In analyses of Russian, there's a dispute about whether the vowels /ɨ/ and /i/ (typically represented in the orthography as "ы" and "и", respectively) are separate phonemes, or if [ɨ] is an allophone of /i/.

Quoting Wikipedia,:

The five-vowel analysis, taken up by the Moscow school, rests on the complementary distribution of [ɨ] and [i], with the former occurring after hard (non-palatalized) consonants and [i] elsewhere.

The six-vowel view, held by the Saint-Petersburg (Leningrad) phonology school, points to several phenomena to make its case:

  • Native Russian speakers' ability to articulate [ɨ] in isolation (for example, in the names of respective letters, ⟨и⟩ and ⟨ы⟩),
  • Rare instances of word-initial [ɨ] (including the minimal pair икать 'to produce the sound и' and ыкать 'to produce the sound ы'), as well as borrowed names and toponyms, like Ыб About this sound [ɨp], the name of a river and several villages in the Komi Republic.
  • Morphological alternations like готов [ɡɐˈtof] ('ready' predicate, m.) and готовить sound [ɡɐˈtovʲɪtʲ] ('to get ready' trans.) between palatalized and non-palatalized consonants.

The most popular view among linguists (and that taken up in this article) is that of the Moscow school, though Russian pedagogy has typically taught that there are six vowels (the term phoneme is not used)

The first and second arguments for the Saint-Petersburg school don't seem particularly compelling to me, since they could easily be artifacts of Russian pedagogy that would be expected if the orthography distinguishes sounds that are actually allophones. I'm not sure I fully understand the third argument.

But absent from these arguments is any mention of minimal pairs like быть (/bɨtʲ/ "to be") and бить (/bitʲ/ "to beat") or мыло (/mɨlə/ "soap") and мило (/milə/ "cute"). Is there something I'm missing? Why wouldn't these examples indicate that /ɨ/ and /i/ are separate phonemes?

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    Wiktionary at least marks бить as [bʲitʲ] and not /bitʲ/ (and мило as [ˈmʲilə]). I'd assume Moscow School analysis says that быть and бить contrast due to starting with different consonants. Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 3:55
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    @sumelic Ah, that might be what I'm missing, the orthography fooled me into ignoring that the б in бить is /bʲ/ and the м in мило is /mʲ/ Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 3:58
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    Yeah, under the Moscow School analysis, there's a fairly complicated (although still pretty regular) relationship between the writing system and the phonological system. In some places, I've seen the two types of consonants explicitly written as palatalized /bʲ/ vs velarized /bˠ/, without using a "plain" version, to make it clearer that in this analysis there are no "neutral" consonants; all consonants are considered to have the ability to color adjacent vowels. (I don't know how much true phonetic velarization exists in most hard consonants.) Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 3:59
  • Wiktionary has had serious disputes about these vowels and I'm not sure how fair the outcome was. Far as I know it's subjective.
    – vectory
    Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 13:12

2 Answers 2


This is because they are not minimal pairs. They differ in a consonant. The "бить" has soft б while "быть" has hard б.

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    What does 'hard' and 'soft' mean in this context? Can you give us the relevant phones in IPA?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 7:37
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    @bytebuster: isn't your reasoning here a bit circular? If [i] and [ɨ] are the same vowel phoneme, then the initial consonants of бить and быть are followed by the same vowel, but they have different states of palatalization, disproving your statement. You seem to have ignored the possibly that [i] and [ɨ] are variants of the same phonological vowel, but that was kind of the whole point of the question! Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 17:32
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    @bytebuster palatalization is defined by the following LETTER. The letter и means the preceding consonant is soft and letter ы means it is hard. Minimal pairs are words that differ only in tested phoneme. These words have different consonants. Or do u dispute that soft and hard б are separate phonemes in Russian? Do u claim these words differ only in vowels and have all other phonemes the same (which is requirement for a minimal pair)?
    – Anixx
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 20:30
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    Soft and hard б are separate phonemes in Russian because there ARE minimal pairs for them (words differing only in this phoneme): гроб and гробь, об and Обь etc.
    – Anixx
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 20:41
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    @bytebuster, on page 309 of his article he gives the minimal pair mat 'foul language' vs. mʲat 'crumpled (past part.)'. That alone establishes that palatal consonants are phonemic before vowels in Russian. Padgett's article is about the history of Russian – it is not a synchronic analysis. Just because palatalization might be conditioned by some vowel in some case does not mean that it is conditioned by a vowel n all cases. Do you dispute the claim that palatalization is phonemic in Russian?
    – user6726
    Commented Oct 12, 2015 at 20:43

Obviously, as Luciano Canepari pointed out, /i/ and /ɨ/ are two different phonemes (basically every Russian speaker can distinguish them; and there are instances of words starting with ы, although rare ones), and palatalised consonants are "allophones" (or should I say taxophones) for /Ci/, and in other positions, for /Cj/ (e.g. ось), particularly because a few regional accents make no distinction between palatalised consonants and non-palatalised ones, particularly in postnuclear positions (including a broad St. Petersburg accent): it's obvious that the quality of the vowel is more important

I'll never get how phonologists are losing their minds in order to make things very complicated, when they are not

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    Can you add a reference for Luciano Canepari? An answer should be self-contained and not require the reader to Google for the reference you have in mind. Commented May 4, 2018 at 9:11
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    As far as I can tell, Russian speakers tend not to feel that palatalized consonants are phonemically /Cj/ sequences. Commented May 4, 2018 at 23:21
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    Total bullshit. Беляев [б'эл'ай'эв] and Бельяев [б'эл'й'ай'эв] are totally different surnames and pronounced differently. подъём [падй'ом] and падём [пад'ом] are also totally different words, полёт "flight" [пал'от] and польёт "will pour" [пал'йот] are also different. They both differ in existance of й sound after a soft consonant. They are not allophones.
    – Anixx
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 10:00
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    @sumelic there is a lot of minimal pairs, showing they are not allophones, see above.
    – Anixx
    Commented May 8, 2018 at 10:04

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