Vowel reduction of я

Alan Evangelista

Senior Member
Brazilian Portuguese
Hi!

Is the vowel "я" pronounced as the vowel "a", apart from the palatization effect in the preceding consonant and from an additional initial [j] phone when it is not preceded by a consonant?

The vowel allophony table in the Russian phonology wikipedia makes it look like they are pronounced differently (eg it doesn't mention that the vowel "a" may be pronounced [ɪ] and that the vowel "я" may be pronounced [ə]), which seems misleading. Probably the tricky thing is the word "typically" in the "letter" column header.

Thanks in advance!
 
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  • Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    If "я" letter doesn't occur directly after a consonant, it means /йa/ phonemic combination. As usual, the actual realization of /a/ in it depends on its position in relation to the stress and on the following consonant (the preceding /й/ is essentially a soft consonant in terms of the Russian phonology, so the context is a bit restricted).
     

    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    If "я" letter doesn't occur directly after a consonant, it means /йa/ phonemic combination.
    Didn't you mean /ja/ instead? й is not an IPA symbol.

    My original question was not fully answered. If я is after a consonant, isn't it pronounced equally to a the vowel A after a consonant, if the surrounding phonems and the position regarding the tonic syllable are the same ?

    the preceding /й/ is essentially a soft consonant in terms of the Russian phonology, so the context is a bit restricted
    As /a/ is only pronounced [ɪ] when it is followed by a hard consonant and the /a/ in я is almost always followed by either the soft consonant phoneme /j/ or a palatized (= soft) consonant, I assume that я is only pronounced [ɪ] if preceded by ж, ш or ц, which are "unpalatizable" and therefore always hard consonants. Correct?
     
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    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Didn't you mean /ja/ instead? й is not an IPA symbol.
    As long as we are speaking about the phonemic level, the exact letters are irrelevant, as long as they are unambiguous. The IPA has no competition as soon as it comes down to pure phonetics, of course.
    My original question was not fully answered. If я is after a consonant, isn't it pronounced equally to a the vowel A after a consonant, if the surrounding phonems and the position regarding the tonic syllable are the same ?
    I have an impression that you are still mixing up letters and phonemes. The Russian orthography, however, is anything but phonemic.

    "Я" after a consonant letter means that the respective consonant phoneme is soft, and orthographically it never occurs after the "hard" letters "ш", "ц" or "ж". It also hardly ever occurs after the "soft" letters "ч" and "щ" (where "a" is used for /a/). It may occur after "й", but in that position "a" is, in turn, barely used. And, well, since "a" after the "normal" consonant letter means that the consonant is hard, we hardly can speak here about "the surrounding phonemes being the same".
    "на" > /на/
    "ня" > /н'а/
    etc.
     

    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    As long as we are speaking about the phonemic level, the exact letters are irrelevant, as long as they are unambiguous.
    Thanks for clarifying it.

    Anyway, I (as a foreign language learner), usually only care about the phonetic transcriptions.

    Я" after a consonant letter means that the respective consonant phoneme is soft, and orthographically it never occurs after the "hard" letters "ш", "ц" or "ж".
    I see. I didn't know that orthographic rule; I have found the 4 basic spelling rules on the web now. They look pretty arbitrary (as so many things in languages).

    So, when an unstressed "я" is after a (always soft) consonant, it is always pronounced [ɪ], differently from a unstressed "a", which is only pronounced [ɪ] after a hard consonant. Correct?
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Not quite, because "a" letter DOES occur after the soft "ч" and "щ".
    E.g.: "щавель" > /щав'э́л'/ (sticking to the simplest of phonemic descriptions, at least) > [ɕːɪˈvʲelʲ].
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    P.S.: Mind you, the Cyrillic script wasn't phonemic even when it was created. And as time passed, the situation only became worse in Russian. But since for you the main issue is deciphering the phonemic structure (and, ultimately, the pronunciation) from Russian orthograms, it's actually pretty simple.

    An average consonant letter: may represent a soft or a hard consonant phoneme depending on the following symbol. If the following symbol is "и", "ё", "ю", "я" or "ь", it's soft. If it's "e", it may be soft or hard (but it's always soft for native Russian words, and nearly always soft in the case of velar consonants). In all other cases it's hard.
    "Ч", "щ", "й" - always soft, because the respective phonemes are unpaired (/ч/, /щ/, /й/). Following symbols or their absense are naturally irrelevant.
    "Ш", "ж", "ц" - always hard, because the respective phonemes are unpaired (/ш/, /ж/, /ц/). Following symbols or their absense are naturally as much irrelevant (for instance, "ь" always occurs if a feminine word ends in /'ж/ or /ш/, but it's just an orthographic convention, and "ь" cannot change a thing about these consonants).
    "А", "э", "о", "у", "ы" - mean /a/, /э/, /о/, /у/, /и/ under any circumstances.
    "И" - means /и/ and, if possible, makes the preceding consonant soft.
    "Я", "ё", "ю" - after consonant letters they mean /a/, /о/and /у/, making the preceding consonant soft, if possible. If these letters don't follow any consonant inside the same word (meaning that they occur word-initially, after a vowel letter, after "ь" or after "ъ"), they depict /йа/, /йэ/ and /йу/ phonemic combinations instead.
    "Е" - works pretty much like "я", "ё" and "ю", representing /э/ or /йэ/, except it doesn't always "soften" the preceding consonant - even when it's formally possible. That unfortunate situation is pretty frequent in loanwords. Another tricky part is that "e" is often used instead of "ё".
    (Also some consonants have unusual morpheme-dependent readings - mostly it concerns "г" and "ться"/"тся" - and some consonant combinations are simplified.)
     
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    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    Not quite, because "a" letter DOES occur after the soft "ч" and "щ"
    Right, I got confused in my previous message. Thanks for the correction.

    But since for you the main issue is deciphering the phonemic structure (and, ultimately, the pronunciation) from Russian orthograms, it's actually pretty simple.
    Honestly, Russian pronunciation doesn't look pretty simple at all, especially if compared with Romance languages and German. There are many pronunciation rules and many exceptions (every day I discover a new one). Anyway, I'll keep working on it.

    "А", "э", "о", "у", "ы" - mean /a/, /э/, /о/, /у/, /и/ under any circumstances.
    "И" - means /и/ and, if possible, makes the preceding consonant soft.
    "Я", "ё", "ю" - after consonant letters they mean /a/, /о/and /у/, making the preceding consonant soft, if possible. If these letters don't follow any consonant inside the same word (meaning that they occur word-initially, after a vowel letter, after "ь" or after "ъ"), they depict /йа/, /йэ/ and /йу/ phonemic combinations instead.
    "Е" - works pretty much like "я", "ё" and "ю", representing /э/ or /йэ/, except it doesn't always "soften" the preceding consonant - even when it's formally possible. That unfortunate situation is pretty frequent in loanwords. Another tricky part is that "e" is often used instead of "ё".
    (Also some consonants have unusual morpheme-dependent readings - mostly it concerns "г" and "ться"/"тся" - and some consonant combinations are simplified.)
    Thanks you very much for the summary, but these phonemic transcriptions don't help me much because each Russian phoneme can be pronounced in a lot of ways and it forces me to do a 2-step mapping (letter-phoneme and phoneme-allophone) to get from the letter to the sound. I'll try to summarize the pronunciation rules of each one of the 10 Russian vowels (letters) using phonetic transcriptions:

    stressed a: [ä]

    stressed э:
    - if it is at the beginning of the word or after a vowel: [ɛ]
    - else if it is after soft consonant: ?
    - else if it is after hard consonant and before hard consonant: [ɛ]
    - else if it is after hard consonant and before soft consonant: [e]

    stressed ы: [ɨ]

    stressed o: [o̞]

    stressed y: [ u ]

    stressed я:
    - if it is in the beginning of the word or after a vowel: [jа]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant: - (forbidden by orthography rules)
    - else if it is after a soft consonant and before a hard consonant: [a]
    - else if it is after a soft consonant and before a soft consonant: [æ]

    stressed e:
    - if it is at the beginning of a word: [jɛ]
    - else if it is after a soft consonant: [ɛ̝]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant and before a hard consonant: [ɛ]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant and before a soft consonant: [e]

    stressed и: [ i ]

    stressed ë:
    - if it is at the beginning of the word or after a vowel: [jɵ]
    - else if it is after a consonant: [ɵ]

    stressed ю:
    - if it is in the beginning of the word or after a vowel: [ju]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant: - (forbidden by orthography rules)
    - else if it is after a soft consonant and before a hard consonant: [ u ]
    - else if it is after a soft consonant and before a soft consonant: [ʉ]

    unstressed a / o:
    - if it is at the beginning of the word or one syllable before the tonic one: [ɐ]
    - else if it is preceded by soft consonant: [ɪ]
    - else if it is preceded by hard consonant: [ə]
    - else if it is preceded by vowel: [ɐ]

    unstressed э:
    - if it is at the beginning of the word: [ɪ]
    - else if it is after a soft consonant: ?
    - else if it is after a hard consonant: [ɨ̞]

    unstressed ы: [ɨ̞]

    unstressed у: [ʊ]

    unstressed я:
    - if it is in the beginning of the word: [ja]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant: - (forbidden by orthography rules)
    - else if it is after a soft consonant: [ɪ]

    unstressed е:
    - if it is in the beginning of the word: [jɪ]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant: [ɨ̞]
    - else if it is after a soft consonant: [ɪ]

    unstressed и: [ɪ]

    unstressed ë: - (does not occur in Russian)

    unstressed ю:
    - if it is at the beginning of the word: [iʊ]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant: - (forbidden by orthography rule)
    - else if it is after a soft consonant and before a hard consonant: [ʊ]
    - else if it is after a soft consonant and before a soft consonant: [ʉ̞]

    Is that right?
     
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    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    and it forces me to do a 2-step mapping (letter-phoneme and phoneme-allophone) to get from the letter to the sound
    Well, it's exactly how it works. Of course, native speakers do the second transition in a fully automatic manner (basically the phonology forces some key processes - certain positional mergers, the degree of reduction - and the rest happens for purely articulatory reasons). Illiterate speakers have only the phonemic level in their heads, after all.
    I'll try to summarize the pronunciation rules of each one of the 10 Russian vowels (letters) using phonetic transcriptions
    That will work only as long as there is no complications of morphological nature, anyway (even though they are little in the case of vowel letters).
    stressed э:
    - if it is at the beginning of the word or after a vowel: [ɛ]
    It also may be [ɜ] if not followed by a soft consonant. That distinction is subject to individual variation.
    else if it is after soft consonant: ?
    Never occurs. Actually, the usage of "э" in Russian is very limited orthographically; it's mostly reserved for /э/ in word-initial positions and after vowels. After consonants it's normally used only in a small list of words or in foreign names, though the fact that it's used in many systems of practical transcription (which sometimes essentially conflict the principles of Russian orthography) makes the list of the words potentially open.
    else if it is after hard consonant and before soft consonant: [e]
    I doubt that. /э/ phoneme normally makes a sound close to [e] between soft consonants (that's a position of maximal i-coloring, if you want to put it like that). But since "э" letter doesn't occur after soft consonants, it isn't the case.
    stressed o: [o̞]
    It is more open by default (~[ɔ]) and a bit more close before soft consonants (~[o̞]). It also should be noted that stressed /o/ is usually slightly diphthongized (~[ʊɔ] and the like). But I sincerely doubt it would be productive to attempt consciously reproducing it all. The natives don't percieve any of it, and most wouldn't even tell the difference.
    (to be continued)
     
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    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    stressed o: [o̞]
    ...And since "о" can follow "ч", "щ" and "й", you should add [ɵ] to the list (which occurs between soft consonants and, probably, just after soft consonants too, where /o/ sounds noticeably fronted anyway).
    stressed y: [ u ]
    Although it makes ~[ʉ] after "ч", "щ" and "й" when it happens before soft consonants (e.g. "чуть").
    stressed я:
    - if it is in the beginning of the word or after a vowel: [jа]
    ...and if followed by a soft consonant it will be naturally closer to [jæ].
    - else if it is after a hard consonant: - (forbidden by orthography rules)
    Not as if it's exactly forbidden (there are always those "ш", "ж" and "ц" letters), but the "жя", "шя" and "ця" combinations occur only in several foreign proper names and aren't any different phonetically from "ша", "жа" and "ца" anyway.
    stressed e:
    - if it is at the beginning of a word: [jɛ]
    ...but, again, [je] if followed by a soft consonant.
    - else if it is after a soft consonant: [ɛ̝]
    Usually gets slightly diphtongized too (~[ɪɛ]).
    stressed и: [ i ]
    ...but it's [ɨ] if it directly follows "ж", "ш" or "ц".
    stressed ë:
    - if it is at the beginning of the word or after a vowel: [jɵ]
    - else if it is after a consonant: [ɵ]
    But "ё" can also occur after "ж"/"ш"/"ц", where it is pronounced just like "o".
    stressed ю:
    - if it is in the beginning of the word or after a vowel: [ju]
    ...or [jʉ] (before soft consonants).
    else if it is after a hard consonant: - (forbidden by orthography rules)
    It is not, because it can follow "ж", "ш" and "ц". The same principles apply here: "шю" = "шу" etc. Some *philologists* believe that "жюри" should have some special unique pronunciation. I believe those philologists should be lined up and shot for raping the Russian language. :) A good half of the population doesn't even have soft [ʑː] in their speech (aside of positionally voiced /щ/).

    (to be continued)

    P.S.:
    - else if it is after a soft consonant: [ɛ̝]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant and before a hard consonant: [ɛ]
    - else if it is after a hard consonant and before a soft consonant: [e]
    Oh, and the trouble is that you often cannot tell if that preceding consonant is soft or hard with that letter. It will be always soft (if not "ш"/"ж"/"ц") for native Russian words (or really old, pre-18th century loanwords), but otherwise the quality cannot be accurately predicted. There are certain patterns (sometimes close enough to rules), but ultimately it comes to the individual fate of the word anyway. Consulting orthoepic dictionaries (and, ultimately, simply memorizing the pronunciations) is the only safe option. (Of course, in such circumstances there is also a considerable variability in pronunciation of many words by native speakers themselves.)

    And you should also add everything mentioned about "ё" here, since "ё" doesn't usually occur in most texts at all (the rules directly prescribe its use only in the case of proper names or possible ambiguity). So "e" can be possibly read as "ё".
     
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    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    Thank you so much, @Awwal12! I have made some corrections in the offline copy of my summary after your comments.

    stressed э:
    else if it is after hard consonant and before soft consonant: [e]
    I doubt that. /э/ phoneme normally makes a sound close to [e] between soft consonants (that's a position of maximal i-coloring, if you want to put it like that). But since "э" letter doesn't occur after soft consonants, it isn't the case.
    I have just copied it from the vowel allophony table in Russian Phonology wikipedia. Is it wrong?

    Oh, and the trouble is that you often cannot tell if that preceding consonant is soft or hard with that letter. It will be always soft (if not "ш"/"ж"/"ц") for native Russian words (or really old, pre-18th century loanwords), but otherwise the quality cannot be accurately predicted.
    "It is always X, except when it is not" is a confusing statement. I guess you meant "the only possible preceding hard consonants are ш/ж/ц" here.

    Regarding loanwords, they break pronunciation rules in many languages, so I don't expect to cover them with this summary.
     
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    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    unstressed a / o:
    ...one syllable before the tonic one: [ɐ]
    ...And NOT preceded by a soft consonant letter ("й"/"ч"/"щ"). Otherwise it just joins the happy family of unstressed /а-о-э-и/ after soft consonants (at least if we speak about the standard Moscow pronunciation).
    else if it is preceded by vowel: [ɐ]
    It should be noted that hiatuses in loanwords often create very unusual combinations of vowel sounds in Russian. Indeed, unstressed "a" after vowels normally produces [ɐ], but "o" in such positions may produce [ɐ] or [o̞]~[ɵ̞] (a sound which may get considerably reduced but retains the labialization). The latter sound is most typical for word-final /-Vo/ combinations ("ра́дио", "ви́део", "сте́рео" etc.), where it doesn't have an alternative. Still, when the same roots appear in pre-tonic positions in compound words, "o" usually becomes represented as [ɐ] or the words develop a secondary stress on the first part (which is not very typical for Russian either).
    Unstressed "o" in similar /-oV-/ combinations of foreign origin also tends to behave abnormally (cf. "гоаци́н" vs. "пооткрыва́ть").
     

    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    Related to the original question: as the /a/ in я is always preceded by a soft consonant sound, doesn't that mean that it should be always pronounced [ɪ] when unstressed? I see some odd cases when supposedly it is pronounced [ə], eg деревня ( [dʲɪˈrʲevnʲə ] ) and тётя ( [ ˈtʲɵtʲə ] ). I looked for that answer in the thread, but could not find it.
     

    Maroseika

    Moderator
    Russian
    The difference is in pre- and post-tonic position. In your example it's post-tonic, hence [ə]. In the words like лягушка, явление, тяжелый it's pre-tonic, hence [ɪ].
     

    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    The difference is in pre- and post-tonic position. In your example it's post-tonic, hence [ə].
    Thanks for the answer! Is that valid for both "я" and "a" ? I thought that an unstressed phonem /a/ after a soft consonant was *always* pronounced [ ɪ ], independent of its position in relation to stress (as described in the section "vowel mergers" of the Russian phonology wiki).
     
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    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    "Я" letter means /a/ or /ja/ anyway. There is no underlying phonological difference between "я" and "a" after consonants, as long as the very consonant remains either soft or hard (most of the time it doesn't, but there are "ща", "йа" and "ча", as well as "шя", "жя" and "ця", which make it possible - say, "йа" and "(ь)я" both will represent /йа/).

    It should be noted, however, that [ɪ] and [ə] ([ə̟]) aren't opposed by themselves in the Russian phonology and generally form a single perceptional cluster for most Russian speakers.
     

    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    Are we talking about letеers or sounds?
    The sound [a] in the two letters "a" and "я".

    Sound /a/ after a soft consonant is always interpreted by the letter я.
    I don't follow. The phonem /a/ after a soft consonant may be represented by the letters "я" (ex: тётя, pronounced [ˈtʲɵtʲə] ) or "a" (ex: часть , pronounced [t͡ɕæsʲtʲ], or дача, pronounced [ˈdat͡ɕə] ).

    The sound [a] only exists in the vowel letter "a" after a soft consonant if the vowel is stressed and its corresponding letter is not followed by a soft consonant (ex: час). It never exists in the letter я.

    Could you please explain what you meant?
     
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    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    The sound [a] never exists after a soft consonant.
    Only as long as you insist on an extremely accurate IPA transcription. Most IPA transcriptions use [a] as long as the vowel isn't also followed by another soft consonant (acquiring a noticeably more fronted and stable articulation as a result). Of course, here I mean stressed vowels only; [a] is hardly possible in any kind of unstressed positions, at least in the standard Russian language.
     

    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    Only as long as you insist on an extremely accurate IPA transcription.
    That's the whole point of this thread.

    Of course, here I mean stressed vowels only; [a] is hardly possible in any kind of unstressed positions, at least in the standard Russian language.
    Right. I have corrected my statement about the sound [a] before a soft consonant in the previous post to take into account the case when a [a] sound is preceded by a soft consonant sound and *not* followed by a soft consonant sound (ex: час)

    There is no underlying phonological difference between "я" and "a" after consonants, as long as the very consonant remains either soft or hard
    I thought that hard or soft was an acoustic characteristic, which was only fixed in a few consonant letters (ч, щ, ж, ш, ц, й). For instance, is the consonant letter T hard or soft?

    Therefore, I don't know exactly what "the consonant remains either soft or hard" means. Maybe "the preceding consonant is pronounced as it is pronounced in isolation" or "the preceding consonant is soft before я and hard before a" ?

    Anyway, my point here is that the Russian phonology wiki says:

    The pronunciation of unstressed /o ~ a/ is as follows: (...)

    1. [ʌ] (sometimes transcribed as [ɐ] (...) ) appears in the following positions:
    • In the syllable immediately before the stress, when a hard consonant precedes
    • In absolute word-initial position
    • (...)
    2. [ə] appears elsewhere, when a hard consonant precedes

    3. When a soft consonant or /j/ precedes, both /o/ and /a/ merge with /i/ and are pronounced as [ɪ].
    (3) seems to be the exact case of /a/ in тётя as it is preceded by the soft consonant sound [tʲ]. Maybe the wiki meant "when a soft consonant letter or /j/ precedes" and T is considered a hard consonant here, although it is softened in this word?
     
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    Eirwyn

    Member
    Russian
    You should've tried to read further. The answer to you your question is literally a couple of paragraphs after the text you quoted:
    Across certain word-final inflections, the reductions do not completely apply. For example, after soft or unpaired consonants, unstressed /a/, /e/ and /i/ of a final syllable may be distinguished from each other.[31][32] For example, жи́тели About this sound[ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲɪ] ('residents') contrasts with both (о) жи́теле About this sound[(ʌ) ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲɪ̞] ('[about] a resident') and жи́теля About this sound[ˈʐɨtʲɪlʲə] ('of a resident').
    However, I would rather say this is an artificial distinction, only possible in prepared pronunciations one can find on Forvo or Wictionary. In reality they would be pronounced the same way as any other post-tonic е/я/и, i.e. [ɪ].
     

    Alan Evangelista

    Senior Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    The answer to you your question is literally a couple of paragraphs after the text you quoted
    Across certain word-final inflections, the reductions do not completely apply. For example, after soft or unpaired consonants, unstressed /a/, /e/ and /i/ of a final syllable may be distinguished from each other.
    That makes sense. I really missed it before, thank you very much for pointing it out!

    However, I would rather say this is an artificial distinction, only possible in prepared pronunciations one can find on Forvo or Wictionary. In reality they would be pronounced the same way as any other post-tonic е/я/и, i.e. [ɪ].
    As a beginner learner of Russian, I only hear to Forvo/Wiktionary/Google Translate and some beginner podcasts/children stories where everything is slowly pronunced, so I really can't opinate about it. I'll stick to the documented standard for now.
     

    Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    Let's hope the documented standard isn't imaginary. :) It's often postulated that at least in some unstressed inflections the neutralisation doesn't really occur, but, as far as I know, it's still debated.
     
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