Masaryk University Faculty of Arts



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3.2. Russian sound system


Russian phonology is based mainly on its two phenomena which are stress in vowels and palatalization in consonants (Timberlake, 2002, p. 828).

3.2.1. Segmental level

3.2.1.1. Vowels


Some linguists recognize six vowel phonemes in Russian: / ɑ, e, o, u, i, ɨ / but most of the linguists regard /ɨ/ only as a variation of the vowel /i/ which means that they recognize five vowel phonemes (Oliverius, 1974, p. 84). However, more vowel sounds can easily be heard because the phonemes have a number of allophones. They vary depending on the adjacent consonants, more precisely on palatalization in the consonants, on the location of accent and the degree of reduction (Jones & Ward, 1969, p. 28).

Russian five vowel sounds are represented by ten letters: а, э, о, у, ы and я, e, ё, ю, и. These can be put into pairs: а-я, э-е, о-ё, у-ю, ы-и where each pair represents one vowel sound. The second letters of the pairs indicate that the preceding consonant is palatalized i.e. it “has a [j] pronounced directly after it and before the vowel” (Marren, 2011, pp. 76-77).

Despite the numerous variations of the sounds, the vowel system of the Russian language is not as complicated as the vowel system of English. The Russian sound system does not have long vowels which are present in English. The length of a vowel depends on the stress i.e. if the vowel is under stress or not (Romportl, 1973, p. 5). Similarly as in Czech and Slovak, in Russian the sound /æ/ is missing. Considering these facts it is likely to hear Russian speakers having problems with the length of English vowels as well as with the distinguishing of timber in individual vowels. Gimson (2008) states that “the main difficulty for all those whose own languages have a less complex vowel system than English lies in the establishment of the qualitative oppositions /ɪ/-/e/-/æ/-/ʌ/“ (p. 114) from which the opposition /e/-/æ/ should be emphasized. This means that equally as Czech and Slovak learners the Russians encounter troubles with correct pronunciation of the sound /æ/. Affirmation of this kind of error can be found in Collins and Mees (2008) Survey of English pronunciation errors in a selection of languages and language groupings” in which confusion of phonemic contrast /e-æ/ is assigned as a highly significant problem area for the Russian learners (p. 211).



As it was already indicated, in the Russian language quantity is the attribute of the stressed vowels only and it is not meaning-bearing. Quality is dependent on the location of stress and the adjacent consonants (Havránek, Barnetová, & Leška, 1976, p. 46). In Russian as well as in English occurs reduction of the vowels in unstressed syllables. This reduction is strong and the difference between the stressed and unstressed vowels is substantial. However, unlike in English where the unstressed vowels are replaced by the sound /ə/ or sometimes by /ɪ/, Russian reduction involves a bit more complicated changes. Usually there are distinguished three degrees of reduction (Oliverius, 1974, p. 85):

  • ‚zero‘ degree – in the stressed syllables

  • The 1st degree – in the syllable just before the stressed syllable

  • The 2nd degree – in all other unstressed positions

The 1st degree reduction is not as strong as the 2nd degree reduction and the strongest reduction occurs in the vowel which is located immediately after the stress (Havránek et al., 1976, p. 46). Qualitative reduction in Russian language can be particularly clearly observed in the phonemes /o, e/. /o/ in unstressed position is realized as short, weak, unlabialized sound which is something between a weak /o/ and a weak /ɑ/. The vowel sound /e/ in unstressed syllable is realized as a weak unclear sound, something between weak /e/ and weak /i/ (Oliverius, 1974, p. 58). However, there are a lot of realizations distinguished by tiny differences which depend on the exact position of the unstressed syllables in a word. Generally, in a simplified way, if the sounds /ɑ, o/ undergo the 1st degree reduction resulting vowel is the sound /ɐ/. In case of the sound /e/ the result is /ɪ/. When the 2nd degree reduction occurs in the syllable with /ɑ, o/ the resulting pronunciation for the sounds is /ə/ (Timberlake, 2002, p. 832).

3.2.1.2. Consonants


Russian phonetic system includes 35 consonantal phonemes which is the biggest number from among so far mentioned languages (Oliverius, 1974, p. 103). The exceeding number of the Russian consonants over the English consonantal sounds is mostly constituted in the palatalized sounds which are absent in the English language. Almost every Russian consonantal sound has its palatalized opposition: /m – mʲ/, /b – bʲ/, /p – pʲ/, /v vʲ/, /f fʲ/, /l lʲ/, /n ɲ/, /d dʲ/, /t tʲ/, /z zʲ/, /s sʲ/, /r rʲ/, /g gʲ/, /k kʲ/, /x xʲ/ (Oliverius, 1974, p. 103). These palatalized consonants which are also known as soft consonants are produced when the front of the tongue is raised so as to touch the hard palate (Jones & Ward, 1969, p. 81).

Similarly as the Czech and Slovak languages, Russian is characteristic of the system of voiced and voiceless consonants. This attribute associates again with the feature of assimilation. Assimilation in Russian has regressive character and devoicing of the voiced consonants at the end of the words is applied (Havránek et al., 1976, pp. 28-29). These features in the native language cause Russian learners troubles in their English pronunciation. Wrong pronunciation of final fortis and lenis ranks among the most often errors in Russian English (Collins & Mees, 2008, p. 211). Since possible misunderstandings on the part of the listener caused by such incorrect pronunciation are the same as in case of Czech and Slovak speakers, the examples are not depicted again. Similarly, from the following errors in Russian speakers several misunderstandings can arise. When the errors overlap with those of the Czechs and the Slovaks the misunderstandings are not repeatedly stated either.

Another difference between the English and Russian sound systems is related to the matter of aspirated and not aspirated voiceless plosives. Not even in Russian the aspect of aspiration occurs and therefore the mispronunciation of English p, t, k in stressed positions can be very often perceived (Collins & Mees, 2008, p. 211).

Despite the fact that the number of Russian consonants quite exceeds the number of English consonants there are English sounds which in Russian consonantal system do not exist. There are no dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ what results in incorrect pronunciation of the sounds and sometimes in their substitution for /s/ and /z/. As with the Czech and Slovak learners of English the /w/ and /v/ sounds are troublesome since the Russians are not used to pronouncing the sound /w/ in their native language and they often confuse it with /v/. Russian learners also have difficulties with accurate pronunciation of the sound /ŋ/ which leads to incorrect pronunciation of the words like sing, thing, hanger (Collins & Mees, 2008, p. 211).

In contrast to English, Czech or Slovak, the Russian language does not have the sound /h/ in its system. Its pronunciation is ranked among significant errors in Russians speakers. The fact of the absence of /h/ in their native language sometimes results in its replacement by the closest Russian equivalent – the velar fricative /x/ (Collins & Mees, 2008, p. 211).

Specific to Russian learners of English is often mispronunciation of the /ɹ/ sound (Collins & Mees, 2008, p. 211). Speakers articulate an alveolar trill instead of an alveolar approximant. The alveolar trill, commonly called the rolled r, is typical of Russian language. The English alveolar approximant /ɹ/ is formed with the tip of the tongue held against the rear part of the teeth ridge. The tongue in its position is not in contact with upper molars (Gimson, 2008, p. 220). The position of the tip of the tongue when the Russian rolled r is pronounced is further forward (Jones & Ward, 1969, p. 178). Pronouncing the alveolar trills in English is not a problem which would lead to unintelligibility (Gimson, 2008, p. 223) but it marks Russian learners with a strong foreign accent and it is ranked among ‘errors which evoke irritation or amusement’ (Collins & Mees, 2008, p. 209).

3.2.2. Suprasegmental level

3.2.2.1. Word stress


Word stress is a crucial aspect of the Russian language. It is not fixed as in Czech or Slovak but similarly as in English it is ‘free’ i.e. it can fall on any syllable of a word. With different grammatical forms word stress in Russian can even become ‘mobile’ and change its position within one word. As already mentioned, the stress determines the pronunciation of unstressed vowels. On that account to pronounce a word correctly it is necessary to know the position of the stress (Avanesov, 1964, p. 22). The stress sometimes distinguishes words of identical sound structures e.g. if a Russian word muka (мука) is stressed on the first syllable the meaning is torture but if the second syllable of the word is stressed the meaning is flour. In Russian there are no rules or patterns which would indicate the position of the stress in individual words. The stress is learnt together with a word as its integral part (Jones & Ward, 1969, p. 212). When the Russian and English aspects of word stress are compared they seem to share their characteristics which could mean a certain advantage for the Russian learners of English. However, although the characteristic of being ‚free‘ is for both languages common, there are no any common word stress patterns for stressing the individual words. Even the position of the stress in words which sound similar in Russian and English are different e.g. a word student is stressed on the second syllable in Russian but on the first syllable in English. Wrong placement of the stress can lead to misunderstandings as explained in the section about pronunciation in Czech and Slovak speakers. Nevertheless, there can be seen an advantage for the Russian learners of English and that is the fact that they are raised to differentiate stress in words and should understand the importance of stressing. If looked at the Collins and Mees (2008) table of English pronunciation errors, in case of the Russians he ranks the stress among less significant problem areas (p. 211).

3.2.2.2. Rhythm


The Russian language belongs to the group of stressed-time languages in which stressed syllables occur at roughly equal intervals (Roach, 1991, p. 121). In Russian as well as in English and the languages with strong dynamic stresses, almost all the energy is used for the pronunciation of the stressed syllables, and the unstressed syllables are left with not much energy. Therefore, their vowels weaken and change their quality i.e. they are reduced (Oliverius, 1974, p. 55). Consequently, largely due to these strong reductions, the rhythmic feet are not lengthy but very dynamic (Oliverius, 1974, p. 56). Similarly as in the English language, Russian rhythmical unit is not always identical to a semantic unit. Russian learners as those, whose native language belongs to the group of stressed-time languages which are characteristic of strong stresses and reductions, are expected not to have so many troubles with the English rhythm. The aspect of the rhythm is marked as the area where in case of Russian speakers not so much difficulties arise (Collins & Mees, 2008, p. 211).


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