Russian Phonetics - Historical Sound Changes

Historical Sound Changes

See also: History of the Russian language

The modern phonological system of Russian is inherited from Common Slavonic, but underwent considerable innovation in the early historical period, before being largely settled by about 1400.

Like all Slavic languages, Old Russian was a language of open syllables. All syllables ended in vowels, and consonant clusters, in far lesser variety than today, existed only in the syllable onset. However, by the time of the earliest records, Old Russian already showed characteristic divergences from Common Slavonic.

Around the tenth century, Russian may have already had paired coronal fricatives and sonorants so that /s/ /z/ /n/ /l/ /r/ could have contrasted with /sʲ/ /zʲ/ /nʲ/ /lʲ/ /rʲ/, though any possible contrasts were limited to specific environments. Otherwise, palatalized consonants appeared allophonically before front vowels. When the yers were lost, the palatalization initially triggered by high vowels remained, creating minimal pairs like данъ /dan/ ('given') and дань /danʲ/ ('tribute'). At the same time, which was already a part of the vocalic system, was reanalyzed as an allophone of /i/ after hard consonants, prompting leveling that caused vowels to alternate according to the preceding consonant rather than vice versa.

The nasal vowels (spelled in the Cyrillic alphabet with yuses), which had developed from Common Slavic *eN and *oN before a consonant, were replaced with nonnasalized vowels, possibly iotated or with softening of the preceding consonant:

  • PIE: *h₁sónti
  • Latin: sunt
  • Common Slavonic: *sǫtь
  • Old Church Slavonic: sǫtь
  • Russian: суть ('they are', bookish 3rd person pl form of быть 'to be', cf. Polish ).

Borrowings in the Uralic languages with interpolated /n/ after Common Slavonic nasal vowels have been taken to indicate that the nasal vowels did exist in East Slavic until some time possibly just before the historical period.

Simplification of Common Slavic *dl and *tl to *l:

  • Common Slavonic: *mydlo
  • Polish: mydło
  • Russian: мыло ('soap').

A tendency for greater maintenance of intermediate ancient, etc. before frontal vowels, than in other Slavic languages, the so-called incomplete second and third palatalizations:

  • Ukrainian нозі /nozʲi/
  • Russian: ноге ('leg' dat.).

Pleophony or "full-voicing" (polnoglasie, 'полногласие' ), that is, the addition of vowels on either side of /l/ and /r/ between two consonants. Church Slavonic influence has made it less common in Russian than in modern Ukrainian and Belarusian:

  • Old Church Slavonic: vrabii *
  • Russian: воробей ('sparrow')
  • Ukrainian: Володимир /woloˈdɪmɪr/
  • Russian: Владимир ('Vladimir') (although the nickname form in Russian is still Володя ).

Major phonological processes in the last thousand years have included the absence of the Slavonic open-syllable requirement, achieved in part through the loss of the ultra-short vowels, the so-called fall of the yers, which alternately lengthened and dropped (the yers are given conventional transcription rather than precise IPA symbols in the Old Russian pronunciations):

  • Old East Slavic: объ мьнѣ /o.bŭ mĭˈně/ > R: обо мне ('about me')
  • OR: сънъ /ˈsŭ.nŭ/ > R: сон ('sleep' nom. sg.), cognate with Lat. somnus;
  • OR: съна /sŭˈna/ > R: сна ('of sleep') (gen. sg.).

The loss of the yers has led to geminated consonants and a much greater variety of consonant clusters, with attendant voicing and/or devoicing in the assimilation:

  • OR: къдѣ /kŭˈdě/ > R: где ('where').

Consonant clusters thus created were often simplified:

  • здравствуйте ('hello'), (first 'v' rarely pronounced; such a pronunciation could be affected in the archaic meaning be healthy)
  • сердце ('heart') ('d' not pronounced)
  • солнце ('sun') ('l' not pronounced).

The development of OR ѣ /ě/ (conventional transcription) into /(j)e/, as seen above. This development has caused by far the greatest of all Russian spelling controversies. The timeline of the development of /ě/ into /e/ or /je/ has also been debated.

Sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth century, the allophone of /i/ before velar consonants changed from to with subsequent palatalization of the velars.

The retroflexing of postalveolars: /ʒ/ became and /ʃ/ become . This is considered a "hardening" since retroflex sounds are difficult to palatalize. At some point, /t͡s/ resisted palatalization, which is why it is also "hard" although phonetically it is no different than before. The sound represented by ⟨щ⟩ was much more commonly pronounced /ɕt͡ɕ/ than it is today. Today's common and standard pronunciation of ⟨щ⟩ is /ɕː/.

The development of stressed /e/ into /o/ when between a (historically) soft consonant and a hard one.

  • OR о чемъ /o ˈt͡ʃe.mŭ/ ('about which' loc. sg.) > R о чём .

This has led to a number of alternations:

Word Gloss Word Gloss
весе́лье merriment весёлый merry
вле́чь to attract влёк he attracted
деше́вле cheaper дешёвый cheap
е́ль fir-tree ёлка Christmas tree
жечь to burn жёг he burned
коле́сник wheel-wright колёса wheels
лечь to lie down лёг he lay down
Пе́тя Pete Пётр Peter
поме́лья brooms мёл he swept
сельский rural сёла villages
се́стрин sister's сёстры sisters
смерть death мёртвый dead
шесть six сам-шёст six-fold; with five others

Note that the /e/ that derives from the long obsolete vowel, yat (ѣ) did not undergo this change except for a short list of words as of about a century ago. Nowadays, the change has been reverted in two of those exceptional words.

  • вдёжка 'threading needle, bodkin'
  • гнёзда 'nests'
  • желёзка 'glandule' (however желе́зка 'piece of iron')
  • запечатлён ' depicted; imprinted (in the mind)'
  • звёзды 'stars'
  • зёвывал ' used to yawn'
  • издёвка 'jibe'
  • (ни разу не) надёван ' (never) worn'
  • обрёл ' found'
  • сёдла 'saddles'
  • смётка 'apprehension'
  • цвёл ' flowered, flourished'
  • надёвывал ' used to put on' (this word has fallen into disuse in the standard language)
  • подгнёта 'fuel, chips; instigation; firebrand' (this word has fallen into disuse in the standard language)
  • вёшка 'way-mark' (now ве́шка)
  • медвёдка 'mole cricket', 'mole rat' (now медве́дка)

Loanwords from Church Slavonic reintroduced /e/ between a (historically) soft consonant and a hard one, creating a few new minimal pairs:

  • не́бо 'sky' vs. нёбо 'roof of the mouth'
  • паде́ж 'case (grammatical)' vs. падёж 'murrain, epizooty'
  • вселе́нная 'universe' vs. вселённая 'settled' (f.)
  • соверше́нный 'perfect' vs. совершённый 'completed, committed, performed, achieved'

A number of the phonological features of Russian are attributable to the introduction of loanwords (especially from non-Slavic languages), including:

  • Sequences of two vowels within a morpheme. Only a handful of such words, like паук 'spider' and оплеуха 'slap in the face' are native.
    • поэт 'poet'. From French poète.
    • траур 'mourning'. From German Trauer.
  • Word-initial /e/, except for the root эт-.
    • эра 'era'. From German Ära
  • Word-initial /a/.
    • авеню 'avenue. From French avenue.
    • афера 'swindle'. From French affaire.
    • агнец 'lamb'. From Church Slavonic
  • The phoneme /f/ (see Ef (Cyrillic) for more information).
    • фонема 'phoneme'. From Greek φώνημα.
    • эфир 'ether'. From Greek αἰθήρ.
    • фиаско 'fiasco. From Italian fiasco.
  • The occurrence of non-palatalized consonants before /e/ within roots. (The initial /e/ of a suffix or flexion invariably triggers palatalization of an immediately preceding consonant, as in брат / братец / о брате.)
  • The sequence /dʐ/ within a morpheme.
    • джин 'gin' from English.
    • джаз 'jazz' from English.

Many double consonants have become degeminated, though they are still written with two letters in the orthography. (In a 1968 study, long remains long in only half of the words that it appears written in, while long only a sixth of the time. The study, however, did not distinguish spelling from actual historical pronunciation, since it included loanwords in which consonants were written doubled but never pronounced long in Russian.)

Read more about this topic:  Russian Phonetics

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