The Russian rules of pronunciation will delight you

Since Russian is such an easy language, it has very few pronunciation rules; by and large words are pronounced the way they are spelled and vice versa. Every time you want to say 'oo' you write y and you always pronounce y 'oo'. Whenever this is not the case, the pronunciation varies by strict, easy-to-follow rules which are provided on this page. Let's begin with the basic sounds associated with the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet in Russian.

TABLE 1: Basic Russian Pronunciation
Pronunciation Russian
a 'Ah!' but short 'r' as in Scots 'run'
'b' as in 'bet' 's' as in 'set'
'v' as in ''Vette' 't' as in 'Tet'
'g' as in 'Gucci' 'Oo!' but short
'd' as in 'dad' 'f' as in 'fifty'
'Yay!' but short 'kh' in Scots 'loch'
'Yo!' as in 'Yo, dude!' 'ts' as in 'lets'
'zh' as in 'azure' 'ch' as in 'church'
'z' as in 'zit' 'sh' as in 'shush'
'ee' but short 'shch' 'fresh cheese'
'y' as in 'Yuck!' hard sign
'k' as in 'kit' between 'i' and 'u'
'l' as in 'let' soft sign
'm' as in 'met' 'Eh?' (short)
'n' as in 'net' 'yu' as in 'you'
'Oh!' but short 'ya' as in 'yacht'
'p' as in 'pet'

There are three basic exceptions to these one-one correspondences between letter and sound in the pronunciation of vowels and two exceptions in the pronunciation of consonants. There are a couple of additional minor exceptions which will not be discussed here.

1. The Akanie and Ikania Rules.

The akanie and ikanie rules are pronuniation rules which apply to the central dialects of Russian to which Muscovite Russian belongs. According to akanie, an unaccented 'o' is pronounced 'a' in the syllable immediately preceding the accent and 'uh' as in 'but' elsewhere. The ikanie rule states that unaccented 'e', '', and '' are pronounced the same as ''. You may listen to the words exemplifying akanie and ikania in the table below by clicking them with your mouse. Accented syllables are in boldface type. Notice that an unaccented 'o' and 'a' sound identical in the syllable immediately preceding the accent and an unaccented 'e' sounds identical to ''.

TABLE 2: Akanie and Ikanie
Akanie Sounds like Ikania Sounds like
a : [garada] : [rika]
: [barada] : [biriga]

2. Devoicing at the End of Words

In addition to the hard and soft consonants in Russian, the distinction 'voiced' and 'voiceless' consonants is also important. Table 3 shows the voiced-voiceless pairs of consonants in Russian. These consonants are identical except that the vocal chords vibrate when we produce the voiced consonants and they don't when we produced voiceless ones. (You can distinguish these pairs by holding your throat when you pronounce them slowly; English maintains the same distinction.)

TABLE 3: Word End Voicing

3. Adjusting the Voicing of Consonant Clusters

Whenever two or more of the consonants in Table 3 occur within a phonological word (a word or cluster of words sharing a single accent), the final consonant determines the voicing for all. In other words, if the final consonant is voiced, all will be voiced, if the final consonant is voiceless, all will be voiceless.

TABLE 4: Consonant Cluster Voicing
[od zhalasti] [is Tomska]
[zhid' by] [apsalyutna]
[mozd zhy] [mushskoy]

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© 1996 Robert Beard