1. I have read in several places online that it would be wrong to use the terms "soft vowels" and "hard vowels", and instead it's more correct to call them vowels which indicate a preceding soft/hard consonant. Would you agree?

Those writers seems to say that actually both groups of the vowels are the same vowels, they simply indicate that the preceding consonant will be pronounced in either soft or hard way.

Well it sounds right to me with а, о, у, э versus я, ё, ю, е, but not with ы in which the vowel itself sounds different than и.

What is your opinion on this?

  1. When pronouncing я, ё, ю, е in a word, it sounds like in the soft case there is a /y/ that comes after (or with) the consonant, (or before a "hard" vowel). But in the case of и - not really (I am not sure about if there is a /y/ in that case), and also I have seen that it's compared to "ee" in the English "sheep" which has no /y/ after /sh/. Why don't they transliterate it as "yee", if they say that я is pronounced as "ya"? What is the right pronunciation of и in ничего - nyichyevo or nichyevo (or neither)?

  2. In the "hard" vowels а, о, у, э it seems like that the vowel itself is sharp and distinct (like in Spanish), not "rounded". But not in ы. What is the reason for this "inconsistency"? I would expect a hard vowel to sound like "ee" in the English "sheep". But it does not. And on the contrary, и which is more sharp and distinct is a "soft" vowel.

What is your opinion on this?

2 Answers 2

  1. и and ы don't have a minimal pair that doesn't also involve a soft/hard contrast of the preceding consonant; therefore scholars consider them allophones of the same phoneme. That said, they're (for the most part) historically unrelated; ы tends to be a reflex of early Proto-Slavic (or Proto-Balto-Slavic, my chronology is shaky here) ū, whereas и was either always i or comes from diphthongs such as ei. The cases where и and ы themselves trade places are few and of a later origin.

  2. Using Y to convey Russian palatalisation is something I find very clumsy (not just because it erases the полю/полью distinction, but also because it's a very poor pronunciation guide), but it's a firmly established convention. Either way, the main reason is that, unlike the other "soft" vowels, и is not "yi", or "yee", word-initially (except in minor dialects).

  3. "That's just... like... your opinion, man." I'm not sure I understand what you mean by "rounded" if о and у are "unrounded" under this classification. Umlaut? It has a very limited allophonic occurrence in Russian (ю and я between two soft consonants), and I wouldn't at all describe ы as an umlauted vowel.

  • about (2): so if "ya" is a rough emulation of я, is "ee" or "yee" a better emulation of и when it's not at the beginning of a word? About (3) by "sharp" (not a scientific term) I meant the basic vowel. I think for example English speakers would intuitively recognize that /a/ in "bar" (bär in the AHD phonetic symbols) is the sharp vowel, or the most distinct way to render this vowel, as opposed to "bad" where it's a less distinct rendition (somewhat close to "bed").
    – rapt
    Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 23:11

In a word воробьи, for example, и sounds like yee. Otherwise, if there is no ь infront of it, there is no y sound. Just like with я, ё, ю, е, actually. In the word нить "ни" sounds like in "need"

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