Russian Language Blog

Stressed About Word Stress? Posted by on Aug 16, 2010 in language, Russian for beginners


Are you struggling with stresses in Russian words? Well, don’t feel alone. You’ve got plenty of company. The issue of improperly stressed words affects native speakers of Russian, including such well-educated and highly trained professionals as «телеведущие» [TV anchors]. Add to the mix politicians who constantly entertain their «электорат» [voters] with «ляпы» [bloopers] and commercials that disregard correct stress and the situation quickly gets out of control.

Still, «правильное ударение» [correct stress in words] is a sign of «культурный человек» [a cultured person].

So why is it so hard even for the native speakers to get it right? Well, it’s a “good news, bad news” situation. The bad news is that stress in Russian words doesn’t follow any kind of pattern. Some call it «свободное ударение» [free stress] (Russia might rank low on the World Freedom Score, but «наше ударение – самое свободное ударение в мире» [our stress is the freest stress in the world]). Others call it «непредсказуемое ударение» [unpredictable stress].

The good news is the fact that «это устойчивое ударение», meaning that it doesn’t move within the same word, meaning that once you memorize where the stress belongs in a particular word, you’re set for life. «Но это – теория» [but that’s theory].

«На практике» [In real life], it would be entirely out of character for the Russian language to have grammar rules without exceptions. Russians learn from the youngest age that «нет правил без исключений, но есть исключения без правил» [there are no rules without exceptions, but there are exceptions without rules].

By the way, you’ll see the adverb «как правило» [as a rule] used quite often, as in this headline: «Хозяева кошек, как правило, образованнее хозяев собак» [As a rule, cat owners are more educated than dog owners]. If you happen to be «владелец собаки» [a dog owner], don’t get upset, just remember that «нет правил без исключений».

«Но вернёмся к нашим баранам» [But let’s get back to where we were]… Some of the exceptions from the rule include the following words:

«Девичий» – «девичий» [maidenly]

«Издалека» – «издалёка» [from afar]

«Обеспечение» – «обеспечение» [provisioning]

«Творог» – «творог» [cottage cheese]

and a few others

But that’s a tiny minority of Russian words, 4%. The vast majority of words in Russian language, 96% if I did my math right, conform to the rule of «устойчивое ударение» [stable stress], yet still get mispronounced.

One of the reasons is differences in regional pronunciation. «Диалекты» [dialects] account for some of the most common differences in placing the stress. For example, folks from Northern Russia tend to place stress at the beginning of the words, such as in «договор» instead of «договор» [agreement] and «напасть» instead of «напасть» [misfortune].

Southerners, on the other hand, favor the endings of the words, frequently changing them in the process, as in «выбора» instead of «выборы» [elections], «договора» instead of «договоры» [agreements], «средства» instead of «средства» [means], «понял» instead of «понял» [understood].

It is also important that «повседневная речь» [everyday speech] tends to be more «небрежная» [careless], resulting in such «бытовые ударения» [household stress] as «звонишь» instead of «звонишь» [calling], «процент» instead of «процент» [percent], and «красивее» instead of «красивее» [more beautiful]. Such carelessness frequently becomes deeply ingrained and makes its way even into more formal speech.

Finally, foreign borrowings bring their own share of havoc as in «маркетинг» vs «маркетинг», «каталог» vs «каталог» [catalog], etc.

Fortunately, you can always check the proper stress by looking up each word in «орфоэпический словарь» [orthoepic dictionary]. If you don’t have one handy, use this online version (enter the word into the «проверка слова» [word check] field and hit the «проверить» [check it] button).

If you don’t mind memorizing a dozen or so words (of course you don’t!), here’s a list, with proper stress, of some of the most frequently mangled ones:

«торты» [cakes]

«банты» [bows]

«порты» [ports]

«броня» [reservations], but «броня» [armor]

«баловать» [to spoil]

«вероисповедание» [religious belief]

«завидно» [enviably]

«зубчатый» [toothed or cogged]

«искра» [spark]

«черпать» [to scoop] and «исчерпать» [to exhaust]

«километр» [kilometer]

«ломоть» [slice]

«оптовый» [bulk]

«свёкла» [beetroot]

«щавель» [sorrel]

Finally, I started this post fully intent on explaining the mystery of the word «беспринципный» [unprincipled]. Why would the stress fall on the last «и» even though it falls on the first «и» in the word «принцип» [principle]. Before you read any further – what follows is not for the faint-hearted.

You see, the adjective «беспринципный» is formed by adding both the prefix «без» [without] and a suffix «-н» to the root noun «принцип». At the same time, there is another adjective formed from the same root, but without prefix – «принципиальный» [principled]. These two facts combine to make «беспринципный» a so-called «префиксально-суффиксальное прилагательное» [prefix-suffix type adjective]. Besides, this is a «прилагательное акцентного типа А» [accent type A adjective].

Are you still with me? So, there’s actually a rule (here we go again) that says that in the prefix-suffix adjectives of accent type A the stress must fall on the same vowel as in the root word. Hah! Shouldn’t it be «беспринципный» then? No way! Because… drum roll, please… this particular word is a good old exception to the rule! I told you, didn’t I?!

And now, with a major headache, I depart to “sleep, perchance to dream”, of someone sending me «экспертное объяснение акцентных типов» [expert explanation of accent types], please!

P.S. If you are interested in learning more about the state of things in Russian orthoepia, listen to this episode of a podcast (it’s in Russian) I recently came across.  If you like what you hear, get more of “Говорим по-русски” [Speaking Russian] podcasts here.

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  1. Minority:

    >as «звонИшь» instead of «звОнишь» [calling]
    You’ve confused these. The correct is “звонИшь”, but we say “звОнишь” often.

    • yelena:

      @Minority You see, just like I said, even native speakers have difficulties with stresses 🙂 Actually, I checked and re-checked the correct stress several times, but then, during the formatting of the post (when I underline stressed vowels), I slipped into the incorrect version anyway, lol. Bad habits die hard. Nice catch!

  2. mademoiselle:

    «обеспечение» [provisioning] second option you have is incorrect.

    • yelena:

      @mademoiselle “Краткий словарь трудностей русского языка: Грамматические формы. Ударение” Еськовой Н. А. 2005 года издания приводит это слово с двумя вариантами ударения: на третьем и четвертом слоге: обеспе́че́ние

  3. josefina:

    My experience – through mastering two foreign languages to a level of very high fluency as well as teaching my native language – is that the native is never your best source for exact information! And languages change constantly: when I first arrived in Russia, everybody said “звОнишь” but kept pointing out that “звонИшь” was correct. But after a couple of years, the first “slang” version entered русский литературный язык – yet many native speakers of Russian will continue to claim it has not!

    Well, at the end of the day, this is fascinating. And what is the most important is that we understand each other! Somehow, somewhat… 😛

  4. Michael:

    The example
    «красивее» instead of «красивее»
    reminds me of a problem I often have:
    Orthoepic stress vs. emphasizing stress.

    My teacher wants me not to rattle off the exercices, but to speek vividly, emphasizing the parts of the sentence that contain the relevant message – but then I end up with wrong stresses.

    In «Она красива, но ты красивее»
    I emphasize the suffix,
    but in «Она моложе, но ты красивее»
    I emphasize the word.

    Is this concept not present in Russian?
    Or do Russians have the ability to pronounce two distinct types of stress independently?

    • yelena:

      @Michael Michael, there are two schools of thought on the subject of language-learning exercises (well, at least two that I know of). One is that grammar is essential and must be memorized through rot learning and lots of repetitious exercises. Another one is that, while grammar is very important, it’s more important and productive to just speak the language. I can see both points. I personally think that the second approach works better the more you are immersed in the language.

      BTW, I like the examples you used 🙂 In Russian there’s stress in each word, but there’s also inflection within the sentence. The word order in Russian sentences is generally not important and the speakers use word endings and inflections to get the point across.

  5. Dave:

    Are there any variations on stress of “govorish”? The first Russian I ever learned was from a temporary workmate who had a Russian grandmother, and who taught me “pra shto ti gavOrish” – what are you talking about. I’ve often wondered over the years where he got this pronunciation from – did he mispronounce it or was it how his russian grandmother pronounced what should have sounded more like guhvarIsh?

    Another question – do Russian native speakers make grammatical mistakes, and if what sort? Given that English speakers often get english wrong, and there is much more opportunity to get wrong things wrong in Russian grammar, I would guess that they do.

    Finally, a comment about whether or not foreign nouns are declined. I noticed that smog, which comes from the english hybrid of smoke and fog, was used with a genitive ending “smoga” in an article about the current weather problems in Moscow. In contrast Bistro is rather bizzare – apparently it came into French from Russian soldiers in Paris after the defeat of Napoleon – their “bistro” – meaning make it quick to the waiters developed into a word for a fast food outlet, which got loaned back to Russian as an undeclinable foreign noun.

    • yelena:

      @Dave Dave, I’ve never heard anyone pronounce “говоришь” the way your workmate did. It might be something regional though. However, sometimes Russians intentionally mispronounce words, including changing the stress, in very informal conversations. It’s sort of like the very informal “gonna”, “would’ya”, “ain’t”, etc. So it might have been intentional.

      Do Russian speakers make grammar mistakes? All the time 🙂 I make a few myself. Thankfully, we have some sharp-eyed readers and Facebook fans that correct me. There are thousands of Google search results for keywords “ляпы телеведущих” [TV anchors’ bloopers] and “ляпы политиков” [politicians’ bloopers]. And these folks make speaking Russian their business 🙂

      Finally, a quick one on declination of borrowed nouns. Feminine and masculine nouns are declined and the usual rules apply. Neuter ones, including бистро, кафе, метро – are not declined. Finally, I just heard on the Radioglobus ( that кофе [coffee] is now allowed to be treated as either masculine or neutral (used to be masculine only).

  6. David Roberts:

    Vopros, ocen vazhiy “Scouseram*” mne prixodit v golovy: Liverpool: muzhniy rod ili zhenskiy rod?

    *Scouser – grazhdanim Liverpoolya (ili Liverpooli)

    • yelena:

      @David Roberts Great question. Let’s see – Ливерпуль is treated as masculine. Residents of Liverpool are called: житель Ливерпуля (singular masculine), ливерпулец (singular masculine), ливерпульцы (plural). The singular feminine construct ливерпулька sounds kind of funny and I haven’t seen it used much. Instead, it’s usually жительница Ливерпуля.

      However, if you’re talking about a “Liverpool” footballer, then he can be either ливерпулец, ливерпудлианец, or игрок команды “Ливерпуль”. Hardcore football fans (ok, soccer fans for all the readers in the US) will use the word (singular masculine) “скаузер” or “скузер”, but it’s pretty rare.