Russian vowel reduction is, thankfully, regular, even if the phenomenon is not. Vowel reduction is when the stress of a vowel affects the pronunciation of other vowels in the word. To provide an example and guide to pronouncing Russian in all its vowel-reducing glory, however, I have to start on the actual vowel system first.

The vowels in Russian are split into two groups, which I have been to taught to call “positive” and “negative.” Unfortunately, since not everyone can read the Cyrillic here, I will also use the standard Roman alphabet way of representing Russian. The positive vowels are as follows:

  • А (A) – like father, but with a but sound appended. “ah-uh”*
  • Э (E) – like bet, but with that same “uh” after. “eh-uh”
  • Ы (I) – like in bit. “i-uh”
  • О (O) – like in boat. “oh-uh”
  • У (U) – like in cool. “ooh-uh”
The full pronunciation with the “-uh” sound is only when exaggerated or at the end of a word. Quick Russian pronunciation does not accommodate the full length of the vowel. It is usually shortened to just the first sound, so “ah-uh” becomes “ah,” etc.

Next come the negative vowels:

  • Я (YA) – like yahoo.*
  • И (EE) – like in street.
  • Е (YE) – like in yet.
  • Е (YO) – like in yoke. (For those interested, this is really just a heavily stressed “ye.”)
  • Ю (YU) – like in you.
Now is the fun part. Depending on the position of the stress in the word, these vowels shift their sounds. This only happens to three vowels: “O”, “YA”, and “YE”. When unstressed they become, respectively, “A”, “EE”, and “EE”. There is, as usual, an exception: When a word ends in “YA” or “YE”, the reduction does not occur. Like many languages, the ending represents vital information, such as verb conjugation or noun declension. “YA” and “YE” both can convey this information but “O” does not.

To demonstrate Russian vowel reduction, I will give several words with their stress marked. Next to it I will give how it is actually pronounced.

poznakomeetsya	-	paznakomeetsya
spaseebo		-	spaseeba
horosho		-	harasho
The reduction is universal and without exceptions, except for the one listed above.
*A hearty thanks to Gritchka for pointing out that only in America were my examples for pronunciation valid.

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