LINGUIST List 14.3223

Mon Nov 24 2003

Sum: Russian Vowels

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Uri Tadmor, Summary: Russian vowels

Message 1: Summary: Russian vowels

Date: Fri, 21 Nov 2003 09:45:11 -0500 (EST)
From: Uri Tadmor <>
Subject: Summary: Russian vowels

On November 16, 2003 I posted the following question (Linguist

"I am interested in Russian ya, ye, yi, yo, yu. What is their origin?
Why are they written with single characters? Are they analyzed as
single complex phonemes?"

As a result, I've received many detailed and informative answers. I'm
grateful to Jakob Dempsey, R�my Viredaz, Loren A. Billings, Sally
Thomason, Julia Nikolaeva, Frank Gladney, Ivan A Derzhanski, and
Stefan Dienst for their helpful comments.

Let me first say that I do not speak Russian, nor have I ever studied
Russian or Slavic linguistics. My question was in conjunction with a
paper I'm writing on complex segments and segment sequences.

Two writers were puzzled by my use of the term "complex phonemes".
One of them went as far as to say: "In principle there is no such
thing as a complex phoneme, because phoneme are, quasi by definition,
felt as single entities by native speakers". I may have used an
unconventional term here; what I meant was "phonetically complex
segments which function as single phonemes". Examples from English
are the vowels of the words "make" and "hope", and the initial
consonants of the words "cheap" and "job".

Below is a summary of my understanding of what had taken place in
Russian. If I have misrepresented the facts or have drawn the wrong
conclusions, I'd be grateful for corrections.

Stage 1: The language had five vowel phonemes: a, e, i, o, u.

Stage 2: A series of complex vowel nuclei, consisting of the five
simple vowels with a palatal on-glide, was added. These rising
diphthongs had multiple origins, and were not all part of the same
phonological process. However, it's possible that after one or two
had phonemicized, systemic pressure contributed to the completion of
the series. Because these rising diphthongs were perceived as single
phonemes, they were written with single characters.

Stage 3: Eventually, the palatal on-glides were reinterpreted as being
part of the preceding consonant, which led to a restructuring of the
inventory of phonemes. The number of vowels decreased by half, while
the number consonants almost doubled, as a series of palatalized
consonants was added. The orthography, however, has only partially
changed, and the historical rising diphthongs are still written with
single characters.

One writer opined that this reanalysis occurred only in the minds of
modern linguists, rather than in the minds of native speakers. He
analyzes Russian palatalized consonants as "allophonic variation
caused by contact with certain vowels". It seems to me that this
position would be hard to maintain, given that palatalized consonants
occur in word final position (including in native vocabulary) in
opposition to simple consonants, that is when there is no conditioning
vowel present. (Some speakers, of course, may be influenced by the
conservative orthography to believe that the historical rising
diphthongs still function as unitary vocalic nuclei. ) However, I am
still puzzled about the phonemic representation of modern Russian
words which historically began with rising diphthongs. In such cases
the historical on-glide cannot be interpreted as palatalization of the
preceding consonant, because there is none.

Thanks again to all those who took time to reply and illuminate me.

Uri Tadmor 

Subject-Language: Russian; Code: RUS 
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