Russian Vowels: Pronunciation and Usage

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There are ten vowels in Russian. They are divided into two groups: hard vowels and soft vowels. The hard vowels are А, О, У, Ы, and Э; they indicate that the consonant that comes before them is hard-sounding. The soft vowels are Я, Ё, Ю, И, and Е, and they render the previous consonant soft. To produce a soft vowel sound when you pronounce it, simply add a "y" to a hard vowel, for example, A + Y = YA (Я).

Keep in mind that some Russian vowels look very similar to English vowels, but their pronunciation is very different.

Vowel Sounds

There are six vowel sounds in Russian, which means that some sounds are represented by more than one vowel.

Sound Letter English Sound
A A Aah
A Я Yah
O O Oh
O Ё Yoh
У Ю Yuh
У У Ooh
Э Э Eh
Э Е Yeh
И И Ee
Ы Ы Yy

The Hard Vowels

А

Ah or aah as in far and lamb.

When under stress, A sounds strong and clear: Aah. However, when unstressed, A can sound more like eh or uh, depending on regional variations.

Example:

Катя (KAHtya): Katya. The letter A is stressed so it sounds strong and clear: ah.

Машина (muhSHEEna): car. The letter A is unstressed so it sounds more like uh.

О

О as in morning.

Just like A, the Russian letter О changes to a less clear uh or even ah when unstressed. When stressed, О is pronounced as oh or even a longer sound similar to o in morning.

Example:

Конь (KOHn'): horse. The О sounds long and clear: oh

Колесо (kaleSOH): wheel. The first О is unstressed and is pronounced as a relaxed ah or uh. The second О, however, is under stress, and is emphasized by a longer sound o-o-oh

У

Ooh as in boo.

У always sounds the same, whether stressed or unstressed. While some people enunciate this sound and pull their lips into the shape similar to blowing out candles, others pronounce it in a more relaxed way.

Курица (KOOritsa): chicken. The letter У is stressed and pronounced by shaping your lips as if you are blowing out a candle.

Кусочек (kooSOHchek): a small part, small bite. The letter У is unstressed and less defined, with the lips shaped in the same blowing out manner but more loosely.

Ы

Uh-ee - no equivalent sound.

Ы is a tricky vowel as there is no similar sound in English. To produce this sound, pull your mouth into a smile while saying ooh. Ы sounds like a cross between ee and ooh. It sounds shorted when unstressed.

Example:

Крыса (KRYYsa): rat. The letter Ы is under stress and pronounced as a long sound.

Крысёнок (krySYOkak): baby rat. The letter Ы is unstressed here and is, therefore, shorter and less defined, with some accents completely shortening it to almost no sound so that the word is pronounced as krrSYOnak.

Э

Aeh as in aerobics.

Short or long depending on the stress, Э is similar to the English ae.

Example:

Эхо (EHha): echo. Э is stressed and hard: ae.

The Soft Vowels

Я

Ya as in yard.

There is no difference between the way Я sounds when stressed and unstressed.

Example:

Яма (YAma): hole. The Я sounds exactly as the English sound ya.

Ё

Yoh as in York.

Another simple to learn letter, Ё sounds the same whether stressed or unstressed.

Example:

Алёна (aLYOna): Alyona (name).

Ю

Yu as in you

Ю is stronger when stressed than when it is unstressed.

Example:

Ключ (KLYUCH): a key. The letter is stressed and pronounced as yu.

Ключица (klyuCHItsa): collarbone. Ю is unstressed and sounds shorter, the mouth doesn't move as much as when the letter Ю is stressed.

И

E as in meet.

И sounds shorter when unstressed and longer when under stress.

Example:

Мир (MEER): peace, world. The letter И is long.

Игра (iGRA): game. The letter is unstressed and is pronounced as a short i.

Е

Yeh as in yes.

Just like А and О, the letter Е sounds different when under stress from the way it is pronounced in an unstressed syllable. Under stress, Е is ye, however, when unstressed, it is pronounced as i.

Example:

Мелочь (MYElach): a small thing, something insignificant. E is long and strong and sounds like yeh.

Зелёный (ziLYOniy): green. E is short and sounds more like i.