I've been studying Russian for years now, but the one thing that I can't seem to wrap my mind around is why would the sound е je come to be pronounced like ё jo in certain circumstances?

Obviously, these phonological processes are still active, because borrowings from other languages have their e sounds altered from e to je tojo.

I would have expected the following words to have been russified by just palatalizing the Latin e: e, to a cyrillic е: je. Instead, they seem to have skipped je and gone straight to jo.

For example:

мушкетёр (musketeer) is pronounced muskʲitʲór

фуникулёр (cable train from Fr. funicular) is pronounced funʲikulʲór

шофёр (chauffeur) is pronounced like shɐfʲór

I've heard someone said that when the word шофёр was new it was indeed pronounced more like шоферshófʲɐr, but as it became more Russified the je became jo. However nobody can explain why this change happens.

But even stranger to me yet, is the word: отель. It means 'hotel'. In the e, there is no palatalization and it retains the frontness of the French e, and it is pronounced ɐˈtɛlʲ, it is not pronounced ɐtʲоlʲ or even ɐtʲelʲ.

Aside from borrowings there are countless examples of е/ё altnernation based on flexion. Here are a few.

сестра́ (sister): сёстры/сестёр

о́зеро (lake): озёра

ружьё (rifle): ружье́

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    This was a conditioned sound change from /e/. From what I remember, the conditions are that the vowel is stressed, and it is not followed by a soft consonant (this would explain why the "hotel" word has /e/ instead of /o/). – ewawe Dec 10 '15 at 18:59
  • The words you give aren't evidence that the process is still active today, just that it was active when or since these words were borrowed. – ewawe Dec 10 '15 at 19:02
  • Right, I guess a lot can change in a hundred years! – Ryan Ward Dec 10 '15 at 19:16
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    I disagree. The Russian Stack Exchange welcomes "questions about the Russian vocabulary and grammar, about the history of expressions, words and grammatical constructions as well as questions about their usage in the modern language." – Ryan Ward Dec 10 '15 at 23:55
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    No, that's not what my question is. My question is about the historical phonological processes that change je to jo in certain environments. You wouldn't ask a grammarian about these kinds of concerns. I have already asked several experts and Russian grammarians are too close to the language, they can't look at it objectively. If you look at Russian exchange you'll find several other questions with very inferior answers explaining that е becomes ё in certain places but not WHY. – Ryan Ward Dec 11 '15 at 1:28

In the old Slavic languages, the sound [o] could never follow the palatalized consonants (which in those times also included the hushing consonants Ш [ʃ], Ж [ʒ], Ч [tʃ], Щ [ʃtʲ], and also Ц [tsʲ]), since in the Proto-Slavic language [o] in this position had changed into [e].

In the 12th-16th centuries in the Russian language, the pronunciation of the stressed vowel sound denoted by the letter E changed (consonants before E were palatalized): the stressed sound [e] changed into [o] when before non-palatalized consonants and at the end of a word. This Е underwent no change before Ц (at the time when this law was active, Ц was still a palatalized consonant), and before some consonant clusters (первый, верх, женский - at the time when this law was active, the first consonant in those clusters was palatalized). Sometimes the sound [o] appeared between palatalized consonants, mostly by morphological analogy (о клёне [ə 'klʲonʲe] - similar to клён [klʲon], клёна [klʲonə], etc.; the verbs ending -ёте - similar to -ёт, -ём, the Instrumental case ending -ёю/-ёй - similar to -ою/-ой). The Church Slavonic language and the Church Slavonic borrowings in Russian were not subjected to this law, neither were the borrowings that came into the Russian language later. The sound represented by the letter yat', Ѣ, with rare exceptions, did not change into [o].

When this new [o] after the palatalized consonants appeared, there were no orthographic means to write it and to indicate the palatalization of the previous consonant, it was usually spelled as IO, sometimes as ЬО. In the last decade of the 18th century, the letter Ё was introduced, but until​ now, until the 21st century, the usage of this letter is not obligatory, if you wish, you can write it, if you wish, you can write E instead. This spelling inconsistency affected the pronunciation of some words, mostly personal and geographic names, and also some borrowed common nouns. For example, the original name of Leo Tolstoy was Лёв [lʲof], but since it almost always was written as Лeв, its wrong pronunciation as ​[lʲef] gradually became the dominating one. The opposite also often happened: the words where E should be written and [ʲe] should be pronounced, are mistakingly read with [ʲo], as if Ё is there: some mistakingly pronounce афёра instead of афера, or гренадёр instead of гренадер. The same happened with мушкетёр (from French 'mousquetier') and фуникулёр (from French 'funiculaire'), but here the originally wrong pronunciation is now considered to be standard. In the case of шофёр, the word comes from the French 'chauffeur' [ʃofœr], and the sounds [œ] and [ø] usually written as ö are often spelled as Ё in Russian, all the rules of using Ё in the foreign names and borrowings are very many and very complicated to enumerate them here.

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  • Thanks Yellow Sky, this answer is really good! I'm especially curious about the "appearance by analogy" I think that could be a big chunk of the mystery. Do you happen to have any information about that? – Ryan Ward Dec 11 '15 at 14:29
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    @CayetanoGonçalves - Yes, I have more information about the "appearance by analogy", I just decided not to go into detail in my answer since it is really long even without that. If you wish, I can edit the answer and add more explanations and examples. – Yellow Sky Dec 11 '15 at 15:03
  • Yeah absolutely, I am still quite interested! The first part of your answer also sheds some light as well; [o] is an obvious candidate for non-palatalization in many languages, since it is so different from [i]. Swedish, French, Spanish, Italian and English all have palatalized variants on c or k: [k] after high-ish and/or front-ish vowels. Some of them are [s], [tʃ], [θ]. It makes sense that in Russian we would likewise not find a palatalized variants of letters before [o]. But the iotified [o] (ё) may have emerged after the palatalization system was more stable? – Ryan Ward Dec 11 '15 at 15:57
  • @CayetanoGonçalves - OK, I'll add more info. As for the palatalization system, it was well-established already in Proto-Slavic, later Slavic languages showed only its development, reduction or increase of the number of the palatalized consonants. – Yellow Sky Dec 11 '15 at 16:40

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