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I am puzzled by the number of different letters that can be found before a final я, for example:

до свидания, синяя, третья,...

That last one is especially puzzling since we write

третий

without a ь.

Is there a difference in pronunciation?
If pronunciation is not the reason, is there a general rule or a grammatical or a historical explanation?

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    Why does я seem unusual to you in this way? There are words ending in e with various letters right before them and it never seemed like a peculiar feature to me, e.g., многообразие, сжимающее, Башелье, Диксмье, Картье, Навье, Фурье,...
    – KCd
    May 31 '14 at 21:46
  • @KCd: I want to know if these words are homophones. And, if they are, why they are written differently. Of course, there might be no reasonable answer, but if by luck there is a good answer it would be a satisfying linguistic information and would help me memorize the different spellings. And, indeed, I'm puzzled by words ending in е too: this might become another question :-) May 31 '14 at 22:25
  • On a related note, unstressed o and a are pronounced the same. I once saw a student in the US who spoke Russian fluently but never learned to read or write it who wrote молоко as малако. I was shocked. A better way to learn spelling than by how words sound is by making distinctions based on the case being used. For instance, masculine and neuter nouns often end in -a in genitive singular, like пучок --> пучка. That's why it "makes sense" to see многообразие --> многообразия or отображение --> отображения when passing from nominative to genitive (singular), since -я is playing a role like -а.
    – KCd
    May 31 '14 at 23:09
  • Unstressed о and а are not necessarily pronounced the same: собака is pronounced [sɐbákə]. The unstressed vowel а can also be pronounced [ɪ] as in часы. Jun 1 '14 at 0:05
  • Fair enough. There are some situations when they are pronounced the same.
    – KCd
    Jun 1 '14 at 0:29
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свидание → свидания is a perfectly regular form. It is a noun, not an adjective. Сомнение → сомнения, решение→решения, раздумье→раздумья, вычисление→вычисления, небытие→небытия. You just keep the same stem as in Nominative. Not so with any formation where you need to remove the vowel. Then you replace Ь with И (obviously, you cannot leave "ьй" dangling at the end of the word):

  • раздумье→раздумий
  • колдунья→колдуний

In Russian adjectives like синий you have a regular pattern with ый(ой)/ий - ая/яя, ое/ее, ые/ие in the Nominative:

  • большой/длинный/синий кот (-ой is if the adjective has an unlimate stress)
  • большая/длинная/синяя кошка
  • большое/длинное/синее нечто
  • большие/длинные/синие кошки

(note that velars к, г, х cannot have ы after them, so they always have и: короткий-короткая-короткое-короткие)

Actually, these unstressed -ия, -яя -ее are pronounced identical or almost identical in speech. However, some actors and other professional voices *may enunciate them a bit more clearly (which is not in fact the current norm but still used, especially in station announcements where they may really want you to hear that "Окское" ends in -ое, not -ая)

with третья, I suppose, it is just a historical development. It affects pronunciation and makes it easier (to just omit the unnecessary vowel). That does not affect adjectives.

Historically both Ъ and Ь denoted a short vowel ([ə]-like and [i]-like). It explains why in poetry -ие and -ье are often used interchangeably, less so in speech (which conforms more to how a speaker is used to pronounce the words, not to some rhytm).

It also explains formation of колдунья → колдуний: before a liquid Й and a vowel the short sound was eliminated but before a final consonant the language preferred to make it longer and convert to a normal И instead ("колдуньй" is really hard to pronounce).

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  • Thanks for the answer. How does the ь affect the pronunciation of третья ? It would be soft anyway, wouldn't it ? May 31 '14 at 22:32
  • Of course. Here it is straightforward: [`tr'et'jə]. Which is not always the case because in some consonant clusters "softness" propagates to the first consonant as well (in "песня" both с and н are palatilized; happened in a lot more clusters in the early 20th century Russian, not so much today).
    – Shady_arc
    May 31 '14 at 22:40
  • By the way, I checked the reverse dictionary to look up other adjectives to test a though I had... I were right. You see, in Russian there are VERY FEW adjectives that add in "рий", "тий", "чий", "сий". Mostly these are the ones that denote a link to some person or animal (лисий, сучий). They use -ья in feminine Nominative. -чий has -ая variants for non-derived adjectives (жгучий) but -тий has none, and I suppose all of them just drop the vowel no matter the origin. Probably, -чий is a special case...
    – Shady_arc
    May 31 '14 at 22:53

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