On Hard and Soft Velars in Russian: How They May Be Changing and How They Illustrate Linguistic Change

Robert Channon, Purdue University

In this paper I will be examining some cases, which do not obey some commonly accepted rules of Russian phonology and will be using them to speculate on the nature and the indicators of linguistic change.

According to the standard analysis of Russian phonology, all consonants, except the unpaired (for hard/soft) /c, , /, appear only soft in Russian before the front vowel /e/, and the velars in addition appear only soft before /i/. But a variety of contemporary data shows that under certain conditions hard paired consonants can be found before /e/.  While this phenomenon applies primarily to the labial and dental consonants, among which the hard and soft varieties are separate phonemes, it is often thought that it does not apply to the velars, which are not in hard/soft phonemic pairs in Russian, and of which only soft allophones are said to appear before front vowels (/i, e/). As applied to the labial and dental paired phonemes, this phenomenon would represent simply a change in the distribution of the hard member of the pair.

I will draw attention to the fact that the velars also participate in this development, and that under certain conditions the distribution of the hard allophones of the velars is apparently being broadened to include the position before /e/. Moreover, hard velars can be found even in the position before /i/. The occurrences are not numerous and are often dismissed as belonging to various marginal categories. However, the categories and the individual instances are becoming more numerous, and it is not possible to ignore them entirely. If they take hold fully it will mean that the velars, which are currently unitary phonemes with hard and soft allophones, will split into separate hard and soft phonemes.

At the present time these phenomena are still rather circumscribed and are found only under certain conditions, and it is still too early to assert that the phonological system of Russian has already changed in that direction. But it seems that we may be observing the early stages of a phonological change in progress. Whether the phonological system of Russian is actually changing in that direction, or whether it is simply accumulating a number of exceptions to the general rule and the process will be arrested, cannot be predicted and is something that only the further development of Russian can show.

The mechanisms and indicators of linguistic change will also be considered in the paper, using these phenomena as an illustration.