Why does letter E sometimes sound like E and sometimes like Э?


Hi guys

Why do we say "текст" as "tyekst" but "тест" as "test"? Both Е are followed by consonants, and I see examples like this all the time. Why is it like that?

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kasi_kuhn | 0 points - 3 months ago

The rules of reading of a consonant before the Russian letter “e” are ambiguous. It’s a mess, to be honest. Try to check with the pronunciation dictionaries when you come across such words.

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agustin | 0 points - 3 months ago

I doubt that a Russian without some specific education can answer the question. Moreover, not every Russian native knows when it’s correct to say "Е" and when "Э"

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agustin | 0 points - 3 months ago

I found an exhaustive answer to your question on quora, and here is the quote:
 
One of distinguishing features of Russian language is the palatalisation of consonants. For a Russian, all consonants can be either “hard” or “soft”: some foreigners find it very difficult to grasp this difference.
 
However, to complicate the things even further, you can’t understand whether the consonant is “hard” or “soft” by looking at the letter itself: to reveal the secret, you should look at the following letter. If the consonant is followed by nothing at all or by another consonant, it means it is hard. It is also hard when it is followed by the “hard sign” Ъ or by one of five vowels А, О, У, Э, Ы. Conversely, the “soft sign” Ь or one of five vowels Е, Ё, И, Ю, Я indicate the softness of the preceding consonant. When on their own, four of these letters (Е, Ё, Ю, Я) indicate iotacized sounds (ye, yo, yu, ya).
 
Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg. In practice, it is even more complicated. And one of the most complicated cases is the Е / Э dichotomy.
 
The letter Э dates from the Middle Ages but even in the 18th century some authors and scholars deemed it unnecessary: apart from этот/эта/этот (this) the letter Э is only used in foreign-derived words. Why wouldn’t we use only “E”? - said the intellectuals. Their opponents pointed out that in Russian, E in the beginning of the word or after another vowel sounds “ye” and its use in such words as Европа is confusing - instead of saying Evropa, Russians now call the continent Yevropa. Therefore, the letter Э stayed in the alphabet.
 
But while Э was necessary to transcribe such words as поэт, дуэль or экран (to avoid pronouncing them as poyet, duyel or yekran), the society did not like it. And Russian E was very often used to transcribe French, German or English E or close sounds, creating words that defied all the rules of pronunciation. Dresden is just one of multiple examples. From phonetical point of view, such English and French words as dandy, model, delta, slang, businessman, rating, stand, cottage, parterre, résumé, chef-d'œuvre, cousin, pince-nez, tournée, cabaret, café and many others should be written with Э but they are written with E. There probably was a social dimension as well: while well-educated people, fluent in foreign languages, knew how to pronounce such words in Russian, simple people would pronounce such words incorrectly (Dryezdyen instead of Drezden), immediately revealing their lowly origin and lack of good schooling.
 
This is how many Russian words started to be pronounced in two different ways, the Э pronunciation becoming ‘more elevated’. Interesting to see how this phenomenon continued in the 20th century. On the one hand, new words that come into Russian tend to be spelt through E that is pronounced like Э: kompyuter, Internet, modem, interaktivnyy. On the other hand, in many of the words the pronunciation shifted to match the spelling: thus, such words as terrorist, revolutsiya, meteor are now pronounced with Russian E. Finally, while people who pronounce E instead of Э (for instance, kompyutyer instead of kompyuter) immediately mark themselves as very simple, there are also many people who make a reverse error, pronouncing E as Э where it is not needed. Such a mistake marks people without good education who try to pass for well-educated ones.

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