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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 November 2016

Bernd Pompino-Marschall
Institute of German Language and Linguistics, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin,
Elena Steriopolo
Department of German, National Linguistic University Kyjiv,
Marzena Żygis
Centre for General Linguistics (ZAS), Berlin & Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin,
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About 35 million people around the world speak Ukrainian (Lewis, Simons & Fenning 2016). The largest populations of Ukrainian speakers outside Ukraine (more than 32 million speakers) are in Russia (c. 4.5 million), followed by Moldova (c. 0.6 million), Canada (c. 0.5 million) and the USA (c. 0.5 million). Smaller Ukrainian communities have also settled in some other countries including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Poland, Romania, Argentina, Brazil and Slovakia (Mokienko 2002). Ukrainian, alongside Russian and Belarusian, belongs to the East Slavonic languages within the Indo-European language family.

Illustrations of the IPA
Copyright © International Phonetic Association 2016 

About 35 million people around the world speak Ukrainian (Lewis, Simons & Fenning Reference Lewis, Simons and Fennig2016). The largest populations of Ukrainian speakers outside Ukraine (more than 32 million speakers) are in Russia (c. 4.5 million), followed by Moldova (c. 0.6 million), Canada (c. 0.5 million) and the USA (c. 0.5 million). Smaller Ukrainian communities have also settled in some other countries including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Poland, Romania, Argentina, Brazil and Slovakia (Mokienko Reference Mokienko, Janich and Greule2002). Ukrainian, alongside Russian and Belarusian, belongs to the East Slavonic languages within the Indo-European language family.

Modern Ukraine developed from five states of the Kievan Rus. The earliest writings from this area go back to the Christianization of the capital city Kyjiv in 988. Old East Slavic, common to the Eastern Slavonic region, evolved up until the 14th century through the incorporation of regionalisms at different linguistic levels (phonology, morphology, lexis). Further linguistic distinctions in the regions of Belarus and Ukraine triggered further developments in the common Ruthenian language from the 15th to the 18th century. Only in the 18th century did a specifically Ukrainian literary language emerge, independent of Old Church Slavonic documents, together with Ukrainian vernacular literature. In the 19th century, the written language flourished in science especially. However, Tsar Alexander II banned its official use (in scientific publications, readings, exhibitions, etc.) by decree in the Ems Ukaz issued in 1876 (Rudnyćkyj Reference Rudnyćkyj1992). This decree was in force until 1906. Finally, in 1918, Ukrainian became the official language of the newly founded Ukrainian People's Republic. Alongside Russian, it remained the official language during the Soviet Union. Since 1989 Ukrainian is the only official language of the state (Pompino-Marschall & Steriopolo Reference Pompino-Marschall and Steriopolo2011).

The present-day Ukrainian language is a highly developed literary language – the orthoepy of its spoken form in science, education, the media and everyday life is based on the Kyjiv dialect, regardless of large dialectal differences (Zilyns'kyj Reference Zilyns'kyj1979, Žovtobrjux, Rusanivs'kyj & Skljarenko Reference Žovtobrjux, Rusanivs'kyj and Skljarenko1979). There are three main dialect groups corresponding to the territories where they are spoken, namely, South-Eastern, South-Western and Northern (Danylenko & Vakulenko Reference Danylenko and Vakulenko1995).

A phonetic description of Ukrainian in terms of IPA is a challenging task mainly due to lack of homogeneity of transcription systems available in the literature. The influence of the Cyrillic writing system, which evolved on a language-specific basis (see the end of the Illustration for the Ukrainian alphabet transliteration), does not make this task easier. In addition, there is little experimental phonetic research on Ukrainian (especially regarding articulation) and of the research already available, there are many contradictory results. The main problems include the status of so-called half-palatalized consonants (and their context), the exact places of articulation of consonants, the quality of the vowel <и> (<i>) and the status of geminates (see Rusanivs'kyj, Taranenko & Zjabljuk Reference Rusanivsʼkyj, Taranenko and Zjabljuk2004, Pompino-Marschall & Steriopolo Reference Pompino-Marschall and Steriopolo2011).

The present IPA Illustration of Ukrainian is based on recordings of a 38-year-old speaker born in the Bukovina area (at the south western border to Rumania), who received his academic education in Kyjiv.


In the following list of examples, the half-palatalized allophones are given in brackets.

Usually, in Slavic literature the phonological contrast between palatalized and non-palatalized phonemes is commonly known as the opposition between soft and hard segments (see de Bray Reference de Bray1951). Ukrainian is specific in so far as it has a third category, namely ‘half-palatalized’ sounds also called ‘semi-soft’ consonants, which are allophonic variants of non-palatalized consonants in the context of following /i/ and /j/ (see Toc'ka Reference Toc'ka1981).

The phonological opposition between non-palatalized (plain) and palatalized consonants is restricted to the anterior coronals (i.e. the denti-alveolars), /t tʲ d dʲ n nʲ s sʲ z zʲ ʲ ʲ r rʲ l lʲ/ (Shevelov Reference Shevelov1979, Danylenko & Vakulenko Reference Danylenko and Vakulenko1995, Buk, Mačutek & Rovenchak Reference Buk, Mačutek and Rovenchak2008). In addition, as mentioned above, there are so-called ‘semi-soft’ or half-palatalized consonants such as [pʲ bʲ mʲ fʲ ʋʲ ʃʲ ʒʲ ʲ ʲ kʲ ɡʲ xʲ ɦʲ], which are allophonic variants of the corresponding non-palatalized labial, palato-alveolar, velar and glottal consonants [p b m f ʋ ʃ ʒ k ɡ x ɦ]. There is, however, no separate symbol for the transcription of semi-palatalization. Adhering to the IPA conventions, here the superscript [ʲ] is used for both palatalized and semi-palatalized consonants.

Note that palatalization of the preceding consonants is indicated by the letters <ï я ю є> (<ji ja ju jɛ>). In syllable-final position and preceding <o>, palatalization is marked by the letter <ь>. The phoneme /j/ corresponds to <й> only in syllable-final position or before <o> (Shevelov Reference Shevelov, Comrie and Corbett2002: 952).

The distinction between soft, semi-soft and hard, which is usually found in Ukrainian literature, reflects the degree of palatalization in perceptual terms: non-palatalized sounds are perceived as hard, palatalized sounds are perceived as soft and sounds whose percept lies between palatalized and non-palatalized, presumably slightly palatalized, are interpreted as semi-soft sounds (see also Żygis, Pape & Jesus Reference Żygis, Pape and Jesus2012: 304f.).

From the articulatory point of view, the area of contact between the raised fronted tongue and the palate is larger in palatalized sounds in comparison to half-palatalized sounds (Danylenko & Vakulenko Reference Danylenko and Vakulenko1995: 7). Non-palatalized sounds are velarized, i.e. produced with a raised dorsum. This has a strong acoustic effect so that, for instance, the realization of /l/ is usually [ɫ]. Furthermore, the palatalized counterpart of the trill [r] is frequently realized as [ɾʲ], which is most probably due to the fact that trilling and palatalization are far more complex and effortful than the production of a palatalized flap (see Żygis Reference Żygis2005).

Ukrainian also shows palatalizations which are morphologically conditioned, where an underlying stop changes to an affricate, e.g. /t/ changes to [ ], e.g. m o l oˈ/ t / y t y ‘to grind’ vs. m oˈl o [ ] e n y j ‘ground’ (past participle) (Shevelov Reference Shevelov, Comrie and Corbett2002: 954).

It is also worth emphasizing that Ukrainian sibilants represent one of the most complex systems in the world's languages. Apart from a two-way phonemic distinction in the place of articulation as well as palatalization, it also includes a voiced–voiceless opposition /s z sʲ zʲ ʃ ʒ ʲ ʲ /. Interestingly, instead of /ʃ ʒ /, some Western Ukrainian dialects have retroflex sibilants /ʂ ʐ / in which the tongue dorsum is flat and ‘the constriction is formed by the raised tip of the tongue’ (Zilyns'kyj Reference Zilyns'kyj1979: 107) and alveolo-palatals /ɕ ʑ / instead of /sʲ zʲ ʲ ʲ/ which can be alternatively produced as strongly palatalized dentals (Żygis Reference Żygis2006). The presence of retroflexes and alveolo-palatals is most probably due to the influence of Polish dialects.

The plosives /b d ɡ/ are fully voiced in all positions and /p t k/ are voiceless unaspirated throughout. The approximant /ʋ/ is realized in different ways due to co-articulatory effects: it surfaces as labiodental [ʋ ʋʲ] when preceding the front vowels [ɪ i] or labiovelar [w] when preceding the rounded back vowels [u ɔ]. In the syllable-final position this approximant is realized as [ ]. Buk et al. (Reference Buk, Mačutek and Rovenchak2008) also note that /ʋ/ c a n b e r e a l i z e d as a devoiced labio-velar approximant [ ] before voiceless consonants (but not after a vowel), e.g. vperše [ pɛrʃɛ] ‘for the first time’.

The voiced glottal fricative /ɦ/ is also quite variable depending on context. For instance, it turns into [x] before /k/: lehkyj [ˈɫɛx kɪ ] ‘easy’ (see also the Optimality Theory-based analysis of /ɦ/ proposed by Czaplicki Reference Czaplicki2006). The glide /j/ surfaces as [ ] in syllable-final position.

In Ukrainian there are also consonantal geminates, but their phonemic status is highly disputable, see Sawicka (Reference Sawicka1997) for a discussion. Most phonological descriptions treat the long consonants as two-phoneme sequences (see Buk et al. Reference Buk, Mačutek and Rovenchak2008). The geminates in Ukrainian are often remnants of the historical deletion of the reduced vowel *ь (the so-called jer) in the suffix <*ьj> (Bethin Reference Bethin2002). The long consonants are also found at various morphological junctures such as, e.g. prefix–stem boundary: bez+zvučnobɛzːʋu nɔ] ‘soundless’ (Buk et al. Reference Buk, Mačutek and Rovenchak2008). On the other hand, it should be noted that examples of contrastive long and short consonants can also be found, e.g. na suddi [n a s uˈdʲːi] ‘on the judge’ vs. na sudi [n a s uˈdʲi] ‘on trial’ (Danylenko & Vakulenko Reference Danylenko and Vakulenko1995: 12). This latter example shows that a definitive rejection of the phonemic status of geminates in Ukrainian is at least problematic.

Finally, regarding the letter–sound correspondence, it is worth mentioning that the letter <щ> corresponds to [ʃ ], which is articulated as a combination of a fricative [ʃ] and an affricate [ ]. This sound can undergo a reduction to [ ] or even [ʃ] as our transcription of the recorded passage shows.

Devoicing and voicing assimilations

Unlike Russian and most other modern Slavic languages, Ukrainian does not have final devoicing, compare vasa s] ‘you’ and vaza z] ‘vase’ ( (Bethin Reference Bethin1987: 185). However, as pointed out by de Bray (Reference de Bray1951: 76), final voiced obstruents may become partly devoiced along with an increased speech rate. Furthermore, Ukrainian obstruents undergo a regressive voicing assimilation rule, both word-internally and across words. But this rule applies only to sequences of obstruents in which the second segment is voiced and thus changes the voiceless status of the preceding segment to a voiced one, e.g. ot že [ˈɔd ʒɛ] ‘therefore’ (see Bethin Reference Bethin1987: 185; see also Wetzels & Mascaró Reference Wetzels and Joan Mascaró2001, Czaplicki Reference Czaplicki and Wełna2009).


The Ukrainian vowel system comprises the six phonemes /i ɪ ɛ a ɔ u/ (corresponding to <i и e a o y> in Ukrainian writing). Vowel length is not contrastive. The vowel <и> (as phonetically different from Russian [ɨ], see e.g. Shevelov Reference Shevelov, Comrie and Corbett2002: 949; Carlton Reference Carlton1991: 280) would be more correctly transcribed as [ ], since in contrast to [i] the tongue is quite retracted and lowered in the production of this vowel. (In the acoustical vowel space it may seem shifted to [ɪ] due to its articulation with strongly spread lips, see the F1/F2 plot of the vowel realizations of our informant in Figure 1.) Zilyns'kyj (Reference Zilyns'kyj1979: 45) points to a great variation in the realization of this vowel in Western dialects.

Figure 1 F1/F2 plot of the vowel realizations in the example words for Ukrainian vowels.

The unstressed non-low vowels /i ɛ/ exhibit a harmonizing tendency: unstressed /ɛ/ preceding stressed /i/ shifts to [e] and unstressed /i/ preceding stressed /ɛ/ also shifts to [e]. In parallel, unstressed /ɔ/ preceding stressed /u/, shifts to [o] (Danylenko & Vakulenko Reference Danylenko and Vakulenko1995: 5).

In fluent speech unstressed vowels exhibit a tendency to reduce to less peripheral articulations. These reduced vowel articulations are furthermore prone to anticipatory as well as preservative coarticulatory effects of the neighbouring stressed vowels. This can be seen in comparing our narrow and broad transcriptions of the recorded passage below.

Syllable structure and word stress

A strictly vocalic nucleus is the only obligatory segment of the Ukrainian syllable. The syllable onset as well as the syllable coda may comprise up to four consonants, although, parallel to other Slavic languages, Ukrainian favours open syllables.

Word stress is free in Ukrainian (Brovčenko Reference Brovčenko1969). It can be contrastive: ˈk u r y k u rɪ] ‘chicken’ (pl) vs. k uˈr y [k uˈrɪ] ‘to smoke’ or d oˈr o h a [dɔˈrɔɦa] ‘road’ vs. d o r oˈh a [dɔrɔˈɦa] ‘dear’. The main stress can appear on any syllable in a given word, e.g. ˈv y-r a-x u-v a-n y j [ˈʋɪr a x uʋa nɪj] ‘calculated’, z al j a-k u-v a-t y [z aˈlʲa k uʋa tɪ] ‘to intimidate’, p o-v id o-m y-t y [pɔʋʲiˈdɔmɪtɪ] ‘to inform’, p r y-s t o-s uv a-n e c [p rɪs tɔs uˈʋa nɛ ʲ] ‘conformist’, p e-r e-p o-v is t y [pɛrɛpɔʋʲiˈs tɪ] ‘to relate’ (Danylenko & Vakulenko Reference Danylenko and Vakulenko1995: 13). The stress can also move within a paradigm: r ob y-t y [rɔˈbɪtɪ] ‘to do’, r ob l j u [rɔˈb lʲu] ‘I do’, ˈr o-b yšrɔbɪʃ] ‘you do’ (de Bray Reference de Bray1951: 74). It is sensitive to morphology and its shifting nature reinforces the distinctive function of morphological constituents; for a historical background of the ‘morphologization’ of stress see Shevelov (Reference Shevelov1979: 120–126).

Besides the primary stress, words consisting of at least four syllables can be pronounced with a secondary stress. However, apart from the universal rule that the secondary stress should not be adjacent to the primary stress, there is no consensus in the literature that the secondary stress assignment follows any pattern (see Zilyns'kyj Reference Zilyns'kyj1979: 187–190).


Ukrainian is a language with free word order where the realization of pitch accents associated with prominent syllables depends on their position in a sentence as well as the information structure they convey. Words are parsed into phrases or the so-called accent units in which the last word is usually accented. A rising-falling or falling intonation is characteristic of the main stressed syllable. The stressed syllable is also longer than non-stressed ones, whereby unstressed syllables can also be longer when appearing in sentence-final position (Brovčenko Reference Brovčenko1969).

Declarative sentences, wh-questions, forms of addressing people, exclamations as well as listings are characterised by a falling intonation. By contrast, polar questions, i.e. yes/no questions, echo questions, as well as continuation forms are produced with rising intonation (Bagmut, Borysjuk & Olijnyk Reference Bagmut, Borysjuk and Olijnyk1985).

Ukrainian intonation has been analysed in terms of the intonational realization of broad versus narrow focus in the framework of Autosegmental-Metrical Theory (Pierrehumbert Reference Pierrehumbert1980, Beckman & Pierrehumbert Reference Beckman and Pierrehumbert1986). It was shown that pitch accents which signal narrow focus are realized differently from pitch accents signalling a broad focus (Féry, Paslawska & Fanselow Reference Féry, Paslawska and Fanselow1997). In particular, pitch accents on narrow foci show an H*L contour whereas pitch accents on broad foci are realized with a prenuclear LH* accent followed by a nuclear HL* accent. (L stands for a low tone and H for a high tone, see e.g. Pierrehumbert Reference Pierrehumbert1980, Gussenhoven Reference Gussenhoven2004.) Such accentuation was also found in a declarative sentence with a canonical SVO order. However, it should be emphasized that the results were inferred from an investigation based on only one speaker from Kyjiv.

Transcription of recorded passage

Narrow transcription

Broad phonemic transcription

Orthographic version

Одного разу посперечалися Сонце і Північний вітер з приводу того, хто з них двох сильніший. Аж раптом вони помітили мандрівника, який саме проходив повз них, кутаючись у пальто. Обидва дійшли спільної думки, що той буде визнаний сильнішим, хто вимусить мандрівника зняти своє пальто. Північний вітер дув з усієї сили, але чим дужче він дув, тим щильніше кутався мандрівник у своє пальто. Bрешті-решт Північний вітер перестав боротися. І тут Сонце зігріло повітря своїми привітними променями. І вже через декілька хвилин мандрівник зняв своє пальто. Отож Північний вітер вимушений був визнати, що Сонце з-поміж них двох було сильнішим.

Orthographic version transliterated

Odnoho razu posperečalysja Sonce i Pivničnyj viter z pryvodu toho, xto z nyx dvox syl'nišyj. Až raptom vony pomityly mandrivnyka, jakyj same proxodyv povz nyx, kutajučys’ u pal'to. Obydva dijšly spil'noji dumky, ščo toj bude vyznanyj syl'nišym, xto vymusyt’ mandrivnyka znjaty svoje pal'to. Pivničnyj viter duv z usijeji syly, ale čym dužče vin duv, tym ščyl'niše kutavsja mandrivnyk u svoje pal'to. Vrešti-rešt Pivničnyj viter perestav borotysja. I tut Sonce zihrilo povitrja svojimy pryvitnymy promenjamy. I vže čerez dekil'ka xvylyn mandrivnyk znjav svoje pal'to. Otož Pivničnyj viter vymušenyj buv vyznaty, ščo Sonce z-pomiž nyx dvox bulo syl'nišym.



We want to express our gratitude to Oxana Bas-Kononenko, Zoja Dudnyk and two anonymous reviewers for their useful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Parts of this research have been supported by Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF, Germany) Grant No. 01UG1411 to Marzena Żygis.


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Figure 0

Figure 1 F1/F2 plot of the vowel realizations in the example words for Ukrainian vowels.

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