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Word Stress Patterns in Russian Posted by on Jun 26, 2019 in language

Word stress (ударе́ние) is probably one of the most challenging things about the Russian language. Where the emphasis falls in a word is highly variable in Russian, and there is no single rule set, unlike in such languages as Spanish.

dashboard with dials and labels in Russian

Image by olafpictures from Pixabay

To put things in perspective, this is also the case in English. If you speak English fluently, you likely remember where word stress falls from hearing the word repeatedly rather than following a specific rule. Native speakers of Russian also struggle to figure out the stress in unfamiliar words. I used to pronounce the word да́веча (recently) incorrectly because I would only ever see it in writing. Similarly, on the first day of class, teachers reading unfamiliar family names inevitably get a few wrong.

While there are no set rules, there are several patterns that determine where the stress is likely to be in a given word. While they won’t tell you how to pronounce a specific word, if you have to take a stab at an unfamiliar word, you can fall back on these guidelines to raise the odds of getting it right.

Surnames

Most Russian family names are, in essence, possessive adjectives: Ивано́в = belonging to Ivan (Ива́н), Кузнецо́ва = belonging to a blacksmith (кузне́ц), etc. A lot of times the root of the word will be stressed, as opposed to its ending. For example, look at these words and the last names derived from them:

  • Си́дор (male name) — Си́доров, Си́дорова
  • коза́ (female goat) — Ко́зин, Ко́зина
  • медве́дь (bear) — Медве́дев, Медве́дева
  • пивова́р (brewer) — Пивова́ров, Пивова́рова

Following this principle, you can sound out some Russian last names you might have seen on the news: Бу́тина, Шара́пова, and so on.

That being said, not all surnames follow this principle. In fact, some of the most common ones — Ивано́в(а), Петро́в(а), Кузнецо́в(а), Попо́в(а)do have the emphasis towards the end and may be worth remembering separately.

old Soviet Smena camera

Image by HangyaDavid from Pixabay

Stress in the Middle

While there are no hard-and-fast rules, one principle that’s been observed is that Russian tends to avoid too many unstressed syllables (сло́ги) before or after the stressed one. In other words, the emphasis will gravitate towards the middle of the word. Meduza gives the example of Ста́врополь (the Russian city of Stavropol) and ставропо́льский (adjective relating to this city).

Foreign Words

The emphasis in words that came to Russians from other languages may eventually shift towards the end of the word. For instance, for the word ма́ркетинг, dictionaries initially recommended stressing the first syllable. However, because Russian word stress tends to move away towards the middle/end of the word, the more common pronunciation is марке́тинг, which is starting to be reflected in some dictionaries.

The Russian pronunciation of the following words was also affected by this trend: ноутбу́к (laptop) and футбо́л (football).

Russian word stress is a complex subject, and no single post, or even book, can cover all the different patterns. Here is an overview of some trends in Russian. However, hopefully, these general principles will help you take an educated guess when reading a word you’ve never seen before.

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


Comments:

  1. Mark:

    Thanks for this! It’s good to know that even natives have problems with the stress of unfamiliar words/names. There have been times where I didn’t know I’d been mispronouncing a word until I’d heard a Russian saying it in a news report or movie.

    • Maria:

      @Mark You’re welcome, Mark! If there’s any word a Russian speaker knows how to pronounce, it’s because they’ve heard/said it enough times.


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