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Stress & Vowel Reduction in Russian - 4 Major Pronunciation Rules

edited September 2013 in Russian
Stress plays an important role in Russian language. In order to speak Russian correctly it is necessary to know the place of the stress in the words. In some cases incorrect stress leads to the change of meaning or grammatical value of the word. Stress in Russian is not fixed, it may fall on any part of the word (beginning, center, end) and it is not shown in texts. Moreover, stress may change its place in different forms of the same word and it is a real difficulty for those who are learning Russian.

Russian words are normally written without stress marks. Therefore, it is important to devote special attention to the place of stress in words when learning Russian. In order to help students to memorize the place of stress in Russian words, in manuals and text books stresses are usually marked, most frequently with [ ´ ] above the stressed vowel.

Reduction of Vowels
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.

In unstressed position there are no alterations in reading of letters и, ы, у, ю. Letter ё is always in stressed position, that is why it is read either as [yo] (at the beginning of the word, after vowels, ь and ъ) or as [o] (after consonants).

The letter а denotes a short neutral sound [ə] which is similar to the final sound in the English word water.

Vowel Reduction Rules
Here is a quick reference to the vowel reduction rules in Russian. The phonetic transcriptions, shown in square brackets, are intended to remind you about vowel reduction and other aspects of Russian pronunciation which are not obvious from the spelling.

Vowel Reduction Rule 1 - The letter o
In the first syllable before the stress the letter о sounds like а [a]: o -> a
we spell: окно́, Москвá
we say: [акно], [масквa]
translation: window, Moscow

Vowel Reduction Rule 2 - The letters о, а
Anywhere after the stress and more than one syllable before the stress the letter о sounds like [ə]: o, a -> ə
we spell: ко́смос, лáмпа, карандáш, профе́ссор, хорошо́
we say: [космəс], [лампə], [кəрандаш], [прафессəр], [хəрашо]
translation: cosmos, lamp, pencil, professor, well/good

Vowel Reduction Rule 3 - The letters е, я
In the first syllable before the stress the letters е, я are pronounced like и [ih]: е, я -> и
we spell: сестрá, мечтá, рекá, далеко́
we say: [с'истра], [м'ичта], [р'ика], [дəл'ико]
translation: sister, dream, river, far away

Vowel Reduction Rule 4 - The letters е, я
Anywhere after the stress and more than one syllable before the stress е, я are pronounced like 'ə [yuh]: е, я -> 'ə
we spell: но́мер, учи́тель, де́сять, дя́дя
we say: [ном'əр], [учит'əл'], [д'ес'əт'], [д'ад'ə]
translation: number, teacher, ten, uncle

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