In Russian phonology there are [ʂ ʐ], while in Ukrainian phonology there are [ʃ ʒ]. The two sets sound quite identical phonetically, while the articulation positions of the two sets are different. So, do Russian/Ukrainian bilinguals or other speakers who daily switch between the two languages also switch between the sound pair [ʂ ʐ] and [ʃ ʒ], when they switch from the one language to the other? or does one individual usually have one fixed and stable pronunciation manner throughout their life? or could it become a free variation between the two sets?

And I think about, the two sounds sound quite similar on their own, while the identicality may be disillusioned by a following /i/.

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    As someone who is a native Russian speaker who knows Ukrainian I assure you that in both languages those sounds are indistinguishable in that sense that speaker is not making any effort, conscious or unconscious, to make the claimed distinction. The only difference is that in Ukrainian one can have palatalized version like шi / жi which is extremely hard to pronounce to Russian monolingual speaker but that's a slightly different story.
    – shabunc
    Commented Dec 28, 2020 at 22:40
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    @JKlen again, in some dialects it's not ʃtʃ but ɕ
    – shabunc
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 13:19
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    @shabunc I think you should add your initial comment as an answer too. Also, I once asked a Ukrainian about the difference between theirs and the Russian ш and the answer I got was "The pronunciation is the same in both languages", so my experience also confirms your answer.
    – MCCCS
    Commented Dec 29, 2020 at 19:12
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    @JKlen Danish has both: [ɕ] is the output form of /sj/, while /ʃ/ is a marginal phoneme found in (English) loan words – some people do merge them, but that’s true of a lot of distinct phonemes in a lot of languages. According to Wikipedia, Lower Sorbian has both hard and soft postalveolars, so both /ʃ/ and /ɕ/; and Tatar and Kabardic definitely have both as fully-fledged phonemes with different letters used to represent them. Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 11:55
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    @JKlen Well, I don’t think that’s true. Sure, there are slips that cause phonemes to get muddled up, but this is the case with all phonemes – that doesn’t make them less phonemic. I have no trouble distinguishing /ʃ ɕ/ in Danish or /ʂ ɕ/ in Mandarin, even in rapid speech, any more than I have trouble distinguishing /s z/ in English or /j ɥ/ in French or Mandarin. There are quite a few native speakers of Norwegian who distinguish [ɕ ʃ ʂ] as well, also in rapid speech, though [ç ʃ ʂ] is probably more common. Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 13:29

1 Answer 1


The difference between the two pairs is substantial.
Native speakers intuitively use phones so not to get trapped into the adjacent phoneme.

The differences between [ʃ ʒ] and [ʂ ʐ] are pretty much noticeable. To give you a taste, check this YouTube video. It is spoken mainly in Ukrainian, and there are several [ʃ], like in пішов ("went") (time tag 0:03, 0:12, 0:15, and so on). It also has Russian phrase at the end which contains шесть ("six") (time tag 2:04).

The Russian [ʂ ʐ] can stretch to its extreme. Normally, while the tongue is retracted, it is not curled backward, and the primary articulator is the front of the blade of the tongue. However, some speakers take it to extreme, their tongue is curled back so that the underside of the tongue acts as the primary articulator. Ludmila Berlinskaya is known for her extreme [ʂ ʐ]; check these two songs she performed: YouTube video one, two.
I'm not aware about such phenomenon in Ukrainian.

I don't have a corpus of words spoken in both languages, but check how Google Translate pronounces words like шишка, шашки, шершень ("cone, checkers, hornet") or жолудь, жарко ("oaknut, hot") in both languages. To me, the difference is evident, meaning that I can tell the language by hearing the sound.

Daresay, all Ukrainian Shibboleth words are based on fricatives and/or palatalized consonants.

It is also worth noting that Eastern dialects of Ukrainian underwent a heavy influence of forced russification, so many people — even bilingual speakers — would not see any difference between the phonemes in question.

Now we get to bilingual speakers.

We should keep in mind that people speak phones, not phonemes. A listener would "map" a phone they heard to a particular phoneme of the language. When we speak, our goal is not to produce an ideal phone; the only thing we need is to make sure that the listener mapped it the way we intended.

In both languages, phones undergo weakening, especially in rapid colloquial speech. You intuitively feel the margin where to stop.

In other words, when you speak Russian, in the range [ ɕ ʃ ʂ ], anything reasonably above the [ɕ] would be perceived as [ʂ], while in Ukrainian the same phone would map to [ʃ].
The same applies to the range of [ ʑ ʒ ʐ ].

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    Thank you. Very clear and interesting.
    – jlawler
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 17:25

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