Friday, March 14, 2014


The Atlantic has an online article about Russian nutball Vladimir Zhirinovsky wanting to get rid of "the letter ы" because it sounds "nasty" and "only animals make this sound."  Zhirinovsky is reported to have said that the "primitive, Asiatic sound is the reason people don't like us in Europe."

The sound in question, represented by the letter ы in the Cyrillic alphabet, is a high mid/back unrounded vowel, [ɨ] or possibly [ɯ] in the International Phonetic Alphabet.  Zhirinovsky is correct that this sound occurs in any number of Asian languages, including Korean and Japanese; it also occurs in some Native American languages, such as Aymara (Bolivia/Perú), Yanomama (Brazil/Venezuela), and Garifuna (Central America).  He's probably not correct that animals can make it, since it involves raising the back of the tongue toward the soft palate in a way that it is pretty unique to humans.

The problem with getting rid of "the letter ы" is that this letter represents a phoneme in Russian that is distinct from the phoneme represented by the letter и, which is a high front unrounded vowel. The two sounds in question belong to separate phonemes in Russian because they can be found in minimal pairs, the first of which Zhirinovsky himself offers:

мишка    /miška/       'bear'           мышка    /mɨška/        'mouse'
бить        /bit'/           'to beat'        быть        /bɨt'/         'to be'

Because these two vowels are contrastive, asking Russians to ditch one of them would be like asking English speakers to stop using the vowel [ɪ] (as in bit) and just use the vowel [i] (as in beat) in its place.  This is the sort of thing that can happen over generations of natural language change, but it's simply not the sort of thing you can do by command from on high. 

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