I read in Pushkin's Дружба the word "легкий", an adjective meaning "slight". There's even an interesting thread on Russian S.E. about the modern pronouciation of the word.

I noticed two ways to write it : either легкий (as Puskin did) either лёгкий as modern dictionaries do.

Hence my questions :

(1) which phonological/orthographic shift explains both spellings ? I can't see anything helpfull in the Wikipedia article dedicated to the reforms of Russian orthography.

(2) how was the word was pronounced at Pushkin's times ?

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    It's a common issue omitting "umlaut" over "Ё" letter. Although this is thought to be an error yet everyone does this ten times a day. No spelling is shifted. – Matt Jul 8 '15 at 6:25
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    @user4419802 This is not an error. In many dictionaries words that differ only in "ё/е" are listed as if there is no difference in them: "Слова на букву ё сортируются так же, как если бы они были на букву е, но при этом если слова различаются только на е — ё, то слово на ё ставится после. Такой порядок принят в подавляющем большинстве печатных словарей и энциклопедий." Also there is no need to disambiguate two words (небо/нёбо) as only word лёгкий exists. – Artemix Jul 9 '15 at 7:41

Letter ё is optional, it is usually replaced by е. We have a number of questions about this letter on this site, for example: Using written е instead of ë, Is 'ё' a distinct letter, or is it just 'е' with a diaeresis?, What are all the times where "е" changes to "ё"?. In short, letter ё is always used only in dictionaries, text for beginners and children, uncommon foreign words (like geographical names) and in cases when difference between word with ё and е is not obvious from the context (like небо (sky) and нёбо (roof of mouth)).

For modern reader it is definitely лёгкий. As for Pushkin times - I'm not sure what was the pronunciation at those times. Usually you notice the difference when two words stand at the end of the verse and should be rhymed (like Ольга/фольга pair which currently have different stresses, but at the beginning of the XX century both words had a stress on a first syllable).

But even when two words happen at the end of a poem's line, it is hard to tell should those words be pronounced with ё or with е. A long article about letter ё has the following example (by academic Vinogradov) of Pushkin's Poltava:

Тесним мы шведов рать за ратью;
Темнеет слава их знамен,
И бога брани благодатью
Наш каждый шаг запечатлен?

According to Vinogradov here both words are likely using "е" (знамен/запечатлен), but we cannot tell for sure.

Another example where there is е and not ё is verses from Krylov's fable "Лебедь, Щука и Рак" (example from Wikipedia article):

Когда в товарищах согласья нет —
На лад их дело не пойдет

Here, in Krylov's times пойдет was pronounced as е as can be seen from the rhymed нет/пойдет. Interestingly, in modern textbook for pupils пойдет in this verse is written using ё: пойдёт.

Looks like it was pronounced as легкий in Pushkin times. According to Wikipedia article the letter ё's was printed for a first time in 1795. Before that time a number of letter combinations served to resemble this sound (о, ьо, їô, ió, ио). However Google Books has a book printed in 1792, which is entitled "Новый легкий и самый безопасый способ лѣчения чесотки". If it has to be pronounced as ё there should be one of this combinations used: о, ьо, їô, ió, ио. Since it is not so, it has to be read as "е".

  • Thank you very much : the links you give are very usefull. – suizokukan Jul 8 '15 at 9:24
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    On the last paragraph: no, orthography with e was enforced by some people when the reading has long been ['о]. There's a guy (forgot the name) who even explicitly writes in XVIII century: "We do say in casual speech: Пьотр, Иван, идите сюда, but we should write Петр". – Viridianus Dec 12 '20 at 16:03
  • Or, the poets could make use of archaic pronunciation for the sake of rhyme. – Anixx Apr 9 at 12:21

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