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Several resources that I am using say that 'и' and 'ы' represent the same vowel sound, and that the only difference is the palatalization of consonants preceding 'и', but I perceive two different sounds. The same sources say that 'и' sounds like the 'ee' in "see," and that 'ы' sounds like the 'i' in "bit," but I think I am hearing a different sound for 'ы'. Additionally, the recordings of 'ы' do not sound anything like either of those. What is actually the case? Am I correct in assuming that the sound is not the same, or did I mishear the recordings?

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The sounds are not the same but the difference is determined by what consonant precedes those vowels. In other words, the softness of the preceding consonant affects the following vowel.

You would not usually encounter Ы in the word beginning, so that's all.

To be fair the vowels can have soft and hard onset as if soft or hard consonant was preceding them. At the beginning of the words (when not preceded by other consonants)

и has soft onset
ы has hard onset
э has soft onset
y has hard onset
а has hard onset
o has hard onset.

This is not directly dependent on whether a vowel makes the previous consonant soft in the middle of the words. For example, э does not make the preceding consonant soft, but in the word beginning it is pronounced as if it was preceded by a soft consonant.

This distinction is not phonemic in Russian, that's why it is not reflected in grammars.

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  • Э at the beginning of words where it's stressed seems to have hard onset: эврика, эйдос, эпос. – Ruslan Jun 15 '18 at 14:46
  • @Ruslan No, you are wrong (considering standard Russian) – Anixx Jun 15 '18 at 20:36
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    Any reference? That hard "you are wrong" just doesn't give anything to me as a native speaker from Saint-Petersburg. – Ruslan Jun 15 '18 at 20:55
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One of the most important things to understand about the differences between Russian and English pronunciation is that in Russian, the vowel sound isn't really all that important.

Compare:

  • In English, there are 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds.
  • In Russian, there are 5 vowel sounds and 36 consonant sounds.

When you think you hear a difference in the sound, it's because in Russian you pronounce the entire consonant but not the entire vowel; in other words, you move your tongue to make the vowel after the consonant has been "spoken" and start moving it for the next consonant sound before the vowel is "finished".

Consider the word очень; there is no й in it, but if you listen closely (to a native speaker) it almost sounds like there is one. Why? Because ч is always soft and so the back of your tongue moves up before you actually finish the "o" sound.

In the case of ы compared to и, you're mainly thinking too hard about it; if you pronounce the consonants correctly you'll get the vowel right 90% of the time. If you actually pronounce a hard с in the word сырь then you'll get the sound right... but since it's a soft sound at the end it's going to change the end of the ы as well.

Here is an interesting game to play if you have the chance. When speaking English, try holding your tongue between your back teeth while speaking; you won't hardly pronounce a single consonant correctly, but any experienced English speaker will understand you perfectly. Beginning English students, however, will not.

In Russian, pick a single vowel sound – o, for example – and use that for all vowels. Russian people will understand you if you pronounce all the consonants correctly, but most beginning Russian students will not.

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    I am very, very sceptical about alleged 20 vowel phonemes in English. Also given that English vowels are pronounced totally differrent way in the dialicts tells that they are not that important. – Anixx Nov 24 '15 at 22:12
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    Well, I'll admit the text I learned that from was written in Russian, and it's been awhile; I may have misremembered. This site claims there are 22: phonemicchart.com/what/index2.html. If you'll look at some of those different dialects you'll notice that the vowels are often the biggest part of the difference between them, and the stronger that difference the harder time we have hearing the difference. There are similar differences in Russian from place to place. The most important thing is just to know that Russian has very few vowel sounds and lots of consonant sounds. – taxilian Nov 24 '15 at 22:52
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These are indeed different sounds, and ы is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers. There are Slavic languages (e. g. Serbo-Croatian) that do not have ы. Another interesting thing is that AFAIK no Russian word starts with ы, and saying ы by itself sounds awkward even to native speakers. It works much better when it is preceded by a consonant.

As to the sound itself, i in city is a good approximation, at least the way Americans typically pronounce it. Also, the i in Matilda. I also like Stepan's observation that you smile when you pronounce и, but not when you pronounce ы.

My personal feeling on this is when you learn a language as an adult, you are never going to get the pronunciation exactly right. So you just have to approximate it as best you can. Even if you say и instead of ы you will still be understood, although you may sound funny.

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  • Ыку, ыку, ыку, ы-ы-ы-ы! – Yellow Sky Mar 6 '13 at 3:44
  • @Yellow Sky: And those are words? And they don't feel awkward to pronounce? – Dima Mar 6 '13 at 4:05
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    That's a quotation from a famous movie, "Кин-дза-дза!", those are not Russian words, that's a kind of a rhyme or a song, but they don't feel awkward to pronounce. Actually, in Russian there are words that starts with ы, any word that starts with и changes it и to ы when it follows a word that ends in a non-palatalized consonant. For example, он и она is actually pronounced он ы она, and я видел интересный фильм as я видел ынтересный фильм. After preffixes this change is reflected in spelling: интересный - безынтересный. – Yellow Sky Mar 6 '13 at 5:20
  • Woosh... Missed that one completely. You are correct, of course, about и changing into ы, but the whole point there is that и is between non-palatalized consonants. Saying ы by itself, as in Операция Ы feels awkward. – Dima Mar 6 '13 at 13:36
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The three sounds are different. ы sounds more like back vocal compared to i in city, milk, or think. One of the close cognates of the ы sound is Polish y. The sound is pronounced with a tip of tongue moved more backwards from the lower front teeth, dorsum upwards. Since, the 'back vocal'.

The description sounds a bit like linguistic yoga, but you just have to check on your tongue moves when speaking a native language (whatever the concept is) and then compare them to those done when imitating a foreign pronunciation. That's simple enough, I hope.

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These sounds are not the same indeed. Moreover, it is probably the only sound in Russian language that cannot be represented by any combination of Latin letters. And I don't think it sounds like 'i' in 'bit'.

This vowel does not have an equivalent in English. Try to invest some time in learning it and differentiating from other sounds. To get Russian sound ы, you should place your tongue in the position right between the positions of English sounds i in kit and u in sugar. Then make a new sound of ы. Note that this sound is different form the English i in bit.

(taken from here)

Not all tutorial videos in the net post a completely correct pronunciation. So it can be difficult to get used to. Try pronouncing 'i' and move your jaw forward a bit.

Sometimes I have a feeling that people emit this sound when crying or being hit in the stomach

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Your impression is right: it is not the same sound as и, and does not even sound similar.

When I pronounce this sound in an exaggerated way (as if showing the correct pronunciation to foreign learners: ЫЫЫЫ, or when saying the letter name "ы"), I:

  • pull my tongue back,
  • pull the corners of my lips as when snarling (without moving the upper lip up though:))
  • keep my upper and lower teeth close enough (closer than when saying /o/ or /u/)

All of this is uncomfortable, particularly, pulling lips. It is the least comfortable sound in Russian. Snarling is a good description of it:)

When I pronounce a stressed ы within a word, I

  • pull my tongue back, but less forcefully
  • do not do anything to my lips (and do not round them, as I would have done for /u/)
  • still keep my teeth close enough

When I pronounce an unstressed ы... Well, unstressed sounds are reduced. So it is a shorter and more relaxed ы, not too different (but still different) from a short and relaxed э.

The combinations гы, хы, кы take an effort to pronounce, maybe because the place where your tongue gets close to the mouth roof is slightly behind the place of /k/. /k/ is back enough, pulling your tongue further back after this can be hard.

In plurals they are replaced with и: сапог - сапоги. These combinations do not occur in Russian words, only in representation of evil goblin laughter in writing (гы-гы-гы) and in an interjection кыш, used to tell small animals (cats or birds) to get away from, say, your table. You can find them in transcriptions of foreign words though. These combinations sound ugly.

If you ever tried Arabic, /i/ after /q/ (but not /k/) as in qiṭṭ, "cat", sounds a bit similar because /q/ is exactly behind /k/.

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If you want to hear the ы sound in an English word I would propose milk or city.

So, in other words, when you say see, you smile. When you say city, you don't. This is the easiest way to explain difference between ы and и.

Explaining the mimics—just try to push your lower jaw forward as much as possible when you try to say ы.

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Would it be accurate to say that 'ы' is basically a short i, & 'и' is a long i/ee sound & would 'сыти' be a reasonable transliteration for 'city'?

By the way this would qualify as an answer if Stepan's comment above is correct. I added an answer because I don't have enough reputation to comment but wanted to clarify the difference between sounds. [EDIT] according to this site, 'ы' sounds like sort of a 'ui' sound. вы would be sort of like 'vwee'.

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  • Welcome to Russian Language! You do have enough reputation now to comment thanks to the association bonus. – Glorfindel Jul 10 '20 at 9:26
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I think the closest sound is ‘ea’ in teacher. Every Russian will hear ‘ы’.

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