Hard + Soft Consonants: Intro To Russian Palatalization

When you decide to learn Russian, you're immediately greeted with a few interesting challenges right away on day one. You have to learn a brand new alphabet just to read and write in this new language!

Fortunately, it's really not hard to learn the Russian alphabet, in fact, I think it's easier and better than ours because there is only one sound per letter. But there are two characters in the Russian alphabet that will leave you perplexed for a long time as you take on the challenge of this new language: the soft sign (ь) and the hard sign (ъ).

They are not letters. These two signs are merely modifiers — they manage something called palatalization. (Yeah, I had to check the spelling three times for that!)

Palatalization in Russian

The word palatalization refers to the act of moving the sound to the palate — the center of the roof of your mouth, directly underneath the nasal cavity. When you do this to a sound, it is called "soft".

So for example, when you see the letter д, you pronounce it much the same as a D in English, pronouncing sound in the your throat and touching the tip of your tongue to the back of your teeth. But when the д is softened (дь) your tongue should curl back just a bit, so the tip touches the palate, and rather than producing the sound in your throat, it should be moved forward to the middle of the mouth. And the same goes, in theory, for all the rest of the consonants.

The description sounds complicated and difficult. The reality is actually quite simple: just smile a bit, and exhale a tiny little "ih" sound as you voice the consonant. That "ih" sound is the key to making it work. (And I wish someone had explained this to me properly when I was first learning.)

Soft vowels

You see, when you learn the vowels, you are taught а is "aah", and я is "yaah", etc. But that's not really true. The soft vowels are actually just short-hand for the regular vowels plus a soft sign!

soft vowelis really

(In spite of being rather similar, the vowels и and ы are not compatible because of the characteristics of the mouth when they're formed. But they do correspond.)

The purpose of soft vowels is simple: by creating five new vowel characters which include the implied soft sign, you greatly reduct the number of times a soft sign has to appear in a word. Rather than writing зьэльоный you can write зелёный. Rather than writing тьотьа, you can write тётя. It's much more convenient!

But in practice, the two are basically the same. And that's the reason why the sounds you're hearing when Russians speak don't seem to match the sounds you were taught when you were learning Russian. When you see тётя, you should pronounce it as тьотьа. That is, rather than saying "tyo-tya" as you were taught, you should be saying "iht'o-iht'a".

Our instuctors and our books and CD lessons have failed us. Again. This is the reason I spent two years struggling with words like маленький and малинки, and why I sounded funny when I said the word очень or мальчик. It's also one of the reasons I'm not using any instructors or learning materials this year.

So why the hard sign?

Thanks to the soft vowels, there are a lot fewer soft signs being written. But now we have soft signs being implied everywhere. So what if you want to use that soft vowel, but you don't want it to soften the preceding consonant?

Simple: just use a hard sign to protect the consonant. This becomes very important with words like сесть and съесть, where the first word is the verb to sit, but the second is the perfective form of the verb to eat. The hard с prefix is used to modify a verb — you don't want that to get lost!

So in summary, all consonants are hard by default. They become palatalized, or soft, when followed by the soft sign (ь) or any soft vowel (е, ё, и, ю, я). But they remain hard if immediately followed by the hard sign (ъ).

Hopefully this explanation helps to clear up some confusion about soft sounds, and about Russian pronunciation in general. Listen for that brief little "ih" sound being produced when native Russian speakers utter a palatalized consonant, and you'll instantly understand and improve your own speech.

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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • And today I learned a little Russian.

  • Thanks for this. There are a few pronounciation features of Russian which I still have no idea about. I'll be looking on the internet for them further along in my learning though because videos help me best when understanding pronounciation. I find it quite difficult to pick it up from reading about it.

  • OK, with Polish it’s slightly complicated – we basically add /i/ to certain sounds e.g. pan – pani and note that when this occurs within a word it produces different results to when it occurs across word boundaries e.g. pan i pani (/i/ as a conjunction). Polish ń is NOT palatal.

    As for British English – I did say that’s what I’m talking about so not sure why jumping down my throat for this… I guess British English speakers aren’t welcome here?

  • Palatalisation is also present in English (face-facial, also check the /t/ sound in British pronunciation of words such as ''question'' – this might help in understanding the concept). Analogically to Russians, Polish speakers also pronounce their /d/ when their tongues touch their teeth therefore English /d/ has slightly different place of articulation (dental for Polish and alveolar for English).

  • Does the tongue tip curl *back* or downward for palatalization? From what I've been learning, it seems as if possibly the tongue tip curls downward, and the middle of the tongue pushes upward and a bit forward, towards the palate.

  • Also the soft wovels are pronounced y+ the vowel after another vowel and after the hard sign.

  • Not sure if you still need help, but it is much easier to think of Russian as a language whose resting position is much farther open than English. Meaning in Russian when you return mouth to neutral position, you should be able to fit your thumb between teeth. While resting position in English is closed.

    For example the name 'Екатерина' => /jə-kə-t(j)ɪ-'r(j)i-nə/ cannot comfortably be pronounced while closing mouth to accommodate the minimum openness of consonants as in English. The mouth should remain more open than comfortable to an English speaker, since lips are doing very little work in the pronunciation, but it is only tongue that moves.

    This is even true for bilabial consonants, lips should closed but teeth should still be far apart, such as in кремль. In other words, when your lips close to make м п or б your jaw should pull your mouth apart but lips still touch, perhaps best example of this is "быстро".

    In English, we instinctively try to close the mouth to a position where our teeth are touching or as close as possible. Imagine words "think" or "thread" and you'll get what I mean.

  • British is not English. :)

  • Actually, if I'm understanding correctly, Polish has palatalized characters as well, such as ń, ś, ć, etc. You just use a different marker, and it effects fewer letters.

  • Anglophobia much?

  • Actually, there's some truth in my remark, even though it was made jokingly. The palatalization to which you refer only occurs in GB English. Americans do not do that.

  • Everyone's welcome!

  • Good!

  • Some comments seem to have gone missing from here. Some sort of bug on the website?

  • Yes. The bug is that people can drive comments off to ridiculous extremes, so that they distract from the point of my web site, which is to help people learn languages.I'm not interested in arguing over whether or not English has palatalization, because any such argument misses the entire point of this post.

  • That's your prerogative. I would have deleted it too, and I contributed!It's true, information does get lost in the noise. I did say that I didn't understand your explanation of how to generate the sounds. I wanted to look for a sample of audio that demonstrates it, because you mentioned it would be really obvious once you heard it. I was hoping you might perhaps have a pointer to some audio like that.But don't worry - it was more out of curiosity to understand what you were trying to say than anything else. It's not really important.

  • https://www.forvo.com/search...

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