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There are five vowel phonemes in Standard Russian. Vowels tend to merge when they are unstressed. The vowels /a/ and /o/ have the same unstressed allophones for a number of dialects and reduce to an unclear schwa. Unstressed /e/ may become more central and merge with /i/. Under some circumstances, /a/, /e/, /i/ and /o/ may all merge. The fifth vowel, /u/, may also be centralized but does not typically merge with any of the other vowels.
Other types of reduction are phonetic, such as that of high vowels (/i/ and /u/), which become near-close so ? ('to play') is pronounced [?'?rat?], and ('man') is pronounced [m?'?:in?].
Russian orthography does not reflect vowel reduction, which can confuse foreign-language learners.
The five Russian vowels /u, i, e, a, o/ in unstressed position show two levels of reduction:
The first degree reduction in the first pretonic position (immediately before the stress).
The second degree reduction in other than the first pretonic position.
The allophonic result of the reduction is also heavily dependent on the quality of the preceding consonant as well as the lack thereof. Thus the reduction is further grouped into three types according to the environment:
After soft (palatalized) consonants (including always soft /t?/ and /?:/) and semi-vowel /j/.
The unstressed vowels also may be grouped in series, reflecting similar patterns of the reduction:
High /u/ and /i/ (never reduced).
Non-high /a/, /e/ and /o/ (always reduced).
Back /a/ and /o/ (both exhibit akanye).
Front /i/ and /e/ (both exhibit ikanye).
Back high /u/ (never reduced).
Two high vowels /u/ and /i/ are usually thought to undergo no reduction. However, on the phonetic level they show allophonic centralization, particularly under the influence of the preceding or the following consonants. The unstressed high back vowel /u/ is either (after hard consonants, written ⟨?⟩) or (after soft consonants, written ⟨?⟩, except ⟨⟩, ⟨⟩). The unstressed high front vowel /i/ is either or (after soft consonants, written ⟨?⟩), or or (after hard consonants, written ⟨?⟩, except ⟨⟩, ⟨⟩). Nevertheless, in rapid colloquial speech they both may be reduced to schwa , for example, ?['dobrm] ('kind', instrumental case, singular masculine-neuter) versus ?['dobr?m] ('kind', prepositional case, sg. masc.-neut.): the case ending //-im// in the former may surface as [-?m] like the case ending //-om//, thus leading to the merger of /i/ and /o/; or ?['d?el?jt] ('they do') versus ?['d?el?j?t] ('he/it does'): both may surface as ['d?elt] or ['d?el?:t].
Other than in Northern Russian dialects Russian speakers have a strong tendency to merge unstressed /a/ and /o/, called akanye (). It contrasts with okanye () pronunciations. It works in Standard Russian as follows:
After hard (non-palatalised) consonants, standard phonological rules prescribe a two-level reduction. The stressed vowel is normally the longest and the only place (with certain exceptions) that the sound [o] is permitted. In the syllable immediately before the stress and in absolute word-initial position, both reduce to [?] (sometimes also transcribed as [?]). In all other locations, /a/ and /o/ are reduced further to a short [?]. For example, [p?'rom] ('ferry'), ?['obl?k?] ('cloud'), [tr?'va] ('grass'). In practice, the second reduction has a gradient character: if the vowel in question is pronounced for enough time (such as by hyperarticulation), it may be pronounced as [?]. Shorter durations have the effect of gradually transforming [?] into schwa. It has been argued recently that the change of sound quality during second-degree reduction is merely an artifact of duration-dependent "phonetic undershoot", when the speaker intends to pronounce [?], but the limited time reduces the likelihood of the tongue being able to arrive at the intended vowel target.
In fast speech, reduction ultimately may result in the vowel being dropped altogether, with the preceding consonant slightly lengthened or turned into a syllabic consonant: ?[s:p?'i], vs. [s?p?'i] ('boots'), [p:t?'lok] ('ceiling'), ?['d?es?t?] ('ten').
When ⟨⟩, ⟨⟩, ⟨⟩, or ⟨⟩ is written in a word, it indicates [?.?] so ('to realise') is pronounced [s?.?.br?'?at?].
In prepositions, the processes occur even across word boundaries, as in [p?'d?morm] ('under the sea'), [n?.?b?'rot] ('on the reverse side', 'overleaf'). It does not occur for other parts of speech.
Both /o/ and /a/ merge with /i/ after palatalised consonants and /j/ (/o/ is written as ⟨?⟩ in those positions[example needed]). This merger also occurs for /o/ after retroflex consonants. Examples: /?i'na/ (phonetically ['na]; 'wife'), /ji'zik/ (phonetically [j?'z?k]; 'tongue').
Across certain word-final suffixes, the reductions do not completely apply. In certain suffixes, after palatalised consonants and /j/, /a/ and /o/ (which is written as ⟨?⟩) can be distinguished from /i/ and from each other: ['pol] ('field' nominative singular neuter) is different from ['pol] ('field' singular genitive), and the final sounds differ from the realisation of /i/ in that position.
There are a number of exceptions to the above comments regarding the akanye:
/o/ is not always reduced in foreign borrowings:['rad.o] ('radio'). The common pattern for this exception is the final unstressed ? being preceded by another vowel (, , ?). Compare with , whose final unstressed ? is reduced to [?].
Speakers with old-Moscovian reflexes pronounce unstressed /a/ as /?/ after retroflex consonants /?/ and /?/ (thereby mimicking the reduction of /o/ ). For other speakers, this pronunciation generally applies only to ?['l?et?] ('to regret'), ? ?[ks'l?enju] ('unfortunately'), and oblique cases of ?['lot?] ('horse'), such as [l?.'d?ej].
/?/ replaces /a/ after /t?s/ in the oblique cases of some numerals: ['dvat?s?t?] ('twenty').
The main feature of front vowel reduction is ikanye (), the merger of unstressed /e/ with /i/. Because /i/ has several allophones (depending on both stress and proximity to palatalised consonants), unstressed /e/ is pronounced as one of these allophones and not actually as the close front unrounded vowel. For example, ?/s?im?i'na/ ('seeds') is pronounced [sm'na], /t?si'na/ ('price') [t?s'na].
In registers without the merger (yekanye or ), unstressed /e/ is more retracted. Even then, however, the distinction between unstressed /e/ and unstressed /i/ is most clearly heard in the syllable just before the stress. Thus, ('to add to') contrasts with ('to betray'). The two are pronounced [pr'dat?] and [pr?e?'dat?] respectively. Yekanye pronunciation is coupled with a stronger tendency for both unstressed /a/ and /o/ to be pronounced the same as /i/.
Speakers may switch between the two types of pronunciation because of various factors, the most important factor likely being speed of pronunciation.
Yakanye () is the pronunciation of unstressed /e/ and /a/ following palatalised consonants preceding a stressed syllable as /a/ rather than /i/ ( is pronounced [n?as'l?i], not [ns'l?i]).
The example also demonstrates other features of Southern dialects: palatalised final /t?/ in the 3rd person forms of verbs, [?] instead of [?] and [w] instead of [u] (in some places) and [v], clear unstressed [a] in place of [?] or [?].
Vowel reduction makes some words have spellings that contradict their etymology, such as (instead of , which was standard spelling before the Ushakov Dictionary), (instead of , the standard spelling until the reform of 1956), (instead of , with a long history).
In the closely related Belarusian language, original /o/ has merged with /a/ as in Standard Russian, but the reduced pronunciation is reflected in the spelling.