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I've just started learning German, and what strikes me about their plurals is that a word in its plural form can change not only at the end but in the middle as well (die Kopf / die Köpfe, der Stuhl / die Stühle, der Wald / die Wälde).

And then I realized that in Russian, we have, for instance, forms like:

  • десна / дёсны
  • весна / вёсны
  • ведро / вёдра
  • бедро / бёдра

My question is whether there's any rule one can memorize for when this is the case in Russian? If not, is there a more or less exhaustive list of such words?


UPD: For those who claim that this is due to the "ѣ"/"e" change, can you please be more specific? For instance, words that evolved from рѣпа, пѣна, лѣто do not follow this pattern. On the other hand, the word жена, which came from жєна, does follow this pattern.

UPD: I just realized that this phenomenon extends further than just "ё"/"е". As Dmitry mentioned, we have "ё"/"е" and we actually also have "a"/"о" (заря/зори).

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    Это работает и в обратную сторону: чёрт - черти, счёт - счета, однако для этого есть правило: Буквы о-ё-е в корнях слов после шипящих. Вот еще заумный материал, может поможет.
    – Dmitry
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 10:41
  • I think it is just vowel reduction. Not all cases of vowel reduction reflected in spelling though.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jan 8, 2017 at 22:47

3 Answers 3

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Actually, as Zaliznyak (1967) shows, it is, synchronically, ё>е in the singular not e>ё in the plural. Words like "десна'" are actually "дёсна'" (' for stress), but unstressed ё is not used in Russian (except for very special cases involving certain loanwords, for which Zaliznyak adds a special rule: "convert unstressed ё to ё` (a special symbol unaffected by most rules)" before converting every е that is in stress-caused alternation with ё to ё), so we write "десна". It is the lexical information of every word (or rather, its morphemes) that serves as its actual phonemic form.

Precisely the same thing happens to words containing ё where this letter loses its stress in the oblique cases: "ёж" - "ежа'" (phonemically "ёжа'").

Diachronically, though, it's related to ѣ, which did not alternate to o in t'et situation (where t is any hard consonant but ц, and t' is any soft consonant or ж or ш) and е which did. However, ѣ later merged with е, and afterwards some analogy processes caused some words with ѣ to gain "alternation" as well, and some words with е to lose it.

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  • So you claim that all words that have this ё/e are actually should be pronounced (or originally were) with ё? so, "звёзда", "вёсна", "бёдро" - but well, this does not seem right to me
    – shabunc
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 16:32
  • I've updated the question with explanation why I'm not fully satisfied with ѣ/e explanation.
    – shabunc
    Commented Oct 10, 2016 at 10:15
  • @shabunc Underlyingly they are. But then "ё", "е" and "я" are all subject to the same reduction which leads all the three to be pronounced as [и] or [ь] depending on the position of stress. And we show that in writing for ё but don't show that in writing for я because... well, because reasons.
    – Viridianus
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 21:47
  • @shabunc Actually the diachronical claim is: "Alternation to ё under stress happened in XIV if and only if there was no yat' in the word and it has not been a case of special change (like "звезда" which used to have yat')". However, because of the second part it is not quite useful.
    – Viridianus
    Commented Oct 20, 2016 at 21:50
  • I assume you are referring to АА Зализняк «Русское именное Словоизменение». On which pages is the discussion on ё/е? Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 8:17
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жена - жёны

звезда - звёзды

some people say that the difference stems from the form of singular with or without the obsolete letter "ѣ - ять", which denoted the vowel "e", so i guess unless one knows where "ѣ - ять" must be present in the singular form it's impossible to derive the plural form logically

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It's quite simple: if you have an emphasis changed from other vovwel to е it changes to ё.

Examples

ведро — вёдра... and other examples from your question

But not here:

одежда, умение, отец

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    Not such simple. What about беда́-бéды, земля́-зéмли, перó-пéрья etc?
    – Dmitry
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 12:40

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