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When learning Russian, the most complicated thing for me has always been the pronunciation of the Russian letter 'o'. You know, it's sometimes pronounced like 'a' (like in 'Moskva'), and sometimes pronounced like 'o' (like in 'dom'), depending on the position and the stress of the syllable (and maybe other factors). The pronunciation rules don't seem to be consistent, there are many exceptions, so you basically have to remember for every single word how it's pronounced.

This may be a vague question, but I want to know how much of a problem it actually is when I make mistakes regarding this rule. Let's say I make my life easier and always pronounce 'o' like 'o', will a Russian still understand me? Will the words change their meaning? Will it sound funny?

And is there a very basic rule to get at least 9/10 of these words right?

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    I'd have put verbal aspect, verbs of motion, and distinguishing soft/hard consonants ahead of pronouncing o in any list of complicated issues for non-native speakers. How long have you been learning Russian? – KCd Apr 29 '13 at 22:31
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Yes, Russians will understand you, but such a pronunciation will sound hypercorrect. It will seem like you're spelling the words instead of pronouncing them.

Some Russian dialects exhibit phenomenonon of "okanye" (оканье) which makes unstressed о and а to be pronounced differently. You may sound like a speaker of one of those dialects.

Russian rendition of Church Slavonic also forbids vowel reduction, so a person speaking with such a pronunciation may resemble a priest reciting a Church Slavonic text to a Russian speaker.

  • I'll sound like a priest? I'm still thinking if that's a good thing or not... thanks for your reply – Martin Hansen Apr 29 '13 at 20:35
  • Oh... оканье... It's been so long since I've first heard that word. :D – Alenanno May 1 '13 at 23:43
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    @Martin Hansen especially the previous Patriarch Alexis II had a prominent accent of this kind. – Anixx May 2 '13 at 1:49
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It is not that bad. The words will not change their meanings and possibly in some cases you will be understood even better. If you are a novice language learner I suggest just to forget about vowel reduction.

One example are the words кампания "campaign" and компания "company". With vowel reduction they are indistinguishable, so to be understood correctly you may in some cases pronounce the fist vowel without reduction. Another example is маток "small mat" vs. моток "skein".

  • Thank you. So how do you do it with kampaniya/kompaniya? Do you pronounce them the same or do you use vowel reduction? – Martin Hansen Apr 29 '13 at 20:40
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    @MartinHansen: those who don't use okanye in their speech pronounce them exactly the same and only distinguish the two from context. – Quassnoi Apr 29 '13 at 20:50
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I would say go, do mistakes and learn from them - it will be very fast. If you say дом (house) as дам (which means "I will give") a person you are talking to would correct you almost immediately. If you try always pronounce "o" as "o" that would work as well, people will understand you always even though you would be sounding like 19th century dweller of Volga-basin area.

But I would say pronunciation should be the last thing to worry for anybody who is learning Russian. Grammar, this is what a learner should be focusing on. It is so much more convoluted in Russian, English would feel extremely liberating in that regard.

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Let's start from the and. As of rule of thumb which will help you to memorize cases whether you should pronounce а or о (strict phonology purists, don't judge me hard, you know what I mean), strictly speaking there's no such rule of thumb.

One can say, wait, actually there is such rule, since o is pronounces like а only in unstressed positions, but this is quite delusive, since that actually means that you should memorize the stress patterns. And actually there are some pattern, but I would strongly advise you to memorize each word you need to learn separately. The thing is that such patterns are by no means rules and do not cover all the cases. There's a classic triple зо́лото/боло́то/молоко́.

Well, but if one had insisted I should present him such rule, I guess I'd say: don't bother with stressing prefixes (so, сопричастность, соучастие - all of these is pronounced with a, mispronounced words like помОщь or памащь will be excused to a foreigner); always pronounce о in monosyllabic words (there's just no other place you can put the stress).

As for errors in pronouncing. Well, saying а instead of о where it is actually is pronounced is a very rude mistake which can make your speech unintelligible. No one says ан instead of он. Pronouncing o instead of a also is quite a big deal. But pronouncing о without reduction well be 100% understandable ti any native speaker.

Yes, as @Quassnoi had already mentioned, you will sound definitely outdated and theatrical but as to me, this is a common mistake each novice language learner is doing: trying to pronounce everything as native speaker does. Well, you won't. It takes years to get decent native-like pronunciation. But if your vocabulary is reach, you grammar is irreproachable, many of phonetics mistakes will be forgiven. Moreover, the number of such mistakes will surprisingly decrease with time.

  • Some words sound quite naturally without vowel redution. For example, the соучатие: in most cases I will not rduce the first vowel here unless speaking very quickly. – Anixx Apr 29 '13 at 20:05
  • yep, other example is кооперация which quite often is pronounced without a lesser degree of reduction, or поощрения. We once again are approaching to conclusion that is is quite hard to coin a smile mnemonic rule. – shabunc Apr 29 '13 at 20:07
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    I would say that the vowel in the со- prefix is sometimes kept not reduced to underline the existence of this quite rare prefix, especially when the prefix is used with self-sufficient verb-derived forms: сопереживание, соприобретатель, сопоручитель, соразработчик (although this can be explained with somewhat double-stress in these words). – Anixx Apr 29 '13 at 20:20
  • Thanks for your helpful answer. зо́лото/боло́то/молоко́. - that's a really tough one. I'd praise Russian for it's simplicity but syllable stress is really tough! – Martin Hansen Apr 29 '13 at 20:37
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    Classic triple is in fact зо́лото/боло́то/долото́ – WhiteWind May 6 '13 at 6:59
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There are no exceptions. There is a strict but complicated rule. Stressed o is always [o]. Unstressed o in absolute beginning, absolute end and un the syllable before the stressed one is [^] (also written as [a], but actually a sound of medium line rather then low line like [a] (although Moscow people are notorious for saying [a] instead of [^])). Unstressed o in all the other positions is [ъ], which is basically something like reduced [o], but if you are a foreigner you could use your shwa sound (like -er in words like sister, usually shown in transctiprion as e turned by 180 degrees) in this position.

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