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Who? The lake.

June 29, 2020

Viktor (left) and Pavel (right)

There are a lot of features of Russian phonology that, after studying Russian this long, I can recognize, even if I can’t produce them without an accent. But there are some subtle differences that I don’t hear, though at least some native speakers seem to. One of them is the difference between the unstressed feminine and neuter nominative singular adjective endings -ая and -ое. I’ve played recordings of different forms of one word from in language classes, and frequently heritage speakers can correctly identify which is which, but non-native speakers like me can’t.

It doesn’t come up all that often that mishearing the ending could lead to a misunderstanding, but I found an example from a 2020 TV show where that happens. A mysterious man named Pavel has saved Viktor’s wife Elena from drowning by diving after her into a deep and remote lake; at first Viktor seems grateful, but when Pavel keeps showing up at the hospital where Elena is recovering, Viktor gets suspicious. Here’s the relevant dialogue:

Pavel: I wish your (formal) wife a speedy recovery. Goodbye.

Viktor: What were you (familiar) doing there? How did you (familiar) happen to be by the lake?

Pavel: [It’s/she’s] beautiful.

Viktor: Who is?

Pavel: The lake is. I looked in my guidebook, and it says it’s one of the local sights. (2:13:00–2:13:22)


Павел: Желаю вашей супруге скорейшего выздоровления. Всего хорошего.

Виктор: Что ты там делал? Как ты у озера оказался?

Павел: Красивое.

Виктор: Кто?

Павел: Озеро. Я в путеводителе посмотрел, там написано — местная достопримечательность.

This is from the serial The Broken Mirror (Разбитое зеркало, 2020). The word for “lake” is neuter, so Pavel uses the neuter adjective красивое ‘beautiful’ in his one-word reply. But Viktor hears it as the feminine adjective красивая and asks not what, but who is beautiful, apparently thinking Pavel means Elena.

Is this a situation like Mary/marry/merry in English where some speakers pronounce words as similar to each other, and others pronounce them as identical? Pavel’s Russian sounds quite standard to me.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 29, 2020 8:48 am

    frequently heritage speakers can correctly identify which is which

    Are you sure it’s not just luck (or claims not backed by evidence)? I’ve never heard of such a phonetic distinction, and I’d want more than anecdotal evidence to believe in its existence. Considering Russians no longer distinguish unstressed и and е (which was a shock when I discovered it), it seems implausible. But maybe, as you say, there are regions where it’s maintained.

    • June 29, 2020 12:52 pm

      Are you sure it’s not just luck (or claims not backed by evidence)?

      It didn’t seem like luck, and it wasn’t just claims about what they could hear—they were accurately saying which form was which in real time (I played the audio without showing them what was on my computer screen). But I haven’t tried this that many times, so you never know.

      Considering Russians no longer distinguish unstressed и and е

      Isn’t this more complicated? For years I thought that о and а were indistinguishable in unstressed syllables, and и, е, я were too. But when I tried to find a linguist summarizing the situation, I read that unstressed е is pronounced differently from и or я when it’s in certain grammatical endings, and sure enough, you can easily hear the difference between книги and книге, or дяди and дяде, and I was myself saying them differently without thinking about the rule. (But of course when these unstressed vowels are not in an ending you can’t hear the difference, as shown in native speakers’ spelling mistakes and even in prescriptively correct spelling changes like разДАТЬ, он разДАЛ but old-fashioned он РОЗдал, obscene singular пи**А but plural пЁ**ы, etc.)

      Someone on WordReference said that “overdoing the vowel reduction in endings” is a “staple of English accent” in Russian, which blew my mind—I had assumed the opposite was true. The idea that сердце (nominative) and сердце (prepositional) sound different for many if not all speakers (elsewhere in that same thread) was also informative.

      • languagehat permalink
        June 29, 2020 1:14 pm

        Isn’t this more complicated?

        Doubtless it is; almost everything is more complicated than it seems! But that’s what I was told by Anatoly Vorobey, who is a native speaker and very well grounded in linguistic analysis. He himself, of course, may have too limited a range of experience to know for sure. This came up in the context of a quiz he posted to see if people could correctly decide whether to use не or ни in given contexts, which only makes sense if they are pronounced the same.

      • June 29, 2020 1:38 pm

        I agree that those are definitely the same! The identical pronunciation of не and ни in unstressed syllables can even lead to the prescriptively wrong form occurring under stress, as in Kino’s “Война,” with the lines И где бы ты НЕ был, Что б ты ни ДЕлал (instead of Где бы ты НИ был).

  2. lizoksbookshelf permalink
    June 29, 2020 9:44 am

    This is such an interesting question, Erik! There is/was some оконье in some northern places (I heard it in Arkhangel’sk in the late eighties and early nineties) though I’m not sure how widespread that is now. I don’t generally hear large differences in pronunciation for -ое and -ая either so depend on context… which becomes a bit muddled in this case because Pavel doesn’t answer Viktor’s question directly, leading to Victor’s confusion about sound and what his wife was doing at the lake. (It’s also entirely possible that a screenwriter thought this was a clever bit of dialogue!)

    • June 29, 2020 12:58 pm

      That’s a good point—I was wondering if this was a clever bit of dialogue that might sound a bit contrived! It also might be important that Victor is a terrible listener throughout the series, constantly cutting people off because he’s sure he knows what they’re going to tell him and he doesn’t want to hear it.

      It makes sense that оканье could make the difference more obvious, but I’m especially curious about how this distinction works (or doesn’t work) in dialects without оканье or аканье.

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