Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Stressed and unstressed vowels

Question: I know that vowels sound different depending on whether they are in stressed or unstressed syllables, but I don't quite understand how this works just yet. Care to explain?

I know that "o" sounds like /a/ in an unstressed syllable. I know that "e" sounds different, but I'm not quite sure how just yet. I'm pretty sure "y" always sounds like /u/. Vowels like "ы" and "й" still have me completely mystified. I'm sure it would all make sense if I could just hear someone pronounce it.

And what's the deal with the "ь"? It seems like it just adds a /j/ sound to the end of words, like есть (/estj/?)


Blogger Katya said...

OK, lots of good questions. I'm going to have to answer them in parts, because I'll never find time to compose one all-encompassing reply.

First, there are four ways to mark stressed syllables:

1. Length (the vowels in stressed syllables are longer than in unstressed syllables)

2. Pitch (stressed syllables are at a different - usually higher - pitch than unstressed syllables)

3. Volume (stressed syllables are louder than unstressed syllables)

4. Vowel quality (the vowels in unstressed syllables are more reduced - more like a schwa - than the vowels in stressed syllables)

English uses all four, but not all languages do. (This can be a bit confusing when you're studying a language which marks stress differently than you're used to.) After walking around muttering to myself in Russian all day, I'm going to go ahead and say that Russian uses all four, too.

What you're noticing is the difference in vowel quality between the stressed vowels and the unstressed vowels. . . .

2:38 PM  
Blogger Katya said...

Right, going to try to answer this without the use of proper IPA symbols. (I think I can use more of them in an actual post, but I'm fairly limited in the comments.)

{o} can actually have three different sounds, one for primary stress, one for secondary stress and one when it's unstressed. Stressed {o} sounds pretty much like an English /o/, diphthong and all. (If anything, it's more diphthong-y.) Secondarily stressed {o} sounds like "a" if you mean that to represent the "a" in {father}. (Technically, IPA /a/ is the vowel in {cat}.) Unstressed {o} is basically a schwa. You can hear all three sounds in words like {молоко} which sounds like "ma luh 'ko." (I'm trying to avoid using / / for sounds that aren't strict IPA, so I'm using quotes to substitute. Hope they're not overly distracting.) . . .

6:54 PM  
Blogger Katya said...

I'd say that the main difference between stressed {e} and unstressed {e} is that the former includes a semi-vowel and the latter doesn't. {небо}, in which the first syllable is stressed, is pronounced "'nyeh buh," but {небольшой}, in which the first syllable is not stressed, is pronounced "neh bol 'shoy." If you run into a {ё} (which is not considered a separate letter, btw) it is always the stressed syllable and it is pronounced "yo". (So {нёбо} is pronounced "'nyo buh.") . . .

7:02 PM  
Blogger Katya said...

I'm going to agree with you that {y} has roughly the same vowel quality stressed or unstressed.

{ы} is tricky to describe. It's kind of like a schwa, only it's father back in the mouth. Your best hope is to find a Russian speaker who can make the sound for you.

{й} is much easier to describe. It sounds almost exactly like the English {y} or the IPA /j/. {-ой} sounds like /oj/, {-ий} sound like /ij/ (or like English -y or -ee -- we put a diphthong on it naturally), etc. {й} occasionally appears at the beginning of a word, particularly in loanwords. Otherwise, it's almost always at the end of a syllable. Oh, and it's not a vowel -- it's a semi-vowel. (This means that it will always occur in a syllable with another vowel.) . . .

7:14 PM  
Blogger Katya said...

Ah, yes, the cute little {ь}, creator of problems for many a Russian 101 student. I will present you with a brief lesson in historical Russian linguistics. Back in The Day, the {ь} was a high vowel, much like a /i/. The thing about high vowels is that they tend to affect the consonants that go in front of them. Think about saying the word "Liam" versus the word "long." Did you notice how your tongue came up higher to say the /l/ in the first one? That's called "palatalization." Basically, the fact that you have to move your tongue towards the roof of your mouth to say the /i/ means that you tend to get it in position while you are still saying the consonant before the high vowel.

Fast forward several hundreds of years. The {ь} no longer has any sound of its own, but it still palatalizes the consonant in front of it, be it a {л}, a {т} or whatever. (I can't remember offhand if any other consonants can have a {ь} follow them, but {л} and {т} are probably the most common.) Again, it's a bit tricky to figure out how to say these without a Russian speaker to show you, but you can get away with not properly palatalizing the consonants to a certain extent -- people will still understand you.

7:26 PM  

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