Welcome to the third step in learning to read Russian:

  1. Cyrillic Typeface letters
  2. Italic letters
  3. Native Russian Pronunciation 1: Five Difficulties Explained
    a. Stressed/Unstressed Vowel: A Quick Reference Guide
    b. Palatalization in Russian
    c. Special Pronunciations of the Letter {г}
    d. What is the elusive {ё}: fleeting letters
    e. Intonation
  4. Native Russian Pronunciation 2: Stress Training Exercises

Like English, Russian has both strong and weak vowels and their pronunciation is different. This guide will help you become accustomed to the patterns through a low pressure step-by-step method.

For more in-depth coverage of all the rules, please download my book "Glossika Guide to Russian Pronunciation and Grammar" for free, or get a copy on Google Play books.

There were not many materials available when I started learning Russian, which was before the Internet and the СССР still existed. But this was also back when I thought I could learn a language from the written word ( wrong! ). The best way to learn is through normal-speed spaced repetition audio like we provide here on Glossika. (Disclaimer: I'm the founder of Glossika). So sign up today and start your Russian oral journey!

When I learned Russian I faced many frustrations with the alphabet and each of the letters' pronunciations. I don't know if you've been able to find everything you need online today to read Russian correctly and without an accent. Based on my experience, most guides only tell you half the story and most are misleading at that (normally they only teach you what I taught you in Article 1 of this series and then leave you at that). So I've compiled all of the points of confusion and frustration into this one guide with an additional 26 Training Exercises. There's a lot to share with you pronunciation-wise. So Pronunciation has been split up as there's much more to cover than in Alphabet Article 1!

Stressed/Unstressed Vowel: A Quick Reference Guide

Don't memorize these tables. The 26 training exercises drill the patterns until you know them by heart.

STRESSED LETTERS:

RU:аэыоуяеиёю
IPA:aɛɨoujajeʲijoju

1st DEGREE WEAK AFTER THE STRESS:

RU:аэыоуяеиёю
IPA:əɛɨəʊʲəʲɪʲɪjoʲʊ̈

1st DEGREE WEAK BEFORE THE STRESS:

RU:аэыоуяеиёю
IPA:ɐɛɨɐʊʲəʲɪʲɪjoʲʊ̈

2nd DEGREE WEAK BEFORE THE STRESS:

RU:аэыоуяеиёю
IPA:əɛɨəʊʲəʲɪɪjoʲʊ̈

Notice there are two pronunciations for а and о: [ə-ɐ]. These two letters are pronounced [ɐ] just before the stress, but [ə] when occurring before [ɐ]. Notice how the letters get stronger and stronger stress in succession in the following examples:

  • положить: pəlɐžɨ́
  • хорошо: xərɐš
  • озночает: əznɐćáʲɪt

But when two letters appear together due to a prefix they maintain [ɐ]:

  • сообщить: sɐɐpʲśí

The unstressed letter э appearing at the beginning of a word is pronounced [ɪ].

Finally, at the beginning of a word, и does not have any palatalization /ʲ/ preceding it. And in sequences following prepositions or verbs, и is often pronounced like ы /ɨ/: от имена [ot ɨmʲɪnə], читал им [ʨʲɪtal ɨm].

Palatalization in Russian

Palatalization is an important feature of Russian pronunciation. This simply means adding a "-y" sound onto a vowel or a consonant. Vowels in Russian that start with a palatal {j-} are referred to as "мягкий" (soft).

This phenomenon happens in a lot of European languages, even English. An example of this is 'ny' in "canyon" where you can consider that the {n} is palatalized by the {y}. In Spanish, they have their own letter: ñ. Another example is the palatalized {l} in the word "million", so you can see that different spellings can accomplish palatal sounds in English.

The English letter {u} kind of acts like the Russian {ю}. For example in Italian, Spanish, and German, the word "university" starts with an "oo" sound, but in English it starts with a "yoo".

The hard and soft signs of Russian are perhaps the most perplexing part of the alphabet. But there's a very easy way to understand how they work.

Russian spelling can force a consonant to add a palatalization, just by adding the soft sign {ь}. It can also force a consonant not to be palatalized by adding a hard sign {ъ}.

Did you know that before the spelling reform on January 1, 1918 that all Russian words either ended in a vowel or the letter {ъ}. To give you an example:

A word with hard consonants and hard vowels: кот
котkotmodern spelling
къ о тъk - o - tsince {о} is a hard vowel
the {к} is also hard.
In Modern Russian, hard signs are dropped when the hardness is obvious. At the time it resulted in massive savings in printing costs and word length too!
A word with soft consonants and soft vowels: пять
пятьpjatjmodern spelling
пь йа тьpj - ja - tjsince {я} is a soft vowel
the {п} is also soft.
In Modern Russian, soft signs are added if no soft vowel is following to inform you of this. Otherwise it is obvious by spelling that the first letter is soft.

Some letters are inherently soft already: ч = чь and щ = щь.

To get an idea of how this works, let's apply the soft and hard signs to English spelling. In each English example below, the palatalized {u} affects the consonant in front of it, making it a palatalized version of itself.

CyrillicEnglishExamples
сью / щюsusure, sugar, issue
зьюsuleisure
тью / чюtufuture, picture, habitual, tune
дьюduproduce, schedule

Not all English speakers pronounce these words palatalized. The biggest differences can be found between American and British speakers. To better understand, you may need to imagine how someone in the other country pronounces it.

Some people pronounce words like "issue" with a separated sound, making the {s} sound like a true /s/. In this case, Russians would describe this sound with a hard sign between the letters: {su = съю}

As is shown above, some letters have alternate spellings, so that {сью} and {тью} are essentially equivalent to {щю} and {чю}. This is because Russian has the specific palatalized letters {щ} and {ч}.

Keep in mind the other two letters {ж} and {ш} are not palatalized at all, but rather retroflex, and have a much deeper sound. They can only become palatalized if they are preceded by another letter like this: {зж} and {сш}.

To better understand the points of articulation for each letter, we can line them up like this:

ArticulationIPAEnglishRussian
Alveolar[t d s z ʦ ʣ]t, sт, с, ц
Postalveolar[ʃ ʒ ʧ ʤ]sh, ch, si (in vision)-
Retroflex[ʂ ʐ ʈʂ ɖʐ]-ш, ж
Palatal[ɕ ʑ ʨ ʥ]tu, du, su (see examples above)ч, щ [сь, ть, дь, сш, зж]

You can easily see the correspondences to spellings in other Slavic languages:

ArticulationIPAPolishCzechSlovakCroatianSerbian
Alveolar[t d s z ʦ ʣ]t, s, ct, s, ct, s, ct, s, cт, с, ц
Postalveolar[ʃ ʒ ʧ ʤ]-š, č, ž, řš, č, žš, č, žш, ч, ж, џ
Retroflex[ʂ ʐ ʈʂ ɖʐ]sz, cz, rz, ż----
Palatal[ɕ ʑ ʨ ʥ]ś, ć, ź [si-, ci-, zi-]ť, ďť, ďć, đћ, ђ

Special Pronunciations of the Letter г

Russian г and Roman h

Historically, the letter г was pronounced gh /ɣ/, which was a voiced and breathy fricative. A fricative is a continuous sound like {f}.

You may have noticed that the pronunciation of -gh- in English "night" has disappeared. Likewise, this Russian -gh- sound has changed significantly over time.

There are several languages where this -gh- sound has become /h/: southern Russian dialects, Ukrainian, and the western Slavic languages of Slovak and Czech. The speakers of these languages perceive this letter {г} to be the equivalent of {h} in non-Slavic languages. This is why so many foreign words with {h} are transcribed with this letter in Russian.

In standard Russian, the pronunciation has become /ɡ/. Most of the time.

When the letter appears before other stop consonants, it's still pronounced as a fricative -gh-, but there are two kinds. If the letter is unvoiced, it becomes unvoiced, otherwise it is voiced. Use the following examples as a guide to help you. By the way, this voicing rule applies to virtually every letter in the alphabet.

гпгтгкгмгбгд
[xp][xt][xk][ɣm][ɣb][ɣd]

Russian г and Roman v

In certain case endings, г is pronounced as /v/. These are usually the genitive endings consisting of -ого and -его.

It is possible for such a word to appear in a compound of another word, such as the word for "today" which is literally "of-this day":

сего́ + дня = сего́дня /sʲɪvódnʲə/

The word мно́го "a lot", is pronounced with a hard /ɡ/. But when it gets an additional ending, as in мно́гого, it is pronounced /mnóɡəvə/.

Here is a list of common words that have the /v/ pronunciation:

-́ ого-ого́-́ егоего́
но́вого [nóvəvə]того́ [tɐvó]ва́шего [vášɨvə]сего́ [sʲɪvó]
чёрного [ćʲórnəvə]кого́ [kɐvó]на́шего [nášɨvə]него́ [nʲɪvó]
кра́сного [krásnəvə]одного́ [ədnɐvó]си́него [sʲínʲɪvə]моего́ [məʲɪvó]
э́того [ɛ́təvə]хоро́шего [xɐróšɨvə]твоего́ [tvəʲɪvó]
молодо́го [məlɐdóvə]бо́льшего [bólʲšɨvə]ничего́ [nʲɪćʲɪvó]
не́чего [nʲéćʲɪvə]

It's worth noting that you'll frequently see an additional reflexive attached to the end of a word which does not change the pronunciation rules above:

-вающегося [-vəjʊśɨvəsə]

What is the elusive ё: fleeting letters

First of all, Russians don't like to write {ё}, writing instead {е} almost exclusively everywhere. There are some publications and teachers that are trying to get people to write {ё} properly, but unsuccessfully. These people are known in Russian as ёфикаторами (that's a predicate noun in this sentence, so I've used instrumental plural). To quote: Ёфикаторами (или ёмейкерами) называют людей, занимающихся ёфикацией; или в более широком смысле — сторонников употребления буквы «ё». Translation: Yoficators (or Yo-makers) are people who practice yofication, or are supporters of the letter {ё} in a broader sense.

So, what's the fuss about? Seeing {ё} spelled out wherever possible really helps learners of Russian learn the proper pronunciations of words. Since Russians learned to speak naturally from listening rather than writing, it makes no difference to them whether they write the diaraesis or not.

It has to do with the culmination of several things:

  1. Palatalization;
  2. Fleeting letters like {е} and {о};
  3. Stress and how it causes vowels to change their pronunciation.

As you start to learn foreign languages, keep in mind that modern languages carry a lot of baggage from their history, especially if it has a long literary tradition, like Russian. As a general rule, the longer a language has been written, the more complicated its modern writing system is likely to be.

Where did Russian come from? It is an East Slavic language descended from Proto-Slavic, and there is a classical Slavic language that goes by the name Old Church Slavonic which we can call a liturgical or ecclesiastical language, usually confined to religious purposes in the modern day. This language is the closest tangible and utilized language that resembles Proto-Slavic, the mother of all Slavic languages.

Old Church Slavonic can teach us a lot: about where stress should fall in modern Russian, and why letters disappear and creep in. It can also give us clues to palatalization issues.

We've learned already that the pronunciation of {ё} is /jo/ and that it is always stressed. Two things to note here: it is both stressed and palatalized.

Defining Underlying {о}

In nouns that end in {-ение} like 'решение' (decision), the last letter is an underlying {-о} and that's why these words are considered neutral gender. But it has palatalization preceding it. An unstressed {о} in Russian is normally pronounced /ə/. But why is it not written with {-о}?

Because then you would spell the word 'решенийо' which is an awkward spelling because normally the palatalization gets attached to a letter, and secondly, the letter {й} never occurs between two vowels in Russian: it just looks and feels very awkward. The only letter pronounced /jo/ is {ё}, but it's a stressed vowel which we cannot use here, so it is written {е} instead, which now has the weak stress pronunciation of /ɪ/.

So you should already know the pairs of hard vs soft vowels. In this chart I've added one extra piece of information that rarely any teacher will ever tell you (and there are exceptions to the rule, but it's a great general rule to know):

HardSoft
ая
эе
ыи
оё stressed
е unstressed
ую

Many of the suffixes in Russian have underlying -o, -om, -on, -ova-, -ovat-, and -o-. And from this concept you'll understand when the -o- in each ending is supposed to become {е} in spelling, but also become a potential {ё} when the stress falls on this letter in particular!

Here are a few examples:

поле1 [по́ль]-о (neuter with underlying -о)
2 по́л-[ьo] > по́л-[ё] (competing stress)
3 по́ле (correct spelling)
словарём1 [слова́рь]- (masculine)
2 словар-[ьо́м] (stress moved)
3 словарьём (correct spelling)
встре́чен1 [встре́т]-ить (infinitive verb)
2 встре́т-[ьен] (pp suffix)
ть > ч
3 встре́чен (correct spelling)
переведён1 пере-[вод]-и́ть (infinite verb, underlying вод)
2 пере-вод-[ьо́н]
3 пере-вед-[ьо́н] (palatalize unstressed о > е)
4 переведён (correct spelling)

Minimal Pairs with е and ё

There are few minimal pairs within Russian roots.

For example, when лет has a meaning related to flight, it must be лёт with underlying о. Think of the English word pilot. Otherwise лет has a meaning related to time (year, age, season, etc).

When мет means sweep or throw, it has an underlying -о-, otherwise it means notice or mark. So for example, when expanding the root through the verb метать (throw, toss), you get derivatives such as замётывать (to sew up) and подмётывать (to tack on). The ё just will not surface in words derived with the meaning notice/mark.

Fleeting Letters

The letter {е} makes an appearance between consonants sometimes. These mostly occur in the following kinds of words where the dash indicates where the {е} gets inserted when nouns get declined:

  • ending in {-ка} such as: вод-ка, девуш-ка, лод-ка, ошиб-ка
  • ending in {-ги, -гий, -ки, -кий} such as: день-ги, дол-гий, напад-ки, жид-кий
  • ending in {-лой, -лый, -ло, -ля} such as: з-лой, кис-лый, крес-ло, мас-ло, зем-ля
  • ending in {-ный, -ня} such as: голод-ный, пес-ня

Sometimes the {е, о} will disappear in declensions:

  • words containing {е} such as: вет-е-р, д-е-нь, долж-е-н
  • words containing {о} such as: звон-о-к, л-ё-д, л-о-б, люб-о-вь

Doubling Vowel around liquids {л, р}

Remember, -o- is frequently used to connect two roots within a word. Not to be confused with a double vowel around liquids.

молоко milk

Notice how in English and German, the word "milk" has a single vowel, and no vowel after {l}. In Russian however, the same vowel is repeated both before and after the {l/л}: молоко. Note here that the stress does not fall on the surrounding vowels.

Modern Russian still retains the structure of many Old Church Slavonic words alongside the words that have undergone normal evolution. This is similar to how English has similar roots side by side: like the native English/Germanic "drag" and "draw/dray" and the newer introduced root from Latin "trac/trah" as in "traction" and "tractor".

However, in the word млекопитающее (mammal, literally: milk-drinking-one), Russian retains the Old Church Slavonic root млек-. Remember, -o- is frequently used to connect two roots within a word.

The Greek cognate is κεφάλι (kephal-i), where the final {l} has become {t} in Romance and Germanic, and softened to {s} in Iberia. Compare /kapit-/ in Romance (/kabes-/ in Iberia), 'Haupt' in German, 'huvud' in Scandinavia. Some languages have lost the 2nd (English) or 3rd consonant (German 'Kopf' and Romanian 'cap') over time. Old English had all three: 'hēafod'.

In all Slavic languages, the last two consonants have reversed position and become voiced: so k-p-l has given rise to g-l-v (this is simply for comparison, so don't assume that the Slavic came from Greek; it has its own lineage from an even older source). Where Old Church Slavonic has one vowel, Russian doubles the vowel around the {л}: голова. Again, the stress does not fall on the surrounding vowels (though this is not true for every root).

Now compare the OCS root: глава meaning 'head/chief, chapter'.

More OCS / Russian Pairs

Typing tip: as I type this out, it's worth noting that {о} is located between the letters {р, л}, making it very easy to type back and forth between these letters rapidly.

Old Church SlavonicNative Russian
а > оло
влад, влак, глав, гладволод, волок, голов, голод
глас, злат, младголос, золот, молод
слад, тлат, хладсолод, толот, холод
а > оро
бран, врат, градборон, ворот, город
драг, здрав, кратдорог, здоров, корот
мрак, нрав, празднморок, норов, порожн
страг, стран, хранстерег/сторог, сторон, хорон
е > оло
влек, плен, тлетволок, полон, толот
е > оро
мерз, меркмороз, морок
е > ере
брег, древ, пред, прекберег, дерев, перед, перек
серд/сред, трет, чредсеред, терет, черед
о > ере
дров, строгдерев, стерег

Intonation

What makes Russian hard to pronounce from the writing is that the stress is unpredictable. Stress is not marked in the writing (as in English). The advantage over English, however, is that Russian spelling is quite consistent. The spelling system was last updated January 1st 1918 (removing і, ѵ, ѳ, and ѣ from the alphabet and all redundant ъ at the ends of words), and since it has already been 100 years, this means there are quite a few noticeable deviations from the spelling system starting to happen. Overall, it is much more consistent than English.

In my book "Glossika Guide to Russian Pronunciation and Grammar", I list over 1000 roots of the Russian language. These are highly important, because once you know what the root of a word is, your stress in Russian will improve drastically because that's where the stress is (with some regular exceptions like the вы- prefix on verbs which steals the show).

вы

  • Stress shifts occasionally onto other prefixes, notably on verbs such as дать and жить, such as: за́дать, пе́реживут, по́дать.

Stress shifts position a lot in Russian making a word sound completely different. It's just like the English "competitive" vs "competition": "kum-PET-idiv" vs "KOM-puh-TI-shun". To your trained ear, these two sound like the same words, but the pronunciation on the first two syllables is so different that a foreign learner of English wouldn't even realize they are from the same word! Imagine if that learner pronounced both words in the same way: we wouldn't understand. This is the frustration learners of English have when learning English stress. This stress shift all seems so natural to you in English, because you've never heard it any other way -- you would never even consider saying these words the "wrong" way nor would you expect anybody else to.

This also reminds me of how English speakers say 'innovative': Americans "IN-nuh-vay-div" and British "in-NAH-vuh-div". If you've gone through life and never heard the other version, and you're listening to a speech and suddenly that word comes up, you'll just not understand it at all. And that's why stress in both English and Russian is so hard: it changes our vowels and the pronunciation of the whole word!

The natural stress shift is true in Russian for Russian speakers, and so we all struggle with each other's languages. Saying a word with the wrong stress will get you blank stares. And when you don't understand, you'll get the common exasperation from native speakers with short tempers: "I'm SPEAKING RUSSIAN here! What don't you understand!" Russia is a very big country, and in their world they never encounter foreigners or people who can't speak Russian properly. If you speak Russian incorrectly, it's easy to get treated like an alien from another planet. Every country's language dynamics and feeling of pride are different, and that is quite an interesting topic for a video discussion and other blog posts.

This is why it's important to hear audio instead of learning a language just from the writing system alone. This is why I call writing systems the "lossy format" of spoken languages.

Stress is a LOW PITCH in Russian!

The second thing that might throw you off about the stress in Russian is that it's actually opposite of what it is in most languages! Let me explain, but first, feel free to take any word from the training exercises below and put it into Google translate and listen to the stress in the real automated voice. The automated voice is just as good as real and gets the stress right.

In most languages, the stressed syllable of a word often has a higher pitch, at least higher than all the other syllables in the word. For example, the English word "competitive" is Low-High-Low-Low, or L-H-L-L.

In Russian though, the stressed syllable is a low pitch, and the length of the vowel longer than the others. The word "competitive" in Russian is конкурентноспосо́бный which is pronounced M-M-M-L-H-LOW-M, where I write out LOW on the long vowel, which is the stress. (I use that highlighting so that the accent doesn't fall off the Cyrillic letters due to the font issues in this article).

How did this come about in Russian? I can only surmise that since the vowels themselves change their pronunciation under different stress, the key to intonation really is in how you pronounce the vowels and less about how high or low your pitch is. For example, the stress in ма́ма isn't that low because it's the first syllable, but the а́ has a true [a] pronunciation while the second syllable а does not. Compared with пока́, the first syllable pitch is higher than the stressed syllable, but only the stressed syllable has a true [a].

The next step is to start the 26 stress training exercises where you will learn how to change your vowels according to stress placement. This is really the most important thing about speaking Russian properly.

Continue on to the stress training exercises here.


You've now completed the first three steps to learning the Russian alphabet; be sure to continue on to the 26 training exercises in the next article to take full advantage of all our training. If you'd like to start learning Russian, then it's time for you to put the basics that you've learned so far into practice. Start training with us on our platform and learn to perfect your Russian pronunciation with Glossika's Russian course as recorded by native speakers. Glossika's spaced repetition training gets your muscles familiar with speaking Russian. You will be able to mimic the way a child acquires a language while getting optimal results by immersing yourself in your target language on a daily basis.

Just in case you'd like to review the first and second steps to learning the Russian alphabet.

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