The Russian language and my own language have something in common - they are very rich and nuanced lexically, but not rich phonetically at all. There are even numerous parodies making fun of the Russian phonology because of that (e.g., this one).

I am curious as to whether the Russian language has always been that poor phonetically or got phonetically simplified over time. Languages indeed can get phonetically simplified: for example, the Turkish language had the voiced counterpart of the 'h' sound and has the corresponding letter, ğ, which nowadays has no own sound, and the English language is predicted to lose the 'th' sound by 2066.

My question is this: Are there any extinct Russian phonetic sounds? If so, what are some examples?

I will now make a few remarks to make my question more specific.

First of all, I am interested in sounds that ceased to exist rather than changed over time to survive as modified variants. For example, if people stopped pronouncing a certain sound in all words containing it, as happened with the Turkish ğ, then it is an extinct sound. Also, a sound is extinct if it got replaced in all words containing it by a different sound that had already been existing in the language as a separate sound. But if a sound just evolved, always staying as a separate sound and not becoming indistinguishable from any other sound of the language, then what it was in the past is not an extinct sound for the purposes of my question.

In other words, please consider sounds as evolutionists consider animal species. If an animal species evolved into something existing today, it is not extinct, even if it now looks very differently from how it looked before. But if it truly ceased to exist at a certain point of time, then it is extinct.

Second, I feel I need to define the Russian language, because there have been various Slavic ethnic groups living in what is now Russia. For the purposes of my question, let us define the Russian language as the language spoken by people who formed a linguistically uniform group living in the past thousand years in and around what is now Moscow, as well as by their ancestors, wherever they migrated to what is now Moscow from. In other words, just consider the Muscovite version of the language and trace back its history.

Third, I feel I should specify the history time frame, but instead I would like to ask you to just trace things back to the point at which you can find extinct sounds. My question is thus not a broad request for all extinct sounds; I just want some examples. The later the sound disappeared the better.

Finally, to illustrate what I am looking for, I would like to give a few examples of sounds absent in the Russian language:

  • th in English as well as dh and th in Albanian, i.e., voiced and voiceless interdental consonants,

  • ğ in Old Turkish, i.e., the voiced counterpart of h (звонкая аналогия русского звука х),

  • c in Turkish, i.e., the voiced counterpart of the Russian sound ч.

I want something like this, that is, something absent in modern Russian (albeit not necessarily sounding like any of the sounds listed above), but with evidence of previous existence in Russian.

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    I don't understand why you say that Russian is "not rich phonetically at all" - typically it's analyzed as having 5 vowels and 34 consonants. Jul 2, 2019 at 21:40
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    A good overview of the phonological history of Russian can be found at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Jul 2, 2019 at 21:45
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    a lot of things has changed phonetically, this question is too broad in my opinion (and also provides no evidence of research of any kind) - but let's see what linguistics mods will say. also, honestly, avoid groundless and opinionated claims like "language X is not rich phonetically at all" - while some languages indeed have smaller set of phonemes compared to others - Russian is hardly phonetically simple.
    – shabunc
    Jul 2, 2019 at 21:47
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    Regarding the relative richness of phonemic inventories, I encourage you to check out the World Atlas of Language Structures, wals.info. That is an excellent resource where language features can be compared statistically based on real-world data. For example, WALS Feature 1a is "Consonant inventories", where Russian is rated as "Moderately large" and Turkish as "Average". Feature 2 is "Vowel quality inventories", where Russian is rated as "Average" and Turkish as "Large". So, looking across languages as a whole, both Turkish and Russian have above average-sized phonetic "richness". Jul 2, 2019 at 22:27
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    @Mitsuko I have to disagree with your first sentence. You seem to often make derogatory comments, which are delivered in subtle ways, especially about other countries.
    – user24906
    Jul 3, 2019 at 3:18

3 Answers 3


Two phonological changes that reduced the phoneme inventory in Russian were the loss of yers (ultra-short vowels) and yuses (nasal vowels). None of these sounds occur in the modern language.

The yers were ъ = *[ŭ] and ь = *[ĭ]. The symbols are still used today but no longer indicate a vowel.

The yuses were ѧ = *[ɛ̃], ѫ = *[ɔ̃], ѩ = *[jɛ̃], ѭ = *[jɔ̃]. These symbols are no longer used, and nasal vowels no longer are found in Russian.

Additionally, there was a vowel ѣ = *[e] which was higher than е = *[ɛ], but those vowels have merged into modern е.

In the consonants, ц may have had a palatalized form [t͡sʲ] (still a marginal phoneme), and double consonants have generally degeminated: [t] < *[tt], [f] < *[ff].

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    also, the ѣ sound, also - loss of palatalized ц
    – shabunc
    Jul 2, 2019 at 22:03
  • @shabunc Good points, I will add. Jul 2, 2019 at 22:06
  • Can you give an example of the phoneme ць? Or what do you mean? Jul 3, 2019 at 8:49
  • @Wilson I don't have a great example - just a reference that it occurs in some dialects "The affricate [ts] has no palatalised counterpart in the system of consonants, and its palatalisation, although evident in some regional accents of Russian, is considered emphatically non-standard." - Yanushevska & Buncic, Illustrations of the IPA: Russian. Jul 3, 2019 at 10:38
  • @Wilson it's something that Ukrainian still has - like in word паляниця - this ця is extremely hard to pronounce for a Russian monolingual speaker.
    – shabunc
    Jul 4, 2019 at 8:32

There are plenty of phonemes in the historical antecedent languages, such as Proto-Slavic and Proto-Indo-European, which are not found in modern Russian. Establishing a more recent loss of phoneme which is specifically within Russian is much harder to do. For example, there was an East Slavic ʒ/dʒ contrast, and while dʒ is missing in Russian, I don't know of any evidence that it existed in earlier Russian – it may be assumed that it was lost before Russian emerged as a distinct language. The case of *[æ] ("yat") is also unclear, that is, was there still a vowel pronounced something like [æ ~ ɛ] in earlier Russian, distinct from [e]? Is [æ] really extinct (the vowel in пять is pretty much [æ])?

The other problem is that there are dialects of Russian. Southern Russian has [γ] for [g], so [g] is "extinct", but that's not a feature of Russian in general.

  • What about /h/, notoriously hard for Russians, did it ever exist in the language? And why does Russian have two j letters, ya and yu?
    – vectory
    Jul 2, 2019 at 23:56
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    The distinction between "yat" and E was lost by the 19th century only, in Moscow "yat" used to be pronounced as a kind of /ieː/.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 3, 2019 at 0:04
  • @YellowSky Isn't the distinction still preserved in some dialects? I've heard the recordings of some nothern dialects (Arkhangelsk, Pskov(?) oblast) where you can clearly hear the [ie] in лес and similar words...
    – tum_
    Jul 3, 2019 at 16:38
  • @tum_ - It can well be preserved in some dialects, but it's unlikely that if it's true it's distinct from E in all the positions.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 3, 2019 at 17:04

Perhaps the most Russian phonemes as well the most Russian phonemic oppositions are

ш /ʂ/ vs. щ /ɕː/

ж /ʐ/ vs. жж /ʑː/

[ɕː] and [ʑː] are correspndingly a voiceless and voiced long (geminated) alveolo-palatal sibilant fricative. It seems like no other Slavic language has such phonemes, neither do other European languages. Well, the Italian /ʃ/ is geminated word-internally, but it does not have a non-geminated contrasting phoneme. In Russian, the pairs are really contrasted:

чаша [ˈtɕäʂə] 'cup' vs. чаща [ˈtɕäɕːə] 'dense forest'

дрожи [ˈdroʐɨ] 'of shivering' (Gen. case) vs. дрожжи [ˈdroʑːi] 'yeast'

The phoneme /ʑː/ is rarely pronounced as alveolo-palatal nowadays, most Russian speakers pronounced it as retroflex [ʐː], but it's still geminated, and it's still a distinct and unique Russian phoneme hardly found in other languages.

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    I think OP is asking the opposite question - are there sounds that aren't found in Russian, but used to be? Jul 3, 2019 at 0:02
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    @MarkBeadles - /ʑː/ is such a sound.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 3, 2019 at 0:05

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