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' (as in 'Moskva'), and sometimes pronounced like 'o' (as 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?

  • 6
    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
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 22:31

5 Answers 5


Yes, Russians will understand you, but that kind of pronunciation will sound hyper-correct. It will sound like you're spelling the words instead of pronouncing them.

Some Russian dialects exhibit a phenomenon known as "okanye" (оканье), whereby unstressed о and а are pronounced differently. You may sound like a speaker of one of those dialects.

The Russian rendition of Church Slavonic also forbids vowel reduction, so a person speaking with that kind of 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 Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 20:35
  • Oh... оканье... It's been so long since I've first heard that word. :D
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 1, 2013 at 23:43
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    @Martin Hansen especially the previous Patriarch Alexis II had a prominent accent of this kind.
    – Anixx
    Commented May 2, 2013 at 1:49

It's not that bad. It won't change your words' meaning, and in some cases, it'll possibly make you even more understandable. If you're a novice language learner, I suggest just you forget about vowel reduction.

One example is 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 first 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? Commented Apr 29, 2013 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
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 20:50

I'd say go make mistakes and learn from them — it'll happen very quickly. If you say дом (house) as дам (which means "I will give"), the person you're talking to will correct you almost immediately. If you try to always pronounce "о" as "o", that will work as well; people will always understand you (even though you'll sound like a 19th century dweller of the Volga-basin area).

But I'll add that pronunciation should be the last thing to worry about for anybody who's learning Russian. Grammar — that's what a learner should be focusing on. It's so much more convoluted in Russian; English would feel extremely liberating in that regard.


There are no exceptions. There's a strict but complicated rule.

Stressed о is always pronounced as [o].

Unstressed о at the absolute beginning, absolute end, or in the syllable before the stressed one is pronounced [ʌ]. This sound is also written as [a], but it's actually mid-high rather than low like [a] (although Muscovites are notorious for saying [a] instead of [ʌ]).

Unstressed о in all the other positions is [ъ], which is basically something like a reduced [o]. But if you're a foreigner, you can use your schwa sound [ə] (like British -er in words like sister) in this position.


Let's start from the end of your question. As for a rule of thumb which will help you to memorize the cases where you should pronounce о as а or о (phonology purists, don't judge me too harshly — you know what I mean), strictly speaking, there is no such rule.

One could say... wait, actually there is such a rule, since o is pronounced like а only in unstressed positions. But this is quite delusive, since that actually means that you have to memorize stress patterns. And actually, there are some patterns, but I strongly recommend you memorize each word you need to learn separately. The thing is that such patterns are by no means rules and don't cover all the possibilities. There's the classic triple зо́лото/боло́то/молоко́.

But if I were pressed for a rule, I guess I'd tell then not to bother stressing prefixes (so, сопричастность, соучастие — all of these are pronounced with a; foreigners will be forgiven for mispronouncing words like помо́щь or памащь); always pronounce о in monosyllabic words (there's just no other place you can put the stress).

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

Yes, as @Quassnoi already mentioned, you'll definitely sound outdated and theatrical, but as far as I'm concerned, this is a common mistake every novice language learners make: trying to pronounce everything like a native speaker — well, you won't. It takes years to acquire a decent, native-like pronunciation. But if your vocabulary is rich and your grammar is irreproachable, many phonetic mistakes will be overlooked. Moreover, the number of such mistakes will surprisingly decrease over 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
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 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
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 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
    Commented Apr 29, 2013 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! Commented Apr 29, 2013 at 20:37
  • 1
    Classic triple is in fact зо́лото/боло́то/долото́
    – WhiteWind
    Commented May 6, 2013 at 6:59

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