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How can I hear which syllable is considered stressed in a Russian word? And: how, exactly, should stress in Russian pronunciation be realised?

My problem

I realise that to stress a syllable is to emphasise it, but there are various ways to do that, such as duration, (musical) pitch, clarity and volume. When I listen to audio samples, it often sounds to me as though the stress is on the syllable before the one marked as stressed. I suspect that part of the problem may be that when people enunciate carefully they pronounce unstressed syllables more clearly than normal, but I do not think that that is the whole story.

(I should also be interested in how those of the above characteristics which do not determine stress in Russian are used, but that should probably be a separate question.)

Examples

To take some examples:

  • In Forvo, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th pronunciations (by Vospi, luba1980 and Mariya) of спасибо and various pronunciations of она sound like this to me. It seems to me that in such cases the pre-stressed syllable is somewhat higher pitched and often marginally louder but shorter than the “stressed” syllable.
  • In Wikimedia (used by Wiktionary), I hear the same thing in оно (with a very quiet “stressed” ‘о’), while in она both syllables sound equally loud, but the pre-stressed one is still pitched higher. In спасибо, all three syllables sound almost equally loud, with спа higher and marginally louder, си a little longer and бо very short.

Note that these remarks do not apply in all cases; in other examples (such as спасибо spoken by Alexander Nevzorov at Forvo, 5th) I hear the stressed syllable as higher and louder, making it seem stressed to me.

It seems relevant, as suggested by Anixx, to compare cases of homographs such as писáть (write) and пи́сать (urinate) (both at Forvo); some more are listed in German Wikipedia.

Sources consulted

I have looked through Russian Phonology in English Wikipedia, but not found an explanation, and my Russian is not yet good enough to consult Russian sources.

P.S.

I see that Russische Phonetik § Betonung (Russian Phonetics § Stress) and Wortbetonung in der russischen Sprache (Stress in Russian) in German Wikipedia give useful information, though I am not yet sure if it is adequate; perhaps, if it is, I shall get round to answering this question (if no one else has) on that basis and/or translating that material into English Wikipedia.

P.P.S.

Note that I am not mainly asking how to pronounce a word given where the stress is: what I want to know is how to hear the accent, because what I hear seems to disagree with what is written/printed/displayed, and so I want to know which features matter most (so pronunciation comes in a bit too). An answer by Vurux says one should realise it “by increasing loudness a bit and prolonging the length of the vowel just a little”, but my point is that sometimes the syllable before sounds louder to me.

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  • Hmm, I listened all the examples, and I cannot imagine how on Earth one can consider the vowels you pointed to, stressed. The pronunciation of спасибо by Maria sounds like having a foreign accent, but otherwise all have the stress correctly. – Anixx Mar 1 '20 at 10:48
  • @Anixx: As I say above, they sound stressed to me because they are almost always higher pitched and sometimes louder, though not as long and usually reduced. (I am not sure if you listened to all the samples, as you may have just missed me adding three from Wiktionary.) I suspect that you are automatically listening to the duration to find the stress (¿as a native speaker?) while I have grown up expecting volume and pitch to be the important features of “stress”. – PJTraill Mar 1 '20 at 10:53
  • I do not know, what pitch is, but how on Earth you can call those vowels prominent if they are not in any sense (including volume)? – Anixx Mar 1 '20 at 11:00
  • I suggest you try to compare this with pronunciation of the same word with the other syllable stressed. – Anixx Mar 1 '20 at 11:04
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    In Russian, stressed vowels are louder and normally either the same OR LOWER pitch. In all the examples on your link "i" sounds louder to me. You don't go higher on a stressed syllable unless you're asking a question or trying to use your intonation to put some other logical emphasis. So pre-stressed syllable being higher-pitched with the tone dipping on the stressed one on is entirely normal (if there's a next one, intonation can go lower still, but the volume will trail out). In Russian, stress is very clear and more akin to a hit on a snare drum, rather than a bend on a note on a guitar. – AR. Mar 1 '20 at 19:38
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Pre-stress is a thing in Russian, and I remember struggling with the concept of stress as a child for that exact reason. Indeed, a lot of people would pronouce спасибо with the /а/ as the loudest, clearest and longest vowel, even though it's not the stressed one.

The following is my own observation, but how one hears "true" stress in Russian is something like this: it's a full (non-reduced) syllable that sounds like the word could end on it.

In other words, if the speaker suddenly breaks off after that syllable, you don't get the sense that something's been left hanging, some kind of inflection going nowhere.

This is a moot point with words that actually end on a stressed syllable, but if you pause the recordings of спасибо midway (which doesn't seem to work with the audio on that website, but I suppose you can find others), you should be able to hear that just спа- alone clearly sounds like a partial word, whereas спаси- could be a complete word (which, as it happens, it is — the imperative "save!").

There's something firmer about it, which is hard to descibe but perhaps similar to the keynote on a musical scale. That's "stress proper".

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  • This sounds useful, in the sense of saying what to look out for and what feeling to cultivate, even without going into a detailed phonetic description. Am I right in understanding that Russian is your first language? – PJTraill Mar 1 '20 at 10:49
  • Yes. Most of the people who reply on this SE are native speakers. – Nikolay Ershov Mar 1 '20 at 14:31
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because what I hear seems to disagree with what is written/printed/displayed

Well, this is one of the major problems with modern Russian’s language standardisation. I hope the following will help you to understand why things are as they are right now, although the reasons are extremely indirect.

  • Main stress trend: For the last century the stress, for example, in verbs has been moving from the verb’s ending to the stem. This way the meme example звонИт became звОнит. Although it’s a trend for the whole language, many verbs have undergone this stress change: варИт → вАрит, грузИт → грУзит, etc. So the old forms are still there in the dictionaries, and as some people still use them, their editors aren’t sure if they should accept the new forms. N.B. The movement of the stress isn’t just happening of its own accord. For example, the -а/я plural noun form ending is spreading to nouns which used to have the -ы/и plural ending. This changes the stress in the noun and then in the whole sentence, and here goes other words’ stress change.
  • Economic: The last big corrections to the standard grammar were introduced in the 60’s; in the 80’s the economy collapsed, followed in the 90’s by the USSR’s itself. The educational system was severely damaged as was quality control in the media. In the USSR every TV/Radio’s host/narrator was required not just to use correct grammar but also to stress words the right standard way, for which they had special stress dictionaries. In this way the media used to show/spread a more or less uniform language standard. Those dictionaries still exist, but it looks like media consider them optional right now. Sometimes it’s just painful to listen to the DJ struggling to decline the numeral the right way.
  • Moscow – St. Petersburg rivalry: There are some inconsistencies in how the two cities’ universities regard grammar. If you have different views on which ending is correct, this changes the stress in words and whole sentences. I still remember when once I had an exam in school the teacher marked an answer wrong although it was right according to the grammar book. She said: “you may throw this book away as we use Moscow rules but this one uses St. Petersburg rules.”
  • Microdialects: The word ракушка has two right standard stresses: ракУшка and рАкушка. The second one is mainly used in the south of the country, and the other elsewhere. The word ракушка is actually a fortunate case: there are many similar words whose different stresses haven’t been standardised.
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  • upvoted for the attempt however this does not answers the question at all - the question is about what are phonetical differences between stressed and unstressed vowels. – shabunc Mar 1 '20 at 13:28
  • @shabunc, well, I'm not sure if there is direct answer at all. There are might be second or even third stress but the main one depending on the word context. I.e. those additional stresses depend on the whole sentence's tone and words surrounding this exact word in question. Also, the actual stress might be different depending on word's inclination. Or the dictionary might just show you the old form and actual users use it another way. So, I'd say the receipt is to listen to how natives stress it in context, not just a single word by itself ¯_(ツ)_/¯ – Andrey Dunaev Mar 1 '20 at 14:21
  • @AndreyDunaev: This is certainly very interesting, and gives several factors which could make learning Russian stress patterns harder, but I am afraid shabunc is right: I am asking about the phonetics of stress rather than linguistic developments. I expect that if you listen to the samples I refer to you will agree that they are stressed on the specified syllables, while my ear, trained in Western Europe, often hears the stress one syllable earlier. – PJTraill Mar 1 '20 at 17:05
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The Russian stress is mainly power. You breath out stronger at the stressed syllable. Stricktly, the stressed syllable is pronounced longer and clearer than the others, and the vowel there is never reduced, but the main thing is that it is STRESSing, pronouncing the syllable stronger.

It is really hard to generate in your mind, and not easy to reproduce according to your feelings based on theory.

My recommendation is to take a class with a teacher who will correct you when you're trying.

For your own training, you can take a text for Russian learners which is supplemented with an audio. The text should be marked with stresses. Listen to it, pay attention to how the stresses are implemented. Try to repeat some words.

Then take another text, with audio, but without stresses. Listen to it and mark it. That is what you can show your teacher for correction.

After you learn to hear it, you can easier come to pronunciation.

All pitch changes you hear relate to intonation, but not to the stress.

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  • Thank-you; I am sure you are right that learning with a teacher is best, but the course I am following (with seven other people) has just started, and there are so many things to learn! But I am always interested in phonetics, so I already want to know more about this, and anyway what I heard struck me as odd. I also hope that a theoretical understanding will speed up and improve the practical learning. Could you perhaps say a little more about the difference between intonation and stress? – PJTraill Mar 3 '20 at 9:52
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Well, every Russian word of more than one syllable has a stressed syllable. The stress can be shown by the accent symbol, like this "спаси́бо". That means the word should be pronounced like this "spa-SI-bo". The first syllable "spa" is unstressed, you just pronounce it like it is. The second syllable "si" is stressed. You accentuate it by increasing loudness a bit and prolonging the length of the vowel just a little. The third syllable "bo" is also unstressed (in any case only one syllable in a word can be stressed), so you pronounce it just like the first syllable.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Quassnoi Mar 1 '20 at 21:38

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