Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rules Of Reading In Russian

Once a gentleman who studies Russian asked me, “You pronounce it like paka (пака), but write it as poka (пока), why?”. The short answer is “because the Russian language is not phonetic". What you hear is not what you write. The spelling of the word may differ greatly from the pronunciation.

There are a few simple rules of reading in Russian. They could be helpful for not only mastering proper Russian pronunciation, but also for improving spelling. Here they are.


In Russian, every word has one stressed syllable. In order to speak Russian properly it is necessary to know where to put the stress in the words. In some cases incorrect stress leads to a change in meaning. Stress in Russian is not fixed, it may fall on any syllable and normally it is not indicated with an accent mark. The best way to learn the stress is by listening to a native speaker and repeating what they say.

Vowel Reduction
In Russian, unstressed vowels are not pronounced as distinctly as stressed vowels. The alteration of a vowel in an unstressed position is called reduction. As a result of reduction, some letters denoting vowel sounds are read in a different manner than they are read in the alphabet.

Stressed А is like [ah] in father
Unstressed А is like [ə] in photography

Sressed O is like [oh] in coffee
Unstressed О is like [a] or [uh]

Stressed Е is like [ye] in yellow
Unstressed Е is like [yi]

Stressed Я is like [ya] in yacht
Unstressed Я is like [yi]
Exception: In the endings of nouns, adjectives etc., in unstressed position the letter я should be read as [ya]

И, Ы, У, Ю, Э
— no alteration in unstressed position.

Reading the news

Photo by James Offer


Hard and Soft
All consonant sounds are divided into hard and soft. Most sounds come in pairs "hard vs. soft", i.e. their pronunciation differs only by softness. There are 15 pairs of consonants "hard vs. soft". Both hard and soft sound in each pair represented by the same letter.
The sound is soft if the letter is followed by:
И, Е, Ю, Я, Ё or Ь
Otherwise, a consonant sound is hard.
Note: Ж, Ш are always hard, so turn И, Е, Ю into Ы, Э, У respectively when reading.

Voiced and Voiceless:
Most of Russian consonants come in voiced/voiceless pairs:
Б – П
В – Ф
Ж – Ш
Г – К
Д – Т
З – С

Voiced consonants are pronounced with vibration of the vocal cords, whilst unvoiced consonants are pronounced with little or no vibration of the vocal cords.

Russian letters Б, В, Г, Д, Ж, З turn into the voiceless sounds [П], [Ф], [К], [Т], [Ш], [С] before unvoiced consonants, at the end of the word and before final ь.

Vocalization is an opposite process compared to devoicing. It means that letters П, Ф, С, Т, Ш and К, the basic meanings of which are unvoiced consonants, may designate voiced sounds (hard and soft). Vocalization occurs in cases when these letters are found before letters Б, Г, Д, Ж, З denoting voiced sounds. Note that if П, Ф, С, Т, Ш and К are found before В, vocalization does not occur.

When reading:

  • check the stress,
  • reduce unstressed vowels,
  • soften consonants if they are followed by И, Е, Ю, Я, Ё or Ь,
  • devocalize voiced consonant at the end of the word or before unvoiced consonants,
  • vocalize unvoiced consonants before voiced consonants.