Ukrainian phonology

This article deals with the phonology of the standard Ukrainian language.


Ukrainian vowel chart, from Pompino-Marschall, Steriopolo & Żygis (2016:353)

Ukrainian has six vowel phonemes: /i, u, ɪ, ɛ, ɔ, ɑ/.

/ɪ/ may be classified as a retracted high-mid front vowel,[1] transcribed in narrow IPA as [e̠], [ë], [ɪ̞] or [ɘ̟].

Front Central Back
Close i ɪ u
Mid ɛ ɔ
Open ɑ

Ukrainian has no phonemic distinction between long and short vowels; however, unstressed vowels are somewhat reduced in time and, as a result, in quality.[2]

  • In unstressed position /ɑ/ has an allophone [ɐ].[3]
  • Unstressed /ɔ/ has an allophone [o] that slightly approaches /u/ if it is followed by a syllable with /u/ or /i/.[3]
  • Unstressed /u/ has an allophone [ʊ].[3]
  • Unstressed /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ approach [e] that may or may not be a common allophone for the two phonemes.[3]
  • /i/ has no notable variation in unstressed position.[3]


Labial Dental/Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Hard Soft
Nasal m n
Stop pb td kɡ
Affricate t͡sd͡z t͡sʲd͡zʲ t͡ʃd͡ʒ
Fricative f sz ʃʒ x ɦ
Approximant ʋ~w l j
Trill r

In the table above, if there are two consonants in a row, the one to the right is voiced, and the one to the left is voiceless.

Phonetic details:

  • There is no complete agreement about the phonetic nature of /ɦ/. According to some linguists, it is pharyngeal [ʕ][4] ([ħ] [or sometimes [x] in weak positions] when devoiced).[4] According to others, it is glottal [ɦ].[5][6][7]
  • Word-finally, /m/, /l/, /r/ are voiceless [], [], [] after voiceless consonants.[8] In case of /r/, it only happens after /t/.[9]
  • /w/ is most commonly bilabial [β̞] before vowels but can alternate with labiodental [ʋ] (most commonly before /i/),[10] and can be a true labiovelar [w] before /ɔ/ or /u/.[3] It is also vocalized to [u̯] before a consonant at the beginning of a word, after a vowel before a consonant or after a vowel at the end of a word.[10][11] If /w/ occurs before a voiceless consonant and not after a vowel, the voiceless articulation [ʍ] is also possible.[3]
  • /r/ often becomes a single tap [ɾ] in the spoken language.
  • /t, d, dʲ, n, nʲ, s, sʲ, z, zʲ, t͡s, t͡sʲ, d͡z, d͡zʲ/ are dental [, , d̪ʲ, , n̪ʲ, , s̪ʲ, , z̪ʲ, t̪͡s̪, t̪͡s̪ʲ, d̪͡z̪, d̪͡z̪ʲ],[12] while /tʲ, l, lʲ, r, rʲ/ are alveolar [, l, , r, ].[13]
  • The group of palatalized consonants consists of 10 phonemes: /j, dʲ, zʲ, lʲ, nʲ, rʲ, sʲ, tʲ, t͡sʲ, d͡zʲ/. All except /j/ have a soft and a hard variant. There is no agreement about the nature of the palatalization of /rʲ/; sometimes, it is considered as a semi-palatalized[clarification needed] consonant.[14] Labial consonants /p, b, m, f/ have just semi-palatalized versions, and /w/ has only the hard variant.[15] The palatalization of the consonants /ɦ, ɡ, ʒ, k, x, t͡ʃ, ʃ, d͡ʒ/ is weak; they are usually treated rather as the allophones of the respective hard consonants, not as separate phonemes.[16]
  • Unlike Russian and several other Slavic languages, Ukrainian does not have final devoicing for most obstruents, as can be seen, for example, in віз "cart", which is pronounced About this sound[ˈʋiz] , not *[ˈʋis].[3]
  • The fricative articulations [v, ɣ] are voiced allophones of /f, x/ respectively if they are voiced before other voiced consonants. (See #Consonant assimilation.) /x, ɦ/ do not form a perfect voiceless-voiced phoneme pair, but their allophones may overlap if /ɦ/ is devoiced to [x] (rather than [h]). In the standard language, /f, w/ do not form a voiceless-voiced phoneme pair at all, as [v] does not phonemically overlap with /w/, and [ʍ] (voiceless allophone of /w/) does not phonemically overlap with /f/.[3]

When two or more consonants occur word-finally, a vowel is epenthesized under the following conditions:[17] Given a consonantal grouping C1(ь)C2(ь), C being any consonant. The vowel is inserted between the two consonants and after the ь. A vowel is not inserted unless C2 is either /k/, /w/, /l/, /m/, /r/, or /t͡s/. Then:

  1. If C1 is /w/, /ɦ/, /k/, or /x/, the epenthisized vowel is always [o]
    1. No vowel is epenthesized if the /w/ is derived from a Common Slavic vocalic *l, for example, /wɔwk/ (see below)
  2. If C2 is /l/, /m/, /r/, or /t͡s/, then the vowel is /ɛ/.
  3. The combinations, /-stw/ /-sk/ are not broken up.
  4. If the C1 is /j/ (й), the above rules may apply. However, both forms (with and without the fill vowel) often exist.

Alternation of vowels and semivowels

The semivowels /j/ and /w/ alternate with the vowels /i/ and /u/ respectively. The semivowels are used in syllable codas: after a vowel and before a consonant, either within a word or between words:[citation needed]

він іде́ /ˈwin iˈdɛ/ ('he's coming')
вона́ йде /wɔˈnɑ ˈjdɛ/ ('she's coming')
він і вона́ /ˈwin i wɔˈnɑ/ ('he and she')
вона́ й він /wɔˈnɑ j ˈwin/ ('she and he');
Утоми́вся вже /utɔˈmɪwsʲɑ ˈwʒɛ/ ('already gotten tired')
Уже́ втоми́вся /uˈʒɛ wtɔˈmɪwsʲɑ/ ('already gotten tired')
Він утоми́вся. /ˈwin utɔmɪwsʲɑ/ ('He's gotten tired.')
Він у ха́ті. /ˈwin u ˈxɑt⁽ʲ⁾i/ ('He's inside the house.')
Вона́ в ха́ті. /wɔˈnɑ w ˈxɑt⁽ʲ⁾i/ ('She's inside the house.')
підучи́ти /piduˈt͡ʃɪtɪ/ ('to learn/teach (a little more)')
ви́вчити /ˈwɪwt͡ʃɪtɪ/ ('to have learnt')

That feature distinguishes Ukrainian phonology remarkably from Russian and Polish, two related languages with many cognates.

Consonant assimilation

There is no word-final or assimilatory devoicing in Ukrainian. There is, however, assimilatory voicing: voiceless obstruents are voiced when preceding voiced obstruents. (But the reverse is not true, and sonorants do not trigger voicing.)[18]

The exceptions are легко, вогко, нігті, кігті, дьогтю, дігтяр, and derivatives: /ɦ/ may then be devoiced to [h] or even merge with /x/.[3]

Unpalatalized dental consonants /n, t, d, t͡s, d͡z, s, z, r, l/ become palatalized if they are followed by other palatalized dental consonants /nʲ, tʲ, dʲ, t͡sʲ, d͡zʲ, sʲ, zʲ, rʲ, lʲ/. They are also typically palatalized before the vowel /i/. Historically, contrasting unpalatalized and palatalized articulations of consonants before /i/ were possible and more common, with the absence of palatalization usually reflecting that regular sound changes in the language made an /i/ vowel actually evolve from an older, non-palatalizing /ɔ/ vowel. Ukrainian grammar still allows for /i/ to alternate with either /ɛ/ or /ɔ/ in the regular inflection of certain words. The absence of consonant palatalization before /i/ has become rare, however, but is still allowed.[3]

While the labial consonants /m, p, b, f, w/ cannot be phonemically palatalized, they can still precede one of the iotating vowels є і ьо ю я, when many speakers replace the would-be sequences *|mʲ, pʲ, bʲ, fʲ, wʲ| with the consonant clusters /mj, pj, bj, fj, wj/, a habit also common in nearby Polish.[3] The separation of labial consonant from /j/ is already hard-coded in many Ukrainian words (and written as such with an apostrophe), such as in В'ячеслав /wjɑt͡ʃɛˈslɑw/ "Vyacheslav", ім'я /iˈmjɑ/ "name" and п'ять /pjɑtʲ/ "five".[citation needed] The combinations of labials with iotating vowels are written without the apostrophe after consonants in the same morpheme, e. g. свято /ˈsʲw(j)ɑto/ "holiday", цвях "nail" (but зв'язок "union", where з- is a prefix), and in some loanwords, e. g. бюро "bureau".

Dental sibilant consonants /t͡s, d͡z, s, z/ become palatalized before any of the labial consonants /m, p, b, f, w/ followed by one of the iotating vowels є і ьо ю я, but the labial consonants themselves cannot retain phonemic palatalization. Thus, words like свято /ˈsʲw(j)ɑto/ "holiday" and сват /swɑt/ "matchmaker" retain their separate pronunciations (whether or not an actual /j/ is articulated).[3]

Sibilant consonants (including affricates) in clusters assimilate with the place of articulation and palatalization state of the last segment in a cluster. The most common case of such assimilation is the verbal ending -шся in which |ʃsʲɑ| assimilates into /sʲːɑ/.[3]

Dental plosives /t, tʲ, d, dʲ/ assimilate to affricate articulations before coronal affricates or fricatives /t͡s, d͡z, s, z, t͡sʲ, d͡zʲ, sʲ, zʲ, t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ, ʃ, ʒ/ and assume the latter consonant's place of articulation and palatalization. If the sequences |t.t͡s, d.d͡z, t.t͡sʲ, d.d͡zʲ, t.t͡ʃ, d.d͡ʒ| regressively assimilate to */t͡s.t͡s, d͡z.d͡z, t͡sʲ.t͡sʲ, d͡zʲ.d͡zʲ, t͡ʃ.t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ.d͡ʒ/, they gain geminate articulations /t͡sː, d͡zː, t͡sʲː, d͡zʲː, t͡ʃː, d͡ʒː/.[3]

Deviations of spoken language

There are some typical deviations which may appear in spoken language (often under the influence of Russian);[19] usually they are considered as phonetic errors by pedagogists.[20]

  • [ɨ] for /ɪ/
  • [t͡ɕ] for /t͡ʃ/ and [ɕt͡ɕ] or even [ɕː] for [ʃt͡ʃ]
  • [rʲ] for /r/, [bʲ] for /b/, [vʲ] for /w/ (Ха́рків, Об, любо́в’ю)
  • [v] or [f] (the latter in syllable-final position) for [w ~ u̯ ~ β̞ ~ ʋ ~ ʍ] (любо́в, роби́в, вари́ти, вода́),[10] in effect also turning /f, w/ into a true voiceless-voiced phoneme pair, which is not the case in the standard language
  • Final-obstruent devoicing

Historical phonology

Modern standard Ukrainian descends from Common Slavic and is characterized by a number of sound changes and morphological developments, many of which are shared with other East Slavic languages. These include:

  1. In a newly closed syllable, that is, a syllable that ends in a consonant, Common Slavic *o and *e mutated into /i/ if the following vowel was one of the yers (*ŭ or *ĭ).[citation needed]
  2. Pleophony: The Common Slavic combinations, *CoRC and *CeRC, where R is either *r or *l, become in Ukrainian:
    1. CorC gives CoroC (Common Slavic *borda gives Ukrainian boroda, борода́)
    2. ColC gives ColoC (Common Slavic *bolto gives Ukrainian boloto, боло́то)
    3. CerC gives CereC (Common Slavic *berza gives Ukrainian bereza, бере́за)
    4. CelC gives ColoC (Common Slavic *melko gives Ukrainian moloko, молоко́)
  3. The Common Slavic nasal vowel *ę is reflected as /jɑ/; a preceding labial consonant generally was not palatalized after this, and after a postalveolar it became /ɑ/. Examples: Common Slavic *pętĭ became Ukrainian /pjɑtʲ/ (п’ять); Common Slavic *telę became Ukrainian /tɛˈlʲɑ/ (теля́); and Common Slavic *kurĭčę became Ukrainian /kurˈt͡ʃɑ/ (курча́).[citation needed]
  4. Common Slavic *ě (Cyrillic ѣ), generally became Ukrainian /i/ except:[citation needed]
    1. word-initially, where it became /ji/: Common Slavic *(j)ěsti became Ukrainian ї́сти /ˈjistɪ/
    2. after the postalveolar sibilants where it became /ɑ/: Common Slavic *ležěti became Ukrainian /lɛˈʒɑtɪ/ (лежа́ти)
  5. Common Slavic *i and *y are both reflected in Ukrainian as /ɪ/[citation needed]
  6. The Common Slavic combination -CĭjV, where V is any vowel, became -CʲːV, except:[citation needed]
    1. if C is labial or /r/ where it became -CjV
    2. if V is the Common Slavic *e, then the vowel in Ukrainian mutated to /ɑ/, e.g., Common Slavic *žitĭje became Ukrainian /ʒɪˈtʲːɑ/ (життя́)
    3. if V is Common Slavic *ĭ, then the combination became /ɛj/, e.g., genitive plural in Common Slavic *myšĭjĭ became Ukrainian /mɪˈʃɛj/ (мише́й)
    4. if one or more consonants precede C then there is no doubling of the consonants in Ukrainian
  7. Sometime around the early thirteenth century, the voiced velar stop lenited to [ɣ] (except in the cluster *zg).[21] Within a century, /ɡ/ was reintroduced from Western European loanwords and, around the sixteenth century, [ɣ] debuccalized to [ɦ].[22]
  8. Common Slavic combinations *dl and *tl were simplified to /l/, for example, Common Slavic *mydlo became Ukrainian /ˈmɪlɔ/ (ми́ло).[citation needed]
  9. Common Slavic *ǔl and *ĭl became /ɔw/. For example, Common Slavic *vĭlkǔ became /wɔwk/ (вовк) in Ukrainian.[citation needed]