Phonetic Spelling for Ukrainian

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a universal system of signs for writing sounds of any language, regardless of its spelling system. The practical value of the IPA alphabet is undeniable. It is the key to learning and reproducing the sound system of any language in the world.

In the following table and figure you can see how the phonology and phonetics of Ukrainian language are represented within the means of IPA.

Table 1: Ukrainian consonant chart, from Pompino-Marschall, Bernd; Steriopolo, Elena; Żygis, Marzena (2016), "Ukrainian", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, adjusted

Table 1 shows the consonants. Rows indicate the manner of articulation, while columns indicate its place. The consonants come in pairs of voiced (on the right side) and unvoiced (on the left side) sounds. Sounds in brackets are the semi-palatalized consonants. More about them you may find in the Critical Report.

The following figure presents the vowel system of Ukrainian language, using the IPA chart of vowels.

Figure 1: Ukrainian vowel chart, modified IPA chart of vowels.

Figure 1 depicts the vowels. The allophones of vowels in unstressed positions are put in brackets. Further explanations about them are in the Critical Report. This figure indicates the height (close – open) and the position (front – back) of the tongue. While singing, the position of the vowels may vary due to the singing tradition, voice type, and other individual characteristics.

In classical singing, the vowels in brackets are used less frequently or not at all. In our presentation, we refer to the article on the phonology of the Ukrainian language from the handbook of the International Phonetic Association, written by Bernd Pompino-Marschall, Elena Steriopolo, and Marzena Zygis. Depending on the author, the position of [ɑ] tends to be in the middle near the low schwa [ɐ], also in classical singing as in German.

Even though in normal speech people often not tend to pay a lot attention to articulation, while singing it is essential to form all the sounds correctly. The singer's articulation plays an important role in this, as it directly affects the formation of a beautiful and expressive vocal tone.

When forming a clear diction, singers must follow the necessary norms and rules. Thus, it is crucial that the ending of a phrase always requires an active perfect sound, without "swallowing" the final sounds. It is also important to admit that in Ukrainian consonants never become unvoiced at the end of the word or syllable, as it might happen in other languages, for example in German or Russian.

Orthoepic norms of the Ukrainian language require a solid pronunciation of all consonants before the vowels /ɑ, ɛ, ɪ, ɔ, u/. This rule is especially crucial for hissing consonants /ʒJ, ʧJ, ʃJ, ʤJ/. However, the palatalization of those consonants in positions before /ɑ, ɛ, ɪ, ɔ, u/ may occur in everyday communication because of the influence of the Russian language, such pronunciation is considered wrong due to the orthoepic norms of the Ukrainian language.

It is necessary to add a few comments about the consonant <в> in Ukrainian. The main representation of it in the IPA is phoneme /ʋ/. However, the consonant also has several allophones, which are mainly used in non-classical singing. It can appear as semi-palatalized voiced labiodental approximant – [ʋJ] in cases when it precedes /i/, soft sign or jotated vowel without an apostrophe: вінок [ʋJnɔk], цвьох [tsʲʋJɔx], святий [sʲʋJɑtɪj]. As a non-syllabic [u] – [u̯] it may be represented inside the word after a vowel and before the consonant, at the end of the word after the vowel or at the beginning of the word before another consonant: ластівка [lɐstʲiu̯kɑ], схопив [sxɔpɪu̯], ввечері [u̯ʋɛtʃeri]. It could also be pronounced as voiced labial-velar approximant – [w], when it comes before rounded vowels /ɔ, u/: вовк [wɔu̯k], вухо [wuxo]. Another allophone is voiceless labial-velar approximant [ʍ]: вперше [ʍpɛrʃe]. The pronunciation of this sound can also be influenced by the musical context. The best way to catch the difference is to listen to the native speaker.

In principle, we do not assume that the phonetic transcriptions for choir and solo singing differ, apart from minor exceptions. The main difference between different types of singing often relates to the vocalization and the use of formants, which cannot be expressed with the IPA, or only to a limited extent. Further linguistically relevant procedures and decisions can be found in the Critical Report.

Critical Report

The IPA-transcription was highlighted with bold text, enabling us to omit square brackets or slashes that usually mark a phonetic or phonological transcription.

Primary and secondary stresses are assigned according to stresses in spoken words. They do not necessarily have to correspond to the musical phrase. Accentuations are not indicated, but usually result from the musical phrase.

Syllables are not, as usual, marked by punctuation, but with hyphens. As in the orthographic text, we also use underscores at the word ends to facilitate the reading of the transcription. When consonants occur at the end of a syllable in the middle of a word, they are systematically moved to the onset of the following syllable. This rule is only deviated from in exceptional cases, such as the combination with extremely short note values. This approach becomes particularly comprehensible in combination with longer note values and melismas: Many singers aim at staying on sonorous sounds like vowels as long as possible.

This critical report is not a full description of Ukrainian phonology and phonetics. However, some moments in the previous chapter need further comments about some fundamental philological decisions.

The first moment that needs to be clarified is the phenomenon of semi-palatalization. The palatalization of labials /bJ, ʋJ, mJ, pJ, fJ/, velars /ɡJ, kJ, xJ/, glottal /ɦJ/, and post-alveolar /ʒJ, ʧJ, ʃJ, ʤJ/ is quite weak. In different sources they could be called semi-palatalized, semi-soft, half-soft or half-palatalized. Basically, those are the allophones of the corresponding hard consonants, but not the separate phonemes. Although the difference between these allophones and hard phonemes is not that important when they occur before /i/, it is extremely crucial in cases when these consonants precede jotated vowels without an apostrophe. As IPA does not have a special mark for semi-palatalization, in our editions those allophones would be represented with a superscript dotless ‘j’, e.g. /pJ/ in order to distinguish them from the palatalized phonemes. For this we follow a suggestion by Buk et al. (2006).

Another issue that requires further explanations is vowels and their allophones. There are six vowel phonemes in Ukrainian. They are /ɑ, ɛ, ɪ, i, ɔ, u/. Although in Ukrainian there is no phonemic distinction between long and short vowels, still there is a difference in pronunciation of vowels in stressed and unstressed positions. As already mentioned, this is especially true for non-classical music. As you may have seen in the Figure 1, the unstressed vowels tend to be more centralized. Phoneme /ɑ/ in unstressed position is represented with allophone [ɐ], /ɔ/ with an allophone [o], and /u/ with an allophone [ʊ]. The main problem occurs in defining the difference between unstressed /ɛ/ and /ɪ/. In our transcriptions we would use allophone [e] in both cases as it seems the right way to represent this sound. Moreover, this way is suggested in most of the texts, dedicated to this topic. More about Ukrainian vowels and their allophones you may read in “Ukrainian vowel phones in the IPA context” by Maksym Vakulenko.

A special feature of Ukrainian are geminates, i.e., elongated consonants, which can be formed by the meeting of two identical consonants, even across syllable boundaries, and which must be considered especially when singing. According to Bratishko (2018) “It is particularly important in singing, as it serves one of the ways of expressing emotions and feelings through the text to create a compelling performance.” (p. 62)

Intonation features and logical accents are mostly dictated by the literary text of the song. Thus, the pronunciation of vowel phonemes, which are characterized by maximum length in singing, should always correspond to specific tasks of the vocal cantilena. Consonant and jotated phonemes, on the other hand, tend to pronounce more instantly and explosively. In order not to disturb the cantilena, consonant sounds (and jotated) must be pronounced quickly, following the rules of pronunciation of open syllables. According to these rules, there are no so-called "closed" syllables in singing. It means that syllables in the poetic text of a song should not be "closed" by a consonant sound (phoneme). If there is such a syllable, the consonant that "closes" it must join the next syllable in the process of singing. To make it easier, in our editions such consonants are moved to the following syllables automatically.


Further reading

Maksym Vakulenko: »Ukrainian vowel phones in the IPA context«, in: GOVOR 35/2 (2018), S. 189-213 (online:

Buk et al. (2008): Some properties of the Ukrainian writing system.

Pompino-Marschall, Bernd; Steriopolo, Elena; Żygis, Marzena (2016), "Ukrainian", Journal of the International Phonetic Association.





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