Belarusian Phonology
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Belarusian Phonology

The phonological system of the modern Belarusian language consists of at least 44 phonemes: 5 vowels and 39 consonants. Consonants may also be geminated. There is not absolute agreement on the number of phonemes, so that rarer or contextually variant sounds are included by some scholars.[]

Many consonants may form pairs that differ only in palatalization (called hard vs soft consonants, the latter being represented in the IPA with the symbol ⟨?⟩). In some of such pairs, the place of articulation is additionally changed (see distinctive features below). There are also unpaired consonants that have no corollary in palatalization.

Distinctive features

As an East Slavic language, Belarusian phonology is very similar to both Russian and Ukrainian phonology. The primary differences are:[1]

  • Akannye (Belarusian: ) - the merger of unstressed /o/ into /a/. The pronunciation of the merged vowel is a clear open front unrounded vowel [a], including after soft consonants and /j/. In standard Russian akanye, the merger happens only after hard consonants; after soft consonants, /o/ merges with /i/ instead. Ukrainian does not have this merger at all. In Belarusian, unlike Russian, this change is reflected in spelling: compare ? "head", pronounced , with Russian ? and Ukrainian ? .
  • Lack of ikanye (the Russian sound change in which unstressed /e/ has merged with /i/, and unstressed /a/ and /o/ with /i/ after soft consonants). Instead, unstressed /e/ merges with /a/. Compare Belarusian with Russian and Ukrainian .
  • Unlike in Russian, there is no emphasized separation after the /j/ in the pronunciation of the iotified /ja/, /jo/, /je/ and /ji/.[2] This means palatalized consonants are always palatalized and iotification is not separable as in Russian.
  • Tsyekannye (Belarusian: ?) and dzyekannye (Belarusian: ) - the pronunciation of Old East Slavic /t?, d?/ as soft affricates [ts?, dz?]. This occurs in "ten", pronounced ['dzs?ats?]; compare Russian ? , Ukrainian ? . (Many Russian speakers similarly affricate phonemic /t?, d?/, but this is not universal and not written.)
  • Relatively stronger palatalization of /s?/ and /z?/.[3]
  • Postalveolar consonants are all hard (laminal retroflex) while Russian and Ukrainian have both hard and soft postalveolars.
  • /r?/ has hardened and merged with /r/.
  • Unlike in standard Russian, historical /l/ before consonants has merged with /v/ and is pronounced [w]. This is reflected in the spelling, which uses a special symbol known as "non-syllabic u" (Belarusian: ? ae),[4] written as an ⟨u⟩ with a breve diacritic on top of it: ⟨?⟩,??⟩.?
  • Lenition of /?/ to /?/ similarly to Ukrainian, Czech, or Slovak, and unlike Russian and Polish.
  • Proto-Slavic /e/ shifted to Belarusian and Russian /o/ before a hard consonant. Compare the Belarusian word for "green", [z?a'ln?], and the Russian word, ? [z'ln?j], with Ukrainian [ze'l?n?j].

Unlike in Russian, Belarusian spelling closely represents surface phonology rather than the underlying morphophonology. For example, akannye, tsyekannye, dzyekannye and the [w] allophone of /v/ and /l/ are all written. The representation of akannye in particular introduces striking differences between Russian and Belarusian orthography.[example needed]


Front Central Back
Close i [?] u
Mid ?[5] ?
Open a
Belarusian Cyrillic script Belarusian Latin script IPA Description Belarusian example
i i /i/ close front unrounded ?i ('leaf')
?[6] ? /?/ mid-central (unstressed), open-mid front unrounded (stressed) ?? ('this one')
e ?, ie, je [?e?] Palatalises preceding consonant followed by mid front unrounded vowel [example needed]
? y [?] close central unrounded ??? ('mouse')
a, ? a /a/ open central unrounded ??? ('executioner')
?, ? u /u/ close back rounded ??? ('noise')
?, ? o /o/ [?] open-mid back rounded ??? ('cat')

As with Russian, [?] is not a separate phoneme, but an allophone of /i/ occurring after non-palatalized consonants.[7]


The consonants of Belarusian are as follows:[8]

Labial Alveolar,
Retroflex Dorsal
plain pal. plain pal. plain pal.
Nasal m m? n? n
Stop p
Affricate ts?

Fricative f
(w) l (j) j
Trill r

The rare phonemes /?/ and // are present only in several borrowed words: ['?anak], ['?uzik]. Other borrowed words have the fricative pronunciation: [ea'?raf?ija] ('geography'). In addition, [?] and [] are allophones of /k/ and /k?/ respectively, when voiced by regressive assimilation, as in [va?'zal] 'train station'.

In the syllable coda, /v/ is pronounced [w] or [u?], forming diphthongs, and is spelled ⟨?⟩.[9][w] sometimes derives etymologically from /l/, as with ? [v?wk] ('wolf'), which comes from Proto-Slavic *v?lk?. Similar to Ukrainian, there are also alternations between /w/ and /l/ in the past tense of verbs:[10] for example, /'dumaw/ "(he) thought" versus ? /'dumala/ "(she) thought". This evolved historically from a spelling with -? () which vocalized like the ? in Polish (cognate duma?, "he mused").

The geminated variations are transcribed as follows:

  • [pada'roa]
  • [z?z?ats?]
  • [sta'?oddz?e]
  • ? [ka'xan?n?e]
  • ? [ras?'s?at]
  • [l?ixa'l?etts?e]
  • [s?ar?dn?a'v?ett?a].


  1. ^ Sussex & Cubberly (2006:53)
  2. ^ Padluzhny (1989:53)
  3. ^ "Stronger than in Russian, weaker than in Polish", per ? ?...
  4. ^ Padluzhny (1989:54)
  5. ^ Blinava (1991)
  6. ^ Blinava (1991)
  7. ^ Mayo (2002:890)
  8. ^ Mayo (2002:891)
  9. ^ Young, S. (2006). "Belorussian". Encyclopedia of language and linguistics (2nd ed.).
  10. ^ Mayo (2002:899)


Further reading

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