Russian Phonetics - Consonants


⟨ʲ⟩ denotes palatalization, meaning the center of the tongue is raised during and after the articulation of the consonant.

Consonant phonemes of Russian
Labial Dental &
Nasal m n
Stop p b pʲ bʲ t d tʲ dʲ k ɡ kʲ ɡʲ
Affricate t͡s (t͡sʲ) t͡ɕ
Fricative f v fʲ vʲ s z sʲ zʲ ʂ ʐ ɕː ʑː x
Trill r
Approximant l j


  • Most consonants phonemes come in hard/soft pairs (exceptions are listed below). There is a marked tendency of Russian hard consonants to be velarized, though this is a subject of some academic dispute. Velarization is clearest before the front vowels /e/ and /i/.
    • /ʐ/ and /ʂ/ are always hard (even if spelling contains a "softening" letter after them, as in жена, шёлк, жить, мышь, жюри, парашют etc.), for most speakers it's true also in foreign proper names, mostly of French or Lithuanian origin (e.g. Гёльджюк, "Жён Африк", Жюль Верн, Герхард Шюрер, Шяуляй, Шяшувис). Long phonemes /ʑː/ and /ɕː/ do not pattern in the same ways that other hard/soft pairs do.
    • /t͡s/ is generally listed among the always-hard consonants, however certain foreign proper names, including those of Polish, Ukrainian, or Lithuanian origin (e.g. Цюрих, Цюрупа, Пацюк, Цявловский), as well as loanwords (e.g., хуацяо, from Chinese) contain a soft . The phonemicity of a soft /t͡sʲ/ is supported by neologisms that come from native word-building processes (e.g. фрицёнок, шпицята).
    • /t͡ɕ/ and /j/ are always soft.
    • /ɕː/ is also always soft. A formerly common pronunciation of /ɕ/+/t͡ɕ/ indicates the sound may be two underlying phonemes: /ʂ/ and /t͡ɕ/, thus /ɕː/ can be considered as a marginal phoneme. In today's most widespread pronunciation, appears (instead of ) for orthographical -зч-/-сч- where ч- starts a words's root, and -з/-с belongs to a preposition or a "clearly distinguisheable" prefix (e.g. без часов, 'without a clock'; расчертить, 'to rule'); in all other cases /ɕː/ is used (щётка, грузчик, переписчик, счастье, мужчина, исщипать, расщепить etc.)
    • /ʑː/ was always soft few decades ago; now it is generally replaced with a geminated hard /ʐː/ (or with spelling-motivated /ʐd(ʲ)/ in the case of the root -дожд-: дождя, дожди, дождик, дождливый etc.). The status of /ʑː/ as a phoneme is also marginal since it may derive from an underlying /zʐ/ or /sʐ/. For more information, see alveolo-palatal consonant and retroflex consonant.
  • /ʐ/ is similar to the ⟨g⟩ in genre, but the tongue is curled back (as with the /r/ = of American English) rather than domed. /ʂ/ differs from this only by being voiceless.
  • Hard /t/ /d/ /n/ /l/ and soft /rʲ/ are both dental and apical while soft /tʲ/ /dʲ/ /nʲ/ and /lʲ/ are alveolar and laminal . Note that, for /tʲ/ and /dʲ/, the tongue is raised enough to produce slight frication. Hard /l/ is typically pharyngealized (, "dark l").
  • /s/ and /z/ are laminal and dental (or dento-alveolar) while /t͡s/ is alveolar and apical.
  • Hard /r/ is postalveolar: .
  • A marginal phoneme /ɣ/ occurs instead of /g/ in certain interjections: ага, ого, угу, эге, о-го-го, э-ге-ге, гоп. (Thus, there exists a minimal pair of homographs: ага 'aha!' vs ага 'agha'). The same sound can be found in бухгалтер (orthographically <хг>; however in цейхгауз, <хг> -> ), optionally in габитус and in a few other loanwords. Also optionally (and less frequently than a century ago) can be used instead of in certain religious words (a phenomenon influenced by Church Slavonic pronunciation): Бога, Богу... (declension forms of Бог 'God'), Господь 'Lord' (especially in the exclamation Господи! 'Oh Lord!'), благой 'good'.
  • Some linguists (like I. G. Dobrodomov and his school) postulate the existence of a phonemic glottal stop /ʔ/. This marginal phoneme can be found, for example, in the word не-а . Claimed minimal pairs for this phoneme include суженный 'narrowed' (a participle from сузить 'to narrow', with prefix с- and root -уз-, cf. узкий 'narrow') vs суженый 'betrothed' (originally a participle from судить 'to judge', now an adjective; the root is суд 'court') and с Аней 'with Ann' vs Саней '(by) Alex'.

There is some dispute over the phonemicity of soft velar consonants. Typically, the soft/hard distinction is allophonic for velar consonants: they become soft before front vowels, as in короткий ('short'), unless there is a word boundary, in which case they are hard (e.g. к Ивану 'to Ivan'). Hard variants occur everywhere else. Exceptions are represented mostly by:

  • Loanwords:
    • Soft: гёзы, гюрза, гяур, секьюрити, кюре, кяриз, санкхья, хянга;
    • Hard: кок-сагыз, гэльский, акын, кеб, хэппенинг.
  • Proper nouns of foreign origin:
    • Soft: Алигьери, Гёте, Гюнтер, Гянджа, Джокьякарта, Кёнигсберг, Кюрасао, Кяхта, Хьюстон, Хёндэ, Хюбнер, Пюхяярви;
    • Hard: Мангышлак, Гэри, Кызылкум, Кэмп-Дэвид, Архыз, Хуанхэ.

The rare native examples are fairly new, as most them were coined in the last century:

  • Soft: forms of the verb ткать 'weave' (ткёшь, ткёт etc., and derivatives like соткёшься); догёнок/догята, герцогёнок/герцогята; and adverbial participles of the type берегя, стерегя, стригя, жгя, пекя, секя, ткя (it is disputed whether these are part of the standard language or just informal colloquialisms);
  • Hard: the name гэ of letter <г>, acronyms and derived words (кагебешник, днепрогэсовский), a few interjections (гы, кыш, хэй), some onomatopoeic words (гыгыкать), and colloquial forms of certain patronyms: Олегыч, Маркыч, Аристархыч (where -ыч is a contraction of standard language's patronymical suffix -ович rather than a continuation of ancient -ич).

In the mid-twentieth century, a small number of reductionist approaches made by structuralists put forth that palatalized consonants occur as the result of a phonological processes involving /j/ (or palatalization as a phoneme in itself), so that there were no underlying palatalized consonants. Despite such proposals, linguists have long agreed that the underlying structure of Russian is closer to that of its acoustic properties, namely that soft consonants are separate phonemes in their own right.

Read more about this topic:  Russian Phonetics

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