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Vowel reduction in Russian: No phonetics in phonology1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 April 2012

University of Tromsø/Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics
Author's address: Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics, University of Tromsø, 9037 Tromsø,


Much recent work in phonology concentrates on the role of sonority in the phenomenon of vowel reduction, capitalizing on two facts: that reduction involves raising and/or shortening and that higher vowels and schwa are normally interpreted as having low sonority. This paper presents a different approach to vowel reduction in Standard Russian. It is proposed that the apparent sonority-driven effects in Russian are epiphenomenal. In particular, reduction to schwa is outside the domain of phonological computation in Russian, being an artifact of reduced duration. Other types of neutralization arising in vowel reduction are potentially amenable to a sonority-based analysis, but I argue that current approaches to sonority-driven reduction suffer from representational shortcomings. When these shortcomings are rectified, however, sonority is unnecessary as an explicit factor in vowel reduction: standard markedness mechanisms suffice to explain the data.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2012

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Versions of this paper were presented at the November Seminar in Russian and the Laboratory Phonology course workshop (both at the University of Tromsø, November 2008 and May 2009, respectively), the Third Scandinavian Ph.D. Conference in Linguistics and Philology (University of Bergen, June 2009) and the Seventh European Conference on Formal Description of Slavic Languages (University of Potsdam, December 2009). I thank the audiences at these fora for their valuable feedback and discussion, in particular Abby Cohn, John Kingston, Gjert Kristoffersen, Margje Post, and Anton Zimmerling. Comments by Bruce Morén-Duolljá and two anonymous referees for the Journal of Linguistics have greatly enhanced both content and presentation. The paper has also benefited from discussions with Sergei Knyazev, Tore Nesset, and Evgeny Shaulskiy. I remain solely responsible for any and all shortcomings.



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