I have been studying about Russian phonology and its phonemes and I wanted to ask a question: are there any minimal pairs between [ɨ] and [i] or are they just allophonic variations of the phoneme /i/?


The term "minimal pair" means "pair of words distinguished only by the selection of a single phone". As far as I know there is a single minimal pair, икать "to pronounce unstressed е (je) as и (i), the Standard Russian pronunciation, rather than as е (je)" versus ыкать "to make the sound of the letter ы". Otherwise, there are no minimal pairs, because the vowel distinction simultaneously correlates with the preceding consonant ([i] iff preceding C is palatalized). There is a chicken-egg question there, so it is still possible that [ɨ] is an allophone of /i/ appearing after a non-palatalized consonant. Minimal pairs are based on distribution of phones in the surface transcription, and the surface transcription is supposed to reflect the phonetic facts, not the phonological analysis based on those facts (that would be obviously circular). Apart from that verb pair, there are non-Slavic place names with initial Ы, but there would not be any minimal pairs involving such words.

  • Note that both words in the minimal pair have the stress on the first syllable. One of them has a homograph икáть (to hiccup) which is much more common in speach, but does not contribute to a minimal pair because of the different accentuation. – J-mster Jan 23 '18 at 13:22
  • What about after consonants which do not palatalise, or after ь? I still can't think of any examples. My feeling is that Ы only has marginal status as a phoneme. – OmarL Jan 23 '18 at 14:39
  • @Wilson: After consonants that do not palatalize, there is a neutralization. The neutralized phone is generally identified with [ɨ], but as far as I know it is not quite as back as [ɨ] after consonants that do have palatalized counterparts. It is usually written with the letter "и", though. After "ь", I don't think [ɨ] ever occurs. The sequence ьи seems to be pronounced [ji]. – brass tacks Jan 23 '18 at 16:19
  • @Wilson: To be more explicit, the vowel is identified with [ɨ] after back consonants that do not palatalize: [ʂ], [ʐ], [t͡s], but identified with [i] after the always-palatalized consonants [t͡ɕ] and [ɕː]--as might be expected. See on Russian SE russian.stackexchange.com/questions/528/… It certainly seems to be accurate to say that a phonemic distinction between /ɨ/ and /i/ is marginal to nonexistent. – brass tacks Jan 23 '18 at 16:29

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