisement)

• ы - no exact and even similar counterpart in English, this sound is very hard to

describe, you should pronounce [i:] as in "mean" then lower the middle part of

Page 4: Russian Pronunciation Guide

your tongue a bit and bring your lips to neutral position, then you will hear

somewhat similar to Russian sound. But better listen to the examples: мыло

(soap), дышать (to breathe), забыть (forget), крыса (rat)

• ь - this letter like is not pronounced in Russian, like "ъ" it is a partitive sign

between the parts of the word, also like "ъ" it can appear between a consonant

and letters "е", "ё", "ю", "я" which are then pronounced with a consonant [j]

preceding them, e.g. пьяный (drunken), бьёт ((he) beats). But "ь" can also

appear at the end of the word, e.g. моль (moth), конь (horse). In both cases the

consonant preceding "ь" is pronounced soft (except for "ж", "ш" which never

appear soft)

• э - like "e" in "set", e.g. этот (this, masculine), мэр (mayor) (quite rare in

Russian)

• ю - at the beginning of the word, after all vowels and letters "ь" and "ъ" like

[ju] in "mute" but shorter, e.g. юг (south), поют ((they) sing), шьют ((they)

sew), in other positions it marks the softness of the preceding consonant and is

pronounced like Russian "у", e.g. клюв (beak), нюхать (to smell).

• я - at the beginning of the word, after all vowels and letters "ь" and "ъ" like

[ja] in "yard" but shorter, e.g. ящик (box), маяк (beacon), пьяный (drunken),

in other positions it marks the softness of the preceding consonant and is

pronounced like Russian "а", e.g. понять (to understand), пять (five).

Additional features of Russian pronunciation

There are two additional features of Russian pronunciation which even a beginner

should know of:

• vowels in non-stressed positions are reduced more or less depending on a

particlular vowel: vowels [u], [ы] and [i] are not reduced very much (compare

рука (hand,arm) - руки (hands, arms), дышать (to breathe) - дышит ((he)

breathes), зима (winter) - зимний (wintry)); vowel [a] is reduced pretty much:

in the syllable right before the stressed one it is pronounced like "u" in "cut"

(1st level reduction), e.g. замок (lock), in all other syllables except the stressed

one and the one right before stressed it is pronounced yet weaker (2nd level

reduction), e.g. караван (caravan) (here we have two unstressed syllables);

vowel [o] which is denoted by letter "о" is reduced very much in non-stressed

syllables: in the syllable right before stressed it gets identical with the vowel

[a] in its 1st level reduction, elsewhere with the vowel [a] in its 2nd level

reduction, e.g. молоко (milk), дорогой (expensive, dear), so you see:

whenever you meet letter "о" in non-stressed position you should pronounce it

as if letter "а" were in its place (this process is called аканье (akanie) and is

dated back to the 13th century, it influenced mostly territories to the west and

south of Moscow, on the contrary to the north-east of Moscow we can still

hear a lot of people pronouncing [o] non-reduced in non-stressed syllables, it

is called оканье (okanie)); vowel [e] (denoted by "е") and vowel [a] before

soft consonants (denoted by "я") are in non-stressed syllables reduced to a

vowel very similar to [i], e.g. дерево (tree), деревянный (wooden), девять

(nine), девяносто (ninety) (this process is called иканье (ikanie))

Page 5: Russian Pronunciation Guide

• noise consonants (in Russian they are denoted by the following letters: "б",

"в", "г", "д", "ж", "з", "к", "п", "с", "т", "ф", "х", "ц", "ч", "ш", "щ") are

assimilated in the presence of voice when coming in clusters, i.e. if there is a

cluster of these consonants, consisting of at least two consonants, then all of

them are pronounced voiced or unvoiced solely depending on the last

consonant of the cluster being voiced or unvoiced respectively. This process is

called regressive assimilatin since the last consonant of the cluster influences

all the previous ones; in English we can meet progressive assimilation, for

example when forming the plural of a noun you choose endings [s], [z] or [iz]

depending on the quality of the preceding consonant (compare "books",

"tables", "matches"), or in forming the Past Simple form of regular verbs you

choose [t] or [d] ending for the same reason (compare "looked" and "saved")

so that the first consonant of the cluster influences the following one.

Examples of regressive assimilation: в комнате [fkomnati] (in the room) ("в"

is pronounced as unvoiced [f] in this consonant cluster since the last consonant

of the cluster is unvoiced [k]), отдать [addat'] (to give back, perfective aspect)

("т" is pronounced as voiced [d] since the last consonant of the cluster is

voiced [d]), лодка [lotka] (boat), с горы [zgarы] (from the mountain).

Exception: voiced consonant [v] (denoted by "в") does not influence the

previous consonants of the cluster though it gets influenced by the following

noise consonants, compare свойство [svojstva] (feature, property) ([v] does

not influence the previous consonants neither in the first ("св") nor in the

second ("ств") cluster) and вши [f/sh/ы] (lice) ("в" does get influenced by the

following "ш"). Another feature is that all noise consonants are devoiced at the

end of the word (of course if there is no word immediately following it and

beginning with the voiced noise consonant, you could see it in one of the

previous examples: с горы), e.g. год [got] (year) ("д" gets devoiced), враг

[vrak] (enemy) ("г" gets devoiced), мороз [maros] (frost) ("з" gets devoiced)