This post is continued from last week. We were talking about the top areas you should concentrate on to drastically improve your Russian pronunciation.
Ы is a funny sound. It is not considered very pretty-sounding in Russian, and few native words have it. At the same time, it is widely used to form plurals and appears in such common words as ты (you sing.), вы (you pl. or formal), and мы (we). Ы only appears after hard consonants in Russian (soft consonants will be followed by и). Does that make и and ы allophones — two ways of saying the same phoneme, or meaning-distinguishing sound, depending on where it occurs in the word? Scholars aren’t sure, but perhaps it doesn’t matter for our purposes.
This sound has already come up in comments a couple of times. I remember one of my students saying muy, as in the Spanish for “very,” instead of мы. The funny thing is she wasn’t that far off. Just like у and и, it is articulated with your tongue lifted towards the roof of your mouth. However, the tongue is half way between the front of your mouth as in the case of и and the back of your mouth as in the case of у. You lips are pretty much where they would be for an “ee” sound, which is why “Say cheese” in Russian is скажи “сыр” (literally, “say cheese”). The ы gets your lips into a proper, if somewhat strained, smile.
Basically, you need to pretend like you’re going to say и and pull your tongue back. This may be awkward to try to do just from reading the explanation, so let’s listen to some examples.
4. Vowel reduction
Most Russian learners, even complete beginners, are usually aware that unstressed о and е are not pronounced the same way as they would under stress. For those who aren’t that far into their Russian studies, they pretty much sound like а and и, respectively, or that’s what you’r told. That is an important thing to keep in mind, but what often slips through the cracks is that all unstressed vowels lose their quality compared to the stressed ones.
That means that, yes, not pronouncing корова (cow) as [к о р о в а] is a step in the right direction, but you shouldn’t really be saying an open а in that first syllable, either [к а р о в а]. Unless you have a pronounced Moscow accent, of course. The а gets reduced either uh or a schwa, depending on where that unstressed syllable appears in the word. People can even drop unstressed vowels altogether when speaking fast.
Try to listen for the difference between the stressed and unstressed vowels in these examples.
борода – beard
человек – person
колесо – wheel
On a side note, there is normally only one stressed syllable in Russian words, so instead of stressing every other syllable, try putting all your oomph on that stressed syllable. This way, the rest will naturally get slurred and reduced.
I hope this was helpful. As always, let me know if there are any other areas of Russian pronunciation that give you a hard time.