Russian Language Grammar

    Pronunciation

Pronunciation of Hard and Soft Sounds

Vowels

The hard vowels and the phonetically corresponding soft ones are:

Hard:   А    Э     О    У    Ы     

Soft:    Я    Е     Ё     Ю   И

Consonants

In the same way, Russian consonants can be pronounced hard or soft, except ж, ш, ц, which are always hard, and й, ч, щ, which are always soft. The hard pronunciation occurs:

  1. Before a hard vowel:  бумага – paper
  2. At the end of a word:  стол – table
  3. Before another hard consonant:  два – two (в is hard as it stands before a hard vowel a)


Most consonants can be softened, i.e. pronounced with the middle part of the tongue slightly raised and touching the palate. This is especially marked with д, т, л, and н.   Compare the following sounds:

HARD SOUND                        SOFT SOUND

д    as d in do            as, sometimes, d in duty (that is with a barely perceptible "Z sound" following the d)

т     as t in to             as, sometimes, t in tube (again with a barely perceptible "Z sound" following the t)

 

HARD  SOUND                            SOFT  SOUND

л     as l in milk, or ll in well            as ll in million

н     as n in no                                as n in onion

The softening is much less noticeable with б, в, з, м, п, р, с, ф:   For example, hard б as b in barn;  soft б as b in beet.

The softening of a consonant takes place:

  1. In front of a soft vowel:  дядя – uncle; тётя – aunt
  2. In front of а ь:   дать – to give;  соль – salt
  3. When preceding another softened consonant, especially д, т, л, н: вместе [vmies'ti] – together;  гвозди [gvoz'di] – nails.

 

In Russian words the consonants г, к, and x are softened only when they precede e or и: гений – genius;   кипеть – to boil;  хитрый – sly.

Hard and Soft Signs

A hard sign may separate a consonant from the vowels e, ё, ю, or я. This usually takes place after prefixes, such as от-, с-, or об-, and sometimes without prefixes: отъезд – departure; съёмка – shooting; объяснение – explanation; адъютант – adjutant.

The vowel which follows the ъ becomes yotated.  Compare отец [atiets] (soft т) with отъезд [at-yest] (hard т).

A soft sign may separate one consonant from another.  In this case, the first consonant is softened:  пальто – topcoat (l like ll in million).

A soft sign may separate a consonant from the vowels e, ё, и, ю, я, and о:

пьеса – play;  льёт – pours;   воробьи – sparrows;   вьюга – snow storm; перья – feathers;  почтальон – postman.

 

The vowel which follows the ь becomes yotated. This yotation is clearly noticeable when comparing the pronunciation of пьеса [pyesa] with пешка [pieshka] – pawn.

Finally, a soft sign may end a word, in which case the preceding consonant is softened:  мать – mother; соль – salt.

Pronunciation of Vowels

The basic rules for pronunciation of vowels are given earlier in this chapter and in the video lessons. Some additional rules follow:

Yotation

The letters е, ё, ю, and я are yotated at the beginning of a word, or when they follow a vowel, a hard sign, or a soft sign. They are pronounced then with an initial "y sound," such as ye in yes, yo in York, и in use, ya in yard.

ест (he) eats is pronounced "yest"
каюта cabin "kayoota"
объявление advertisement "abyeevleniye"
пьёт (he) drinks
"pyot"

 However, when e, ё, ю, and я follow a consonant, the yotation is markedly less and often practically inaudible. The same letters may be compared to the following English sounds:

  • e in лес (wood, forest) is similar to e in less or ai in lair.
  •  ё in сёл (Genitive plural of село – village) is similar to eou in Seoul.
  • ю in бюро (office) is similar to и in bureau.
  • я in пятый (fifth) is similar to a in Patrick.

 

The letter и has but a slight yotation, and only in the words им, ими, and их, or after a soft sign: лисьи норы – fox holes; судьи – judges.

Stressed and Unstressed Vowels

All Russian words have one vowel stressed, i.e. pronounced louder. This stress is indicated in textbooks by an accent mark (´): водá; мóре. (A compound noun containing the letter ё may carry a secondary stress: трёхэтáжный дом – three-story house.)

When unstressed, all Russian vowels lose their clarity and some undergo changes in pronunciation.

1.   о and a

When о is stressed, it is pronounced close to о in nor.

When о is not stressed it is pronounced close to о in connection.

When a is stressed, it is pronounced close to a in car.

When a is not stressed it is pronounced close to a in cigarette.

Note: In a few foreign words the unstressed о is pronounced the same way as a stressed one: оазис – oasis; боа – boa; and to some degree, in радио – radio.

2.  е, э and я

These letters, when unstressed, are all pronounced in much the same way – similarly to the first e in between. Compare, for example, the marked difference in the pronunciation of я and e in пять and шесть (stressed) with practically the same sounds in пятнадцать and шестнадцать (unstressed).

Remark:   The letter ё is always stressed!

3.  и, у, ю and ы

Each one of these letters has basically the same sound, regardless of the stress. There may be just a slight difference in the way they are pronounced, i.e. the stressed ones with more effort. For example, the letter у in “ýже” (narrower) is pronounced with the lips further out than the у in “ужé” (already).

Remark: The letter и, stressed or unstressed, is pronounced [ы] after ж, ц and ш: жизнь, цирк, шина

Pronunciation of Consonants

The basic rules for pronunciation of consonants are given earlier in this chapter and in the video lessons. Some additional rules follow.

Voiced and Voiceless Consonants

Consonants are divided into voiced and voiceless, according to the use of vocal chords. Some of these undergo a change in their pronunciation:

VOICED PRONOUNCED VOICELESS

The voiced consonants      б   в   г   д   ж    з    are pronounced like the

corresponding voiceless    п   ф  к   т   ш   с

This takes place in front of п, ф, к, т, ш, с, x, ц, ч, щ:

  Translation Phonetic Pronunciation
губка   sponge goopka
общество society opshcheestva
автор author aftar
овца sheep aftsa
левша left-handed person lifsha
бегство escape biekstva
водка vodka votka
ложка spoon loshka
мужчина man mooshcheena
сказка fairytale skaska
When they end a word:
дуб oak doop
ров moat rof
шаг step shak
сад garden sat
нож knife nosh
глаз eye glas

 

 VOICELESS PRONOUNCED VOICED

The voiceless consonants к с т are pronounced like the corresponding

voiced ones in front of б г д ж з.

  Translation 

Phonetic Pronunciation

вокзал  station, terminal  vagzal 
сдача change (money)  zdachia 
отдать to return, to give back  addat' 

The Ending -гo

The ending -гo in declinable parts of speech is pronounced [vo]: красного "krasnavo'''; первого "piervavo." The adverb “сегодня” (originally сего дня) is pronounced "sivodnia."

Unpronounced Consonants

Occasionally, a consonant from a "cluster of consonants" is not pro­nounced:

  • In “поздно”              (late)             the д is not pronounced.
  • In “счастливый”       (happy)         the т is not pronounced.
  • In “грустный”           (sad)             the т is not pronounced.
  • In “чувство”             (feeling)        the first в is not pronounced.
  • In “здравствуйте”     (hello)          the first в is not pronounced.

Isolated Cases

In the words “Бог” (God), “лёгкий” (light), and “мягкий” (easy, soft) the г is pronounced like a [x].

The Letter й

The letter й is regarded as a consonant, since it does not form a syllable. Alternatively, it has often been classified as a "semivowel," which seems to be perfectly justifiable because of its closeness to vowels.  (Compare for example, the pronunciation of сарай (barn) with сараи (barns).)

Spelling Rule 

The following important spelling rule should be noted: 

  • The letters г, к, x, ж, ч, ш, щ are never followed by ы, ю, or я (even if they may sound as if they were – like и in жил or a in чай).

  • A few foreign words are exceptions:   жюри – jury; парашют – parachute.

  • The letter ц is never followed by ю or я.  It may be followed by и or ы, but in either case the sound is [цы]:   цирк – circus; цыплёнок – chicken.