All other Russian vowels come in pairs, but this pair seems a bit special. So, how does one pronounce ы and и?

  • 3
    Shortly speaking, the back of your tongue goes up when you pronounce "И", and it remains low when you say "Ы"
    – brilliant
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 20:33
  • the nature of Ы and И is the very controversial part of the 100 year academic discussion. you can read the arguments of ЛФШ (Leningrad Phonology School) and МФШ (Mo
    – Olga
    Commented Jul 20, 2012 at 22:04
  • That's the sound you make when somebody is strangling you :)
    – brilliant
    Commented Jul 21, 2012 at 9:42
  • A girl in this video explains how to pronounce Ы.
    – Artemix
    Commented Jun 16, 2014 at 16:15

7 Answers 7


All vowels in Slavic languages come in three varieties: open, closed and iotized (closed following the palatal approximant j)

Russian phonetics requires that all open vowels follow non-palatalized (hard) consonants, and all closed vowels follow palatalized consonants. Openness is not a distinguishing attribute of a Russian vowel (unlike, say, English and / end). So normally all vowels in the alphabet come in pairs: open and iotized, but an iotized vowel following a hard consonant actually makes it soft and is pronounced closed instead:

a / я
о / ё
у / ю
э / е

и / ы is a notable exception: this is a closed/open pair. In Russian alphabet (unlike, say, Ukrainian), there is no separate letter for iotized и (because there is no such sound in the language), so it was required to mark the palatalization of the previous consonant.

Ж and Ц do not have soft counterparts in Russian, so цы is only written historically in some Russian words (цыпленок, цыган, цыкать) and in endings (щипцы) but pronounced цы even for words written with ци (вакцина, акция). жы is never written this way (though always pronounced exactly like this).

Ч does not have a hard counterpart, and there are no words with чы.

Ш and Щ (in common pronunciation) are hard and soft versions of the same consonant, so they are always written ши, щи

  • I'm not sure I understand, do you mean "open" and "close" as in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPA_vowel_chart_with_audio ? If not, where can I find more information?
    – jrouquie
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 11:21
  • @jrouquie: I've just calqued Russian linguistic terms: literary_terms.academic.ru/394/… The difference is as between u/ü, a/ä etc in German.
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 11:54
  • 3
    +1: Finally I understood why полиция is pronounced in that way! It is actually полицыя!
    – Giorgio
    Commented Jul 9, 2012 at 16:54
  • Can u please tell, in the pair and/end which one is open and which is closed?
    – Anixx
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 0:07
  • So does ы have a slight й offglide? Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 19:03


  • is pronunced /ɨ/ ("roses", or polish "y")
  • is used if and only if it follows a hard consonant


  • is pronunced /i/ ("machine") or /ɪ/ ("bin").
  • palatalize the preceding consonant
  • is not preceded by /j/ in isolation
  • is pronunced /ɨ/ when following ж, ш, ц (because /i/ would be hard to pronunce)
  • Is it your answer or is it still a part of your question?
    – Olga
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 18:46
  • This is "what I have collected on wikipedia", so this is already some answer. If you want, you can read the question as "if this is not true, please correct me".
    – jrouquie
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 22:00
  • By the way, why downvote? I have seen another question which already contained an answer and was criticized for that, so I thought this would be the right way to post. Or is this answer wrong? (If so, please edit Wikipedia ;-)
    – jrouquie
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 22:02
  • I didn't downvote) It's just that you were asking about their status as a pair of sounds, and you gave an analysis of them, but you didn't draw a conclusion, and that was what startled me, I guess. That was why I asked.
    – Olga
    Commented Jul 5, 2012 at 22:09
  • Some notes. 1) Ы is pronounced as [ɯ] according to some sources; really the difference is too small. 2) I applaude to your treating of combinations like жи, ши, because it's more correct than usual treating their vowel as "ы" (but often it's [ɪ] instead of [ɨ]). But please note that average Russian speaker mind differs и/ы on consonant palatalization, so he (she) would say it's "ы".
    – Netch
    Commented Nov 9, 2012 at 6:54

There is a sound file on this Wikipedia page for 'Ы'.
And here you can listen how to pronounce 'И'.


Ы and И are allophones, that is they specify the same phoneme. The only difference between them is in that И softens the preceding consonant while Ы does not.

Thus any detectable difference in pronunciation is due the influence of the preceding consonant which is either soft or hard.

  • 1
    It is possible to pronounce though is not typical for russian. Nevertheless you are wrong, we can not simplify like that. It's NOT all about preceding consonant - there's not always such consonant.
    – shabunc
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 15:27
  • 1
    @shabunc It is impossible to pronounce. "there's not always such consonant" - Russian has no native words starting with "Ы". And those borrowed geographical names pronounced the same way as if they were started with "И". Again if you think they are different phonemes, give an example of a minimal pair.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 15:30
  • 1
    давайте я по-русски скажу, если вы русским владеете. Я знаю, что такое палатализация. Но ёлки-палки - вы что, правда не можете произнести ЫЫЫЫЫЫ - просто, безпримесно, просто ЫЫЫЫЫ - вы что, правда не чувствуете разницу по сравнению с ИИИИ? Ну нет такого слова - и что - произнести вы можете?
    – shabunc
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 15:33
  • 1
    >And those borrowed geographical names pronounced the same way as if they were started with "И" - that's wrong. Иваново и Ываново sounds differ for any native speaker.
    – shabunc
    Commented Jul 6, 2012 at 15:39
  • 1
    Я сказал, что это одна и та же фонема. "Глаголы икАть и Ыкать?" ЛОЛ. Как насчет глаголов ŋекать, ɦекать и ðекать? "Каким образом фонема i и фонема ɨ не образуют различных фонем, ну каким?" - Почитайте что такое фонема сначала, лол.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 7, 2012 at 9:05

Deciding phonemes by minimal pairs is quite logical. In English for example, there are no minimal pairs between [h] and [ŋ]. Thus, they are the same phoneme. It makes no difference that any child can tell the difference, and no-one can see any the similarity between the two. Similarly, И and Ы are allophones of the same phoneme, even though all speakers of Russian are consciously aware of producing them separately.

  • I doubt ŋ is a phoneme in English: it seems to be an allophone of [n].
    – Anixx
    Commented Jan 23, 2018 at 16:52
  • The argument was made by Chomsky and Halle in their English phonology - it closely follows your argument in your own answer and the comments to it that there are no minimal pairs between И and Ы (i.e. no words which differ in only this contrast). This answer could even be regarded as a duplicate, though the tone and the conclusion ("any child can hear the difference") is quite distinct.
    – tripleee
    Commented Apr 13, 2019 at 8:06

Put it crudely, tell [u] as in the word put, but make your lips as if you want to say [i:] as in the word deep. The difference between и and ы is in that ы is close central unrounded vowel, but и is close front unrounded vowel. Dorsum of tongue is raised not in the front but in the middle.


English speakers' pronounce is closer to Ы when saying such words as vIsion, to lIve, clIck, etc., but native Russian Ы sound is more dull and wide. In fact, Russian clear pronounce of И is rarely heard in English speech, in such words as Even, lEAve, nEAt, snEAk, etc.

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