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One of the most distinctive features of Russian phonetics is the phenomenon called “palatalization” or “softness.” It occurs when the articulation of a consonant slightly shifts upward and to the front of your mouth, that is, toward the hard palate; hence, the term. As a result, the consonant sounds somewhat “softer.” When this happens in English, it usually goes unnoticed since “soft” and “hard” consonants don’t differentiate meaning but rather reflect regional or personal accents. In Russian, the distinction is fully meaningful.

Now, let’s look at all of the Russian consonants from the standpoint of their “softness/hardness.” Three consonants in Russian are always “hard,” i.e., they cannot be palatalized; they are ж [zh], ш [sh], and ц [ts]. For example,

жгоспожа́ [gəs-pah-ZHAH], журнали́стка [zhur-nah-LEEST-kə], пожа́луйста [pah-ZHAH-lə-stə]

шхорошо́ [hə-rah-SHOH], цамерика́нец [ah-mi-ri-KAH-nits], царь [TSAHR’] (tsar).

Two consonants and one semi-vowel or glide are always “soft,” that is to say, palatalized. They are щ [shch], ч [ch], й [y or i – as in boy]. For example,

щщи [SHCHEE] (cabbage soup), това́рищ [tah-VAH-rishch] (comrade), ве́щи [VEH-shchee] (things)

чо́чень [AW-chin’], ве́чер [VEH-chir] (evening)
йзра́вствуйте [ZDRAH-stvəi-ti], пойдёмте [pahi-DiOM-ti]

The remaining fifteen consonants—Б б, В в, Г г, Д д, З з, К к, Л л, М м, Н н, П п, Р р, С с, Т т, Ф ф, Х х—can be either soft or hard, depending on their position in the word. Having a separate letter for each one of them would have made the Russian alphabet longer by fifteen letters, which, of course, would not have been practical. Thus, two other simple methods solved the problem for these consonants.

If one of these fifteen consonants is followed by the mute soft sign ь, it is soft! E.g., мать [MAT’] means mother when the т is soft; but when the т is hard, as in мат [MAT], it means mate (as in checkmate). The phonetic distinction between the soft т and the hard т may appear subtle to the non-Slavic ear, but it is of paramount importance in Russian. Be patient and try to attune your ear to it! Here are more examples of soft consonants softened by the soft sign from your vocabulary lists: о́чень прия́тно [AW-chin’ pri-YAT-nə]; добро́ пожа́ловать [dah-BRAW pah-ZHAH-lə-vət’]. Notice that, in our phonetic transcription, an apostrophe after such a consonant marks its softness.

If one of the fifteen “palatalizable” consonants is followed by one of the five “soft” vowels я, ю, е, ё, and и it is also soft! For example, лук [LOOK– with a hard л] means onion, but люк [LiOOK – with a soft л means trapdoor. Here are more examples already familiar to you (the underlined consonants are made soft by the following “soft vowels”: америка́нец [ah-mi-ri-KAH-nits], господи́н [gəs-pah-DEEN], приве́т [pri-ViET], пойдёмте [pahy-DiOM-ti].

When you first hear the difference, it may appear to you that there is a brief [i] sound between the soft consonant and the following soft vowel. While the [i] is in fact not really there, imagining it there may help you make the distinction. Consequently, we use a small i in our transcription to mark the softness of such consonants.

If one of these fifteen consonants is not followed by the soft sign ь or by any of the “soft” vowels, it is “hard.” As you might guess, the five “hard” vowels (а, у, э, о, and ы) don’t palatalize the preceding consonant either; it remains “hard.” For example, in the words господи́н [gəs-pah-DEEN], спаси́бо [spah-SEE-bə], прия́тно [pri-IAHT-nə], the underlined consonants are normal, that is to say, hard.