As far as I understand, the letter "ё" is used to write the same sound as "ьо" only when the corresponding "о" is stressed.

In почтальо́н we have "ьо" and the "о" is also stressed -- so isn't this the perfect place to write "ё" instead? Why is this not done? (In particular, what is the point of the letter "ё" if it is not used in all of the situations where it could be used? Why not just always write "ьо" instead?)

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    pronunciation почталь-он without й is also possible, but sounds very archaic and pretensious – Arioch Jun 26 '17 at 9:24
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    @Arioch to my knowledge it never was a case. Just like with медальон it was pronounced exactly that way since the time it was adopted – shabunc Jun 26 '17 at 9:33
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    you perhaps can look for words "лён" or "клён" pronounced. They have the same syllable like last one in почтальон but with a vowel no-blending gap instead of soft-mark denoted pause. Like the famous old song pesnifilm.ru/load/devchata/staryj_klen_quot_devchata_quot/… – Arioch Jun 26 '17 at 10:37
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    "how are почталь-йон and почталь - он pronounced differently" you seem to be mixing two concepts - spelling (writing) and pronunciation. If you focus on sounds, then "почталь - он" is not possible. It is written like that, but pronounced it is "почталь-йон" because of softened Л, as I noted in my answer. The real dichotomy could have been between почтальон и "почталён". The latter would have sounded like лён/клён - loosing BOTH pause and "й" sound. – Arioch Jun 26 '17 at 10:41
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    кЛЁН sounded with no gap and no й, but blending of the vowel into a softened consonant. почтаЛЬОН is sounded with the gap, and because of the gap - with "й" sound. Yeah, it is mixed up a bit: on one hand, the softening of the consonant is "jumping over" the gap and softens "o" vowel into de facto "ё" (in sounding, not in writing!). One another hand, the gap makes the vowel "standing on its own" which forces й-prefixing. Indeed, rather convoluted scheme. One thing about learning or explaining languages, is noting quirks you never realized before :-D – Arioch Jun 26 '17 at 10:53

"the same sound as "ьо"

No. There are separate, while in practice related, effects to be considered there:

  1. short pause after the consonant before the vowel. The separation between two sounds. Prevention of blending.

  2. softening of the consonant

  3. softening of the vowel ( back "hard" vowels like Ы are matching front "soft" vowels like И )

  4. prefixing the "soft" vowel sound with short "й" sound (iotation)

So, "hard mark" and "soft mark" (Ъ and Ь) primary purpose is #1 - making a pause.

Then, the "soft mark" also softens the consonant, unlike the "hard mark", but this does not remove the pause.

Now, the vowel pairs а/я, о/ё, э/е, ы/и, у/ю while primary are representing #3 typically have a consequences of effecting either #2 or #4.

When a "soft" vowel stands on its own or follows another vowel, then ё would sound more like йo. When following a consonant, the soft vowel blends in, softening the consonant, instead of prefixing its own sound with "й". However both options #2 and #4 do NOT add the separating pause (#1), which is the hallmark of hard/soft marks.

All in all, почтальон is not pronounced as почталён, but as a почталь-pause-ён. This pause makes putting the soft mark required.

Now, you may ask why isn't почтальОн then written as почтальЁн instead. Well, soft vowels are not typically written after soft sign. Hard vowel is written there traditionally, and it inherits its softness from the now softened consonant before it (despite being separated by a pause).

To contrast it, ЛЁН or кЛЁН are sounded with no gap and no й, but immediate blending of the vowel into a softened consonant Л'.

почтаЛЬОН is sounded with the gap, and because of the gap - with й sound. Yeah, it is mixed up a bit:

  • on one hand, the process of softening the consonant is "jumping over" the gap and softens "o" vowel into de facto "ё" (in sounding, not in writing!).
  • on another hand, the gap makes the vowel "standing on its own" which forces й-prefixing, like if the vowel would start the word or would follow another vowel.

Indeed, rather convoluted scheme. Gap is ignored for one process but is abided by for another.

It would stress the tongue a real lot to blend hard consonant sound with following soft vowel sound, or soft consonant with a hard vowel. It just does not work out without injecting a separating pause (which in turn would effect soft vowels to regain their Й sound prefix).

Pronunciation samples of syllables with separating pause and with blending..

"Кто там? Почтальон Печкин"

"Старый клён, старый клён, старый клён стучит в окно"

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    in лён there is no й sound inside. There is softened consonant л' immediately blending into the vowel sound o. When two letters, consonant and vowel, are just written together - there is neither pause nor "й", only softened blending. – Arioch Jun 26 '17 at 9:18
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    Or put it another way, the primary reason d'etre for soft mark is softening consonants where there is no vowel to do it. In many cases you may imagine soft mark being like a softening nil vowel. Vowel without sound. Before 1917 all the consonant-ending nouns had to be finished with either hard or soft mark. After 1917 hard mark was made default and omitted. Consider ел/ель. There is no vowel past the end of the word, so one has to put soft mark instead to distinguish those two words. – Arioch Jun 26 '17 at 9:23
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    Й is called "short I" - "И краткое". Like @Quassnoi told in his answer, historically it derived from shortened diphthongs like "-ие". And in Bulgaria they still have "short Ы" sound, that in Russian got totally reduced to "hard mark" denoted pause. So, indeed, one can see Й as a semi-vowel. – Arioch Jun 26 '17 at 10:45
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    @Chill2Macht: there is no such thing as a palatalized vowel: if your tongue is pressed against your palate, you can't produce a vowel at all. What there is in Russian is non-palatalized (hard) and palatalized (soft) consonants (think л / ль) and also back and front vowels (think German Mutter / Mütter). Now, a back vowel cannot follow a soft consonant (no ль-у, not without a hiatus between the sounds); nether a front vowel can follow a hard consonant (no под-играть, also without a hiatus). – Quassnoi Jun 26 '17 at 11:13
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    @Arioch: oh do you mean the -о- changing its quality (compared to, say, биатлон)? That's exactly what I was trying to say with my comment: if the writing suggests a back vowel follows a soft consonant, then something definitely sounds not the way it's written (in this case, it's both the epenthetic [j] and the vowel changing to a front one). – Quassnoi Jun 26 '17 at 12:05

почтальон is pronounced [поч'тал'й'он]

почталён would be pronounced [поч'тал'он] which is different.

почтальён would be pronounced the same way as почтальон. The reason why it is not spelled this way is because the letter ё is usually avoided in foreign words. The reason possibly is that the ё is often spelled without diacritics, as е, so this may create a confusion on how to pronounce the word (not with this word of course but as a general rule). The word came from German Postilion, from French postillon, from Italian postiglione.

  • another interesting thing is how middle S was first transformed to SH and then to CH :-) – Arioch Jun 28 '17 at 8:13
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    @Arioch: through Polish, apparently. – Quassnoi Jun 28 '17 at 9:07
  • Also because ё is simply a modification of the letter е and exists only in places where a stressed е would historically be pronounced. For this reason, it also alternates heavily with е, and also for this reason the diacritic is often dropped ─ as, morphologically, е and ё are the same letter, just with different phonetic realistions. So putting ё in place of etymological о's would be misleading and abusive of the letter's purpose. – Max Jan 3 at 0:01

The sounds [ɵ]/[jɵ], which are now denoted by the letter ё, were not present in Church Slavonic and a letter to denote them was not there in Cyrillic before late XVIII century.

By the time it was introduced there had already been a tradition of conveying [jɵ] as or, rarely, ьо (after consonants) in loanwords.

Native Russian words which feature those sounds have emerged from Slavic words with [ɛ]/[jɛ]: житьё < житие, питьё < питие etc., so they use the newly created letter ё which was deliberately made "backwards compatible" with the Church Slavonic letter.

Transcription systems which have emerged after the introduction of ё and don't have to rely on tradition do sometimes use ё: Eyjafjallajökull > Эйяфьядлайёкюдль, 吉原 (Yoshiwara) > Ёсивара, 연평도 (Yeonpyeongdo) > Ёнпхёндо etc.

Russian phonetics does not allow a back vowel (а, у, ы, э, о) after a soft consonant, so this distinction between ьо/йо and ьё/ё is purely traditional.

  • OK, so the idea being that почтальон is too old of a word to be spelled with ё? (I.e. it was present in Russian before the late XVIII century?). What was the Church Slavonic letter you refer to? Also, is there a phonetic difference between ьо and йо? That seems to be the idea behind other answers/comments (that почтальон is pronounced почталь - йон but почталён would be pronounced почталь-ьон) but it is very difficult for me as a foreigner to understand the phonetic difference between palatalized and iotated vowels. – Chill2Macht Jun 26 '17 at 10:38
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    @Chill2Macht: yes. Couldn't find почтальон attested before the introduction of ё, but батальон and медальон used to be баталiонъ and медалiонъ back then. The Church Slavonic letter was е / є / ѥ (there were some subtle differences in usage of the three but for the purpose of this question it's easier to think of them as the same letter). -льо- and -лё- differ as English "good year" and "good ear" do: the latter does not have a [j] in it. -льо- in почтальон and -льё- in польёт don't differ at all, not in the slightest. – Quassnoi Jun 26 '17 at 10:48
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    So what you are saying is that it would still be pronounced the same if written почтальён, but NOT if written почталён? – Chill2Macht Jun 26 '17 at 10:51
  • @Chill2Macht: exactly. – Quassnoi Jun 26 '17 at 10:52

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