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What is the proper pronunciation of цель? For context, my choir is working on a Russian piece, and the transliteration we have is inconsistent and unreliable.

I have been reading through Russian Lyric Diction – A Practical Guide (Grayson 2012), which has been an invaluable resource. Grayson writes in particular that

[when -е- is] in the stressed position, when preceded by a palatalized consonant or by -ж-, -ш-, or -ц-, and followed by a palatalized phoneme,

then it is pronounced /e/, similar to French é (pp. 106–107). A few examples from the guide to demonstrate the rule:

жечь   /ʒetʃʲ/
шесть  /ʃesʲtʲ/  
целить /'tselʲitʲ/

Compare to:

шест   /ʃɛst/
целый  /'tsɛɫɨj/

According to this, I understand that цель should be /tselʲ/, not /tsɛlʲ/. Wiktionary gives the latter pronunciation, however, on both the English and Russian pages for the word. On the other hand, the spoken example on Wiktionary sounds to me like the former.

I have listened to a variety of spoken clips on forvo.com, and it sounds like the vowel varies between /e/ and /ɛ/.

I've also looked through Stack Exchange, but haven't found anything addressing this rule. On the contrary, this answer claims that there is only one sound for stressed -е-, namely /ɛ/, and specifically gives жечь (/ʒɛtʃʲ/) as an example.

So is this a matter of regional dialect? Is Grayson's guide accurate, insofar as it describes "standard", formal pronunciation?

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    I don't know much about Russian, so I can't answer this question, but the difference between [e] and [ɛ] is certainly not phonemic. So examples like "/ʒetʃʲ/", "/ʃɛst/", "/tsɛlʲ/" should not be written with phonemic slashes, but with square brackets. It seems plausible to me that Russian speakers don't find it easy to distinguish these sounds--it might not even be a matter of formality or dialects. I know that in Spanish, another language without an /e/ vs. /ɛ/ distinction, people have tried to make rules for when /e/ sounds like [e] vs. [ɛ], but there seems to be a lot of disagreement.
    – sumelic
    Jan 18 '20 at 19:56
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    @sumelic Thank you. I don't know much about linguistics, so I was following the usage I saw in Grayson, which might be nonstandard. Regarding your point about distinguishing the sounds, Grayson writes in a footnote on p. 106, "Belov and Richter prefer what they call the Italian, closed /e/, which is defined as being significantly more relaxed and open than the French version. Walters (in Sheil) suggests the more closed type. It is true, though, as noted by Belov (Libretti, xii), that the amount of closeness is less important than a clear distinction from the open /ɛ/" (emphasis mine).
    – Théophile
    Jan 18 '20 at 20:02
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I live in a Moscow region all my life. I have tried pronouncing the words you provided and analyzed my pronunciation. To be short, I completely agree with Mr Grayson's approach and your conclusion that 'цель' should be /tselʲ/, not /tsɛlʲ/. The latter is just impossible to pronounce.

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  • Thank you. Indeed, the Wikipedia article on Russian phonology even specifically uses цель as an example of this vowel change.
    – Théophile
    Nov 25 '20 at 17:08
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Just as many other languages, Spanish and Japanese included, Russian does not distinguish [ɛ] and [e] phonemically. Both sounds are allophones of one phoneme, /e/. The standard pronunciation of Russian letters Е and Э in the stressed position is [ɛ]. When followed by [i], the sound tends to drift towards [e]:

  • эта ['ɛtə] цель [t͡sɛlʲ]
  • эти ['eti] цели [t͡selʲi]

The эта/эти example is from Panov M.V. Russkaya fonetika, Moscow, 1967.

My advice: don't sweat it. First, most Russians won't hear the difference and second, you're bound to make much graver mistakes anyway. ;)

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It's closer to [tsɛlʲ] in the sense that the majority of speakers would rather say it with ɛ, however, /e/, /ɛ/ (and /ə/) sound to the majority of native speakers almost indistinguishable when pronounced fast enough, so I wouldn't put that much of an effort into trying to be exact - when the choir is singing, most likely nobody will notice. I recommend that you check out the answers to this question as well - though it's about English, some answers actually give a hint as to why they can easily be confused.

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