My understanding is that the general rule regarding the pronunciation of "a" in Russian is that it is pronounced [a] (IPA notation). However, in certain cases, it can be pronounced as "и", for example in "Чапыгин" or "Чапаева".

My question is the following: does a rule exist about "a" being pronounced as "и"? If not, is there a list of words in which this is the case?

  • another surname where this phenomenon occurs is Чайковский, i won't post an answer as i cannot address the point from knowledge, but probably anywhere you come across it unstressed at the head of a word it could be pronounced чи or somewhere between че and чи in fluent speech, ... another one which springs to mind is чабан, in fact i believe it applies to all unstressed ча/ша/ща at the head and middle positions within words, however pronouncing them as they're written is also perfectly OK, only a bit less convenient than as и, that's why i guess there's no rule Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 19:14
  • here's related (yet not a duplicate) question - russian.stackexchange.com/questions/15021/…
    – shabunc
    Commented Jan 17, 2018 at 19:31

2 Answers 2


Yes, the rule exists and dictates that any vowel except for [у] that follows a soft consonant in an unstressed position is reduced to something between [э] and [и]:

часы́ [чисы]
яйцо́ [йийцо]
ле́чо [лече]
река́ [рика]
счастли́вый [щисливый]
её   [йийо]

Source: М.В. Пано́в. Ру́сская фоне́тика

In particular, this makes the words чистота́ (cleanliness) and частота́ (frequency) homophones while the respective adjectives чи́стый (clean) and ча́стый (frequent) have distinct pronunciations because the а in ча́стый is stressed.

In Russian [й], [ч] and [щ] are always soft. Other consonants are soft if followed by я, е, ё, и, ю, or ь. For the purposes of applying this rule we can ignore и (because it becomes a weak и but still an и), ю (because it gives the sound [у] which is an exception) and ь because its not a vowel. So practicality speaking we should be looking out for words containing unstressed я and е, including those at the beginning of a word.

The letter ё is almost always stressed. It can be unstressed in compound words e.g. трёхмерный (three-dimensional) which can be said without a secondary stress in which case the rule in question will apply.

  • 1
    if i may add, this rule is rather descriptive than PREscriptive unlike the rule of reduction of unstressed O to A, but overall it's just an isolated case of general phenomenon of reduction as shabunc pointed out, after hard consonants vowels do get reduced as well, only in that case it's down to Ы instead of И, examples шаловливый -> шылавливый, рациональный -> рыцыанальный, шарамыга -> шырамыга, and unlike vowels after soft consonants they seem to be prone to full reduction as in Moscow pronunciation шлавливый, рцыанальный, шрамыга Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 9:38
  • @БаянКупи-ка, I agree that this rule is part of a larger whole which is the unstressed vowel reduction rule; but I fail to see why it would be descriptive while it's 'hard' counterpart is prescriptive? Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 9:57
  • As a side note; at an NLP conference I listened to a talk (in Russian) about chat bots. Obviously, the presenter had spent a lot of time developing chat bots and using the term чатбот. In fact, it was Sergey Ulasen, the author of the famous chat bot Eugene which was the first to pass the Tiring test. Sergey pronounced the word чатбот with a single stress which sounded like [читбот]. This is just one extra proof that the rule is universal and applies even to novel words. Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 9:58
  • @Sergey Slepov as prescriptive i referred to the rule of unstressed O -> A, not to reduction of unstressed A after hard consonants, which is as well descriptive as far as i'm concerned Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 10:01

Let's start with a small exercise. Say slowly, for instance, Чапаев, then Чипаев, Чепаев, then Чупаев, at last, say, Чопаев. Now say all these words again but quickly, like, very quickly - but actually casual speech can be very quick. See, the difference has gone, they all sound practically the same.

This phenomenon you've encountered (of vowels becoming almost indistinguishable from each other when pronounced quickly) is called vowel reduction and the vowel you have here is called an extra-short vowel and in some form it is a thing in many (but not all) languages.

Here's a quote from a Russian article on extra-short vowels:

В русском языке есть два вида сверхкратких гласных:

  • Появились «из ниоткуда» на стыке большого количества согласных, чтобы это сочетание можно было удобнее произнести: «Мистер Твистер / Бывший минист(ъ)р…» (Самуил Маршак, знаком (ъ) отмечена явно прописанная в стихотворном размере редуцированная).
  • Уменьшились из обычной безударной гласной — так, слово красота при определённом произношении редуцируется до красъта.

Your question falls into case #2.

  • Certainly not all languages: Italian and Japanese, for example, do not have reduced vowels. Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 3:07
  • @BrianChandler that's actually true, my bad.
    – shabunc
    Commented Jan 18, 2018 at 10:30
  • Not really "bad"... I just copy edited your answer. Having learnt Italian and Japanese, to me it is really strange how Russian is just like English in this regard (but different enough to be hard, of course). Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 10:10

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