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A Russian language exchange partner of mine boasted that unlike words in the English language, Russian words are spelt and pronounced basically the same. In response, I asked him about Арбатская and Орбацкая, pointing out that these so differently looking words must have exactly the same pronunciation. He got confused and said that Орбацкая is a non-existing word. Yet, typing it in VK, a Russian social network, I found a Russian girl with that surname, Орбацкая, and showed it to my language exchange partner. He then mumbled that I wasn't quite right about Арбатская and Орбацкая being pronounced exactly the same, and changed the topic. For the sake of politeness, I didn't press him to elaborate, but I'm curious.

Are Арбатская and Орбацкая pronounced exactly the same? If they aren't, what's the difference? Let's suppose Даша Орбацкая calls an hotel and says in Russian, "Hi, I want to book a room, my name is Даша Орбацкая." Hearing this, will the receptionist write down the surname correctly?

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They can be pronounced identically or they can be not. Unstressed "o" is pronounced as "a", however "цк" and "тск" by many speakers are pronounced differently even if pronounced quickly. Compare existing "скотский" and made up "скоцкий" - if while pronouncing these two words you don't hear the actual difference - which I have to admit is very subtle in the majority of cases - then we need to work a bit on your "ц".

Indeed, if one will pronounce тс quickly enough ц often can be heard (that's why it's jokingly аццкий сотона instead of "адский сатана"). The opposite is not true however - it doesn't matter how slow you will pronounce "цапля" - first sound still won't become "тс".

The thing is that ц - which is by the way very similar to the /ts/ part of Japanese ツ - stands for a phoneme which is not just a "тс" pronounced quickly, don't be put off by the fact that that phoneme is usually represented as /ts/. In fact, it's more common to write t͡s and the sign above sort of says that this sound is inseparable, indivisible.

And by that I mean that it's not pronounced as two phonemes in any scenario. Imagine pronouncing hot-spot quickly - you will get exactly Russian "тс" but you won't get "ц".

Speaking of specifically Орбацкий/Арбатский - to my knowledge there was such spelling for "Арбатские ворота" (Орбацкие ворота). The alternative spelling for Арбат was "Орбат". As of scenario with calling to the reception - like anyone with unstressed O in their last name she'll have to spell it out, most likely she will say something like "Орбацкая" - первая "o", дальше [slowly] - "рба-ц-кая".

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  • it's enough to spell out ор-ба-цкая since the conflicting one will be ор-бат-ская – alamar Sep 10 at 16:57
  • @alamar good point! – shabunc Sep 10 at 17:14
  • I'd like to add that 'А' vs 'О' distinction in pronunciation can be stressed via Moscow style "A-king" and Volga style "O-king". Modern pronunciation is closer to Moscow style, and distinction between 'А' and 'О' is almost nonexistent. However if one wants to stress the particular vowel, it's always possible. – Alexander Sep 10 at 23:50
  • @Alexander I'm not sure I got your point - unstressed o pronounced as a nowadays is. not just a moscow thing - we can claim that majority of Russians are pronouncing it that way. – shabunc Sep 11 at 6:47
  • @shabunc this is pretty much what I said about the modern pronunciation - Moscow style has won. Still, virtually all Russians know about "O-king" and know how to do it. – Alexander Sep 11 at 15:59
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Since the second word is a personal surname, and quite uncommon one, one can expect that the holder of that name will try to verbally underline the difference between it and a similarly-sounding famous Moscow metro station. In that case she definitely will distinctly pronounce the starting o- in her surname, especially when pronouncing it first time.

The тс and ц are also usually pronounced differently in Russian words, for instance, some Russian Whites in Russian civil war often pronounced and spelled большевиcтский as большевицкий for derogatory purposes (possibly due to similarity with мужицкий).

A minimal pair:

поцве́т = adverb meaning "of a similar, fitting color, for instance regarding clothing elements"

подсве́т = noun meaning "higliting (of a scene, etc)"

They differ in ts vs t͡s. Note though that the most online phonetic analysis software produce wrong phonetic analysis of the second word because they incorrectly divide it into syllables, interpreting по- rather than под- as a prefix.

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  • 1
    good examples and an excellent minimal pair! – shabunc Sep 19 at 22:26
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    @shabunc another minimal pair: подсыпать vs поцыпать – Anixx Sep 19 at 23:06

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