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Are there any modern dialects of Russian that preserve traces of the old phonetic distinction between “e” and “ѣ” (ять)? Lomonosov described “ѣ” as тонкий, “e” as дебелый, with “ѣ” always to be pronounced “ье”, but I’ve also read assertions that “ѣ” was originally more open, like IPA “ɛ” or “æ”. It allegedly derives from original *ē/ai/oi.

In roots, Old Russian “мѣсѧц, лѣс, лѣто” correspond to Polish “miesiąc, las, lato” with soft “l” not hard “ł”) and Serbian mjesec/mesec, ljeto/leto. In endings, Polish preserves Slavonic fem-dat/prep “ѣ” as “ie”, and fem-gen “ы” as “y”, but Serbian has flipped Slavonic fem-dat/prep “ѣ” into hard “и”, and fem-gen “ы” into hard “e”.

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The short answer would be no

Two main reasons for this. First, the phonetical distinction between e and ѣ was lost de-facto about two centuries before the letter was officially abolished. Second, for historical reasons modern Russian is one of the most homogenous languages in the world, the number of dialectal variances is quite low.

The slightly longer answer would be - there's some evidence that in some semi-moribund dialects there were indeed some traces of e/ ѣ distinction.

Here's a quote:

В подобных диалектах фонемы верхне-среднего подъема /ѣ/ и /ω/ могут реализоваться дифтонгами [ие] и [уо], у которых изменение тембра происходит за счет понижения подъема гласного: л[ие]с, к[уо]т или монофтонгами верхне-среднего подъема. Эти диалектные фонемы, как и их звуковые реализации, называются е закрытым и о закрытым. Они противопоставлены фонемам средне-нижнего подъема /е/ и /о/, реализациями которых в говорах бывают монофтонги средне-нижнего подъема либо дифтонги типа [еи], [оу];

So basically, it is claimed that in some dialects there exist so called е закрытое (closed "e") and in some о закрытое (closed "o"). As a sidenote, there are dialects with both o closed and e closed, but no dialects with only o closed.

But you should take anything you here about phonetic differences in Russian dialects with a grain of salt. Even relatively new sources, dated back to 80s or 90s can easily be obsolete - the dialectal landscape changed drastically since then.

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  • Do you have an opinion or expert info on the original pronunciation? I have trouble reconciling the assertion that it was an open sound with its pronunciation as "ie". Apr 6 '18 at 16:09
  • @BertBarrois nobody knows for sure actually, but here's relevant question - russian.stackexchange.com/questions/925/…
    – shabunc
    Apr 6 '18 at 18:36
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    @BertBarrois: could you please cite a reference for ѣ being an open sound? Its pronunciation as ie or a diphthong close to it is something most linguists agree on. Wien > Вѣна, indien > индѣецъ, Dnieper < Днѣпръ, Dniester < Днѣстръ, soviet < совѣтъ etc. all confirm this
    – Quassnoi
    Apr 6 '18 at 22:53
  • Fortson: Indo-European Language and Culture, p 423, says that “ě” (ѣ) was pronounced “æ”. Wikipedia: History of Proto-Slavic describes it as a “long front open vowel”. I suspect that its open quality was inferred from the Polish transformation to “ia”. Apr 7 '18 at 11:05
  • @BertBarrois: were you asking about ѣ in Proto-Slavic or in Russian?
    – Quassnoi
    Apr 7 '18 at 20:31

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