Belarusian phonology

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The phonological system of the modern Belarusian language consists of at least 44 phonemes: 5 vowels and 39 consonants. Consonants may also be geminated. There is not absolute agreement on the number of phonemes, so that rarer or contextually variant sounds are included by some scholars.[citation needed]

Many consonants may form pairs that differ only in palatalization (called hard vs soft consonants, the latter being represented in the IPA with the symbol ⟨ʲ⟩). In some of such pairs, the place of articulation is additionally changed (see distinctive features below). There are also unpaired consonants that have no corollary in palatalization.

Distinctive features

As an East Slavic language, Belarusian phonology is very similar to both Russian and Ukrainian phonology. The primary differences are:[1]

  • Akannye (Belarusian: аканне) – the merger of unstressed /o/ into /a/. The pronunciation of the merged vowel is a clear open front unrounded vowel [a], including after soft consonants and /j/. In standard Russian (akanye), the merger happens only after hard consonants; after soft consonants, /o/ merges with /i/ instead. Ukrainian does not have this merger at all. In Belarusian, unlike Russian, this change is reflected in spelling: compare галава́ "head", pronounced About this sound [ɣalaˈva] , with Russian голова́ About this sound [ɡəlɐˈva]  and Ukrainian голова́ About this sound [ɦɔlɔˈu̯ɑ] .
  • Lack of ikanye, the Russian sound change in which unstressed /e/ has merged with /i/, and unstressed /a/ and /o/ with /i/ after soft consonants. Instead, unstressed /e/ merges with /a/. Compare Belarusian зямля́ About this sound [zʲamˈlʲa]  with Russian земля́ About this sound [zʲɪˈmlʲa]  and Ukrainian About this sound [zeˈmlʲɑ] .
  • Unlike in Russian, there is no emphasized separation after the /j/ in the pronunciation of the iotified /ja/, /jo/, /je/ and /ji/.[2][clarification needed]
  • Tsyekannye (Belarusian: цеканне) and dzyekannye (Belarusian: дзеканне) – the pronunciation of Old East Slavic /tʲ, dʲ/ as soft affricates [tsʲ, dzʲ]. This occurs in дзе́сяць "ten", pronounced [ˈdzʲɛsʲatsʲ]; compare Russian де́сять About this sound [ˈdʲesʲɪtʲ] , Ukrainian де́сять About this sound [ˈdɛsʲɐtʲ] . (Many Russian speakers similarly affricate phonemic /tʲ, dʲ/, but this is not universal and not written.)
  • Relatively stronger palatalization of /sʲ/ and /zʲ/.[3]
  • Postalveolar consonants are all hard (laminal retroflex) while Russian and Ukrainian have both hard and soft postalveolars.
  • /rʲ/ has hardened and merged with /r/.
  • Unlike in standard Russian, historical /l/ before consonants has merged with /v/ and is pronounced [w]. This is reflected in the spelling, which uses a special symbol known as "non-syllabic u" (Belarusian: у нескладовae),[4] written as an ⟨u⟩ with a breve diacritic on top of it: ⟨ў⟩,?ŭ⟩.?
  • Proto-Slavic /e/ shifted to Belarusian and Russian /o/ before a hard consonant. Compare the Belarusian word for "green", зялёны [zʲaˈlʲɔnɨ], and the Russian word, зелёный [zʲɪˈlʲɵnɨj], with Ukrainian зеле́ний [zeˈlɛnɛj].

Note also that, unlike in Russian, Belarusian spelling closely represents surface phonology rather than the underlying morphophonology. For example, akannye, tsyekannye, dzyekannye and the [w] allophone of /v/ and /l/ are all written. The representation of akannye in particular introduces striking differences between Russian and Belarusian orthography.[example needed]


Belarusian script IPA Description Belarusian example
i /i/ close front unrounded лiст ('leaf')
э /e/ [ɛ] open-mid front unrounded гэты ('this one')
ы [ɨ] close central unrounded мыш ('mouse')
a /a/ open central unrounded кат ('executioner')
у /u/ close back rounded шум ('noise')
о /o/ [ɔ] open-mid back rounded кот ('cat')

As with Russian, [ɨ] is not a separate phoneme, but an allophone of /i/ occurring after non-palatalized consonants.[5]


The consonants of Belarusian are as follows:[6]

Labial Alveolar,
Retroflex Dorsal
plain pal. plain pal. plain pal.
Nasal m n̪ʲ
Stop p


Affricate ts̪
Fricative f



(w) l̪ʲ j
Trill r

As in Dutch, the rare phonemes /ɡ/ and /ɡʲ/ are present only in several borrowed words: ганак [ˈɡanak], гузік [ˈɡuzik], гандаль [ˈɡandalʲ]. Other borrowed words have the fricative pronunciation: геаграфія [ɣʲeaˈɣrafʲija] ('geography'). In addition, [ɡ] and [ɡʲ] are allophones of /k/ and /kʲ/ respectively, when voiced by regressive assimilation, as in вакзал [vaɡˈzal] 'train station'.

In the syllable coda, /v/ is pronounced [w] or [u̯], forming diphthongs, and is spelled ⟨ў⟩.[7] [w] sometimes derives etymologically from /l/, as with воўк [vɔwk] ('wolf'), which comes from Proto-Slavic *vьlkъ (as with Dutch goud 'gold'). Similar to Ukrainian, there are also alternations between /w/ and /l/ in the past tense of verbs:[8] for example, ду́маў /ˈdumaw/ "(he) thought" versus ду́мала /ˈdumala/ "(she) thought". This evolved historically from a spelling with -л (ду́мал) which delingualized like the Ł in Polish (cognate dumał, "he mused").

The geminated variations are transcribed as follows:

  • падарожжа [padaˈroʒʒa]
  • ззяць [zʲzʲatsʲ]
  • стагоддзе [staˈɣoddzʲe]
  • каханне [kaˈxanʲnʲe]
  • рассячы [rasʲˈsʲatʃɨ]
  • ліхалецце [lʲixaˈlʲettsʲe]
  • сярэднявечча [sʲarɛdnʲaˈvʲettʃa].


  1. ^ Sussex & Cubberly (2006:53)
  2. ^ Padluzhny (1989:53)
  3. ^ "Stronger than in Russian, weaker than in Polish", per Беларуская мова...
  4. ^ Padluzhny (1989:54)
  5. ^ Mayo (2002:890)
  6. ^ Mayo (2002:891)
  7. ^ Young, S. (2006). "Belorussian". Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (2nd ed.). 
  8. ^ Mayo (2002:899)


  • Belaruskaia mova, Vysheishaia shkola, 1991, ISBN 5-339-00539-9 
  • Mayo, Peter (2002), "Belorussian", in Comrie, Bernard; Corbett, G. G., The Slavonic Languages, London: Routledge, pp. 887–946, ISBN 0-415-28078-8 
  • Padluzhny, Ped (1989), Fanetyka belaruskai litaraturnai movy, p. 335, ISBN 5-343-00292-7 
  • Sussex, Roland; Cubberly, Paul (2006), The Slavic Languages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-22315-6 

Further reading

  • Zygis, Marzena (2003), "Phonetic and Phonological Aspects of Slavic Sibilant Fricatives" (PDF), ZAS Papers in Linguistics, 3: 175–213 
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