TOPIC: The Russian Sound System and the Cyrillic Alphabet

Dear RLM,
What's the best way to describe the Russian alphabet? Is it phonetic?


Gentle Linguist,

No, the Russian alphabet is not "phonetic," meaning, there is not an exact one-to-one correspondence between the Russian version of the Cyrillic alphabet and the Russian sound system. It's close, but it's not phonetic. The relationship between the Russian sound sytem and the Russian alphabet and spelling system is best described as morphophonemic.

"Say what?!"

"Morphophonemic! Listen up!"

* * *

Let's start with the vowels. We'll denote phonetic letters - and, later, words that are phonetically transcribed - by putting them between "forward slash" marks like this / /. The Russian sound system, like the English, has 5 basic vowel sounds or phonemes. From "front to back" they are:

/i/ /e/ /a/ /o/ /u/

As noted, the vowels are organized "front to back." This refers to where they are articulated in the mouth. The sounds /i/ and /e/ are produced in the front of the mouth, /a/ in the middle, and /o/ and /u/ in the back. By the way, Russians "round" their lips when they pronounce the back vowels. Try it! Continue the final vowel - /oknOooo/! /bakUuuuuu/! Do you feel your lips forming a circle? (Who says this isn't an interactive course?!)

The 5 basic vowel sounds are represented in the Russian writing system by 10 vowel letters. The letters are paired into "soft" vowel letters and "hard" vowel letters, meaning each of the basic vowel phonemes is represented by two letters:

phoneme: /i/ /e/ /a/ /o/ /u/
"hard" letter:
"soft" letter: *

(he RLM's fonts don't provide for a e with two dots over it - phonetically an /o/ following a "soft" consonant or "jot" /j/. So that e* stands for e with two dots. While we're at it, in our phonetic transcription system: = /zh/, = /sh/, = /shch/, = /ch/, = /kh/, = /ts/. Stress, when indicated, will be marked by capital letters, for example, or /khoroshO/.)

Why does Russian need 10 letters for 5 vowel sounds? Because in the Russian writing system, vowel letters depend on the phonetic properties of the preceding consonant. In other words, we need to discuss the phonetics of the Russian consonant system before we can return to the story of the 10 vowel letters. (Trust me!)

But first, a brief digression.

* * *

It's the year 2100. You're an anthropologist who's been tasked with recording the language of a people who are basically extinct except for this 100-year-old woman - we'll call her Nina. She's the last speaker of the language on the face of the Earth! The language happens to be Russian - everyone but Nina either moved to America or died. Fortunately, Nina speaks some English, and she's bright and chipper, and eager to help. Where do you start? Well, the best place to start is with the sound system:

"Grandma, whose grave is this?"
", my dead sister! She..."
"Let's see: your language has an /o/, an /l/, a /g/ and an /a/. And what's the name of that river?"
"River is ! It...."
"Now we have a /v/. Wait! Volga ~ Olga. That's interesting! They rhyme."
"The hell they do! B ~ O."
"Oh, /vOlga/ ~ /Ol'ga/. No, they don't rhyme. The /l/s are not the same. Can you think of two other words that differ by /l/ and /l'/?"
"For sure! Like, there's and : 'he squeezed' and 'pity.' Then there's and : 'he gave' and 'distance.' Ya want more?"
"My Heavens! Russian had palatalization!!"
"Had? I'm still here!"
"I'm sorry. It HAS palatalization!"

* * *

(You'll notice we marked palatalization by putting an apostrophe after a "soft" consonant: /l'/.)

* * *

What we've done in the above digression is use something called "minimal pairs" to establish the sound system of Russian. We asked our native speaker to provide us with word pairs whose meanings are distinguished by one sound. These sounds are the basic phonemes of a language. We could have continued and found that ("wolf") and ("sense") differ by the phonemes /v/ and /t/ at the beginning of the words, that (genitive plural of ("wound")) and ("early hour") differ by the phonemes /n/ and /n'/, and so on until we worked out the entire consonant sound system of Russian.

The system would look something like this:

voiced consonants: /b/~/b'/ /d/~/d'/ /v/~/v'/ /z/~/z'/ /g/~/g'/
voiceless consonants: /p/~/p'/ /t/~/t'/ /f/~/f'/ /s/~/s'/ /k/~/k'/ /x/~/x'/
liquid/nasal consonants: /l/~/l'/ /r/~/r'/ /m/~/m'/ /n/~/n'/
always "hard" consonants: /sh/ /zh/ /ts/
always "soft" consonants: /ch/ /shch/ /j/

It is important to note that palatalization is phonetic in Russian: it can distinguish meaning between two words - ("goal") ~ ("the poor"). Therefore, in the above system, many Russian consonants are "paired" into "hard" and "soft" variants - both of which are distinct "phonemes." There are also consonants that are always "hard" or always "soft," but these need not concern us right now.

What does concern us is: How do we distinguish paired "hard" and "soft" consonants orthographically in the Russian writing system?

The answer is by the vowel letters and by the "soft" and "hard" signs ( and ).

* * *

That's why there are 10 vowel letters for the 5 basic vowel phonemes of Russian! Whether you use or for /a/ has nothing to do with the vowel - it's a constant /a/. Rather, within a word, the "soft" vowel letters indicate that the preceding consonant is "soft" or palatalized; the "hard" vowel letters indicate that it's "hard" or unpalatalized. In other words, the vowel letters tell us how to pronounce the consonants:

/b'it'/ ("to beat") ~ /bit'/ ("to be")
/d'ad'a/ ("uncle") ~ /dada/ ("yes yes")
/t'ok/ ("flowed") ~ /tok/ ("current")

* * *

When paired "soft" consonant phonemes occur in word final position or in a consonant cluster, the "soft sign" is used to indicate that the consonant is palatalized. Note that the consonant remains "soft" throughout its paradigm:

/kon'/ ~ /kon'a/ ~ /kon'u/ ...

/pis'mo/ ~ /pis'em/...

What does the "hard sign" do? It used to stand in opposition to the , that is, all Russian words that ended in "hard" consonants used to have a at the end, so was written , was written , and so on. Now the is only used in consonant clusters to indicate the presence of a jot or /j/ phoneme between a "hard" consonant and a vowel: /sjel/ ("he ate (something)") ~ /s'el/ ("he sat down"). Hear the difference? ~ , /sjel/ ~ /s'el/. Say it out loud a couple of times. (This is an interactive course!)

* * *

The "soft" vowel letters serve one additional function: when they begin a word, or when they follow another vowel, they also indicate the presence of a jot phoneme:

/jalta/ "Yalta," e /jer'evan/ "Yerevan," /jugoslav'ija/ "Yugoslavia,"

* * *

(Russian linguists have long argued whether or not there's a jot in front of the "front" vowel /i/ at the beginning of a word. Does one transcribe the name phonetically as /ivan/ or /jivan/? We don't care!)

* * *

"So what have we learned so far?"

"Well, you've rambled on and on, but so far everything you've said suggests that the Russian alphabet is pretty much a phonetic one!"

"You're right! But what's wrong with the following?"

[gOrat] - "city" nom. sing.
[gOrada] - "city" gen. sing.
[garadA] - "cities" nom. plr.
[agarOt] - "garden" nom. sing.
[zAgarat] - "(to) the country, out of town"

(In the above examples we did not use phonetic transcription, where there is a letter-for-letter rendering of the Cyrillic alphabet, but phonemic transcription, where "the actual sounds produced" are rendered. To indicate phonemic transcription, we'll use brackets [ ].)

"Well, the word or root is spelled the same way, but it's pronounced differently."

"My point exactly! The Russian writing system is not phonetic, it's morphophonemic!" (We're getting there!)

* * *

In Russian orthography, the spelling of the basic unit of meaning or "morpheme" tends to be constant in its phonetic presentation in the Cyrillic alphabet. But you need to know a few basic phonemic rules to pronounce the word correctly. We'll only discuss the two basic rules:

* * *

RULE 1. Concerning vowels

"The vowel letters o and e are pronounced [O] and [E] only when they are stressed. When not stressed o is pronounced [a] and e is pronounced [i]."

Thus, the genitive singular of is distinguished from the nominative plural by stress: ~ [gOrada] ~ [garadA]. In phonemic transcription, the nominative singular of the Russian word for "heart" is [s'Erttsi], the nominative plural is [s'irttsA]. (There are a few other phonemic rules that concern the pronunciation of vowels, but this one suffices for now.)

RULE 2. Concerning consonants

A number of Russian consonants are paired by a feature called voiced ~ voiceless. Basically, what this means is that the vocal cords are either engaged or disengaged in the articulation of the sound. For example, cover your ears with your hands and say "buzz" - "buzzzzzzzzz." Now do the same and say "bus" - "bussssssss." Hear your ears vibrate when you say "buzz"? That's because [z] is a voiced consonant. The consonant [s] is voiceless, so your ears don't vibrate. (Is this Grammar Mailbag interactive, or what?)

Anyway, we noted the voiced ~ voiceless feature when we charted the Russian consonant system earlier. The voiced ~ voiceless pairs are as follows:


The second rule of pronunciation reads as follows: "When paired voiced consonants occur in word-final position or before a voiceless consonant in a consonant cluster, they are devoiced, i.e., pronounced like their voiceless counterparts. Conversely, when paired voiceless consonants occur before a voiced consonant in a consonant cluster, they are voiced, i.e., pronounced as their voiced counterparts." Is that clear? Maybe some examples will help:

devoicing of voiced consonant in word-final position:
~ [gOrat] -- /d/ > /t/
[lOp] -- /b/ > /p/
[vosht'] -- /zhd'/ > /sht'/

devoicing of voiced consonant in consonant cluster before a voiceless consonant:
[s'Ertts'i] -- /d/ > /t/
[nOkt'i] -- /g/ > /k/
[nOshka] -- /zh/ > /sh/.

voicing of voiceless consonant in consonant cluster before a voiced consonant:
[zd'Elka] -- /s/ > /z/
[adbOj] -- /t/ > /d/
[tAgzhi] -- /k/ > /g/.

* * *

So what have we learned? A lot! But basically it's this: The Russian writing system is not phonetic but morphophonemic. Although the Russian orthographic system does not provide information on the exact pronunciation of variants of words, it does preserve the basic spelling of words, word roots and morphemes. You need to learn a few rules for correct pronunciation, but they're not that complex.

In any case, it sure beats English!

* * *

"Can anyone explain to me why "colonel" is pronounced like "kernel" in English? Where does that /r/ come from? Damn English homonyms! Then there's the metal "lead" and the verb "lead." Damn English homographs!"

"Take it easy! There, their, they're!"

"Damn English homophones!"

"I need a vacation!



For additional information on the Cyrillic alphabet and the "hard and soft signs," link HERE.