Palatalized consonants, soft vowels, and that pesky soft sign: An explanation from my own struggles
Palatalization is difficult to understand as an English speaker because we don't really have anything like this in English. I see many people asking about pronunciation and I haven't seen very many explanations of exactly what I was doing wrong. I was struggling with pronunciation and understanding the difference for quite a while. After grueling practice with my Russian friends, I have taken what I've learned and will now do my best to explain how I learned to pronounce palatalized consonants. This may not be perfect, but it will hopefully get you at least part of the way there!
Whenever you see a consonant followed by a "soft" vowel (я, ё, ю, е, и) it becomes soft, or palatalized, itself (with a few exceptions such as ш which is always "hard", or non-palatalized). Did you notice that all of these vowels have a kind of Y-sound* at the beginning, but otherwise sound like a "hard" vowel (а, о, у, э, ы)? Okay, let's ignore и and ы for right now but the other ones, do, right?
WRONG. Stop thinking about them this way. Soft vowels only have that Y-sound when they don't have a consonant before them such as the "е" in "ест" or the "я" in "яблоко". If you see one of these vowels after a consonant, instead of thinking the vowel has a Y-sound at the beginning, think about the consonant having a Y-sound at the end. Allow me to explain.
Say the word "я". Good, now put your mouth in the position as if you're just about to say "я" but don't actually say it. Feel how your tongue is ready to make that Y-sound? It's up against to top of your mouth, touching a region called your soft palate. Now make a T-sound. Just a normal T, don't let your vocal cords vibrate (like saying "tuh"), just make the T-sound itself. Now, do the exact same thing but this time end it with your tongue in that Y-sound position. Again, don't say the actual Y-sound, just say a T and end it with your tongue there. The T should sound a little bit different this time, possibly a bit "tighter" or maybe like there's a very, very slight S-sound at the end of it. Well you know what?
Congratulations! You've just palatalized your first consonant!
This is EXACTLY what you do when you see a consonant followed by a soft sign ь. You palatalize the consonant, even though it's not followed by a soft vowel.
Okay, now what about when it is followed by a vowel? Instead of thinking that the vowel starts with the Y-sound, think that the consonant ends with that Y-sound position instead, and then just try to say the vowel like it's the "hard" version. It will automatically have a slight Y-sound at the beginning simply because that's where your tongue was from the consonant before it! Try it with that T you just pronounced. Say тя by saying that palatalized T and immediately say а afterwards, as if you're trying to say "tah". Because of that weird Y-sound tongue position, it should come out as "t(y)ah" with that subtle Y-sound tucked in the middle there. This is the proper way to pronounce these vowels (as I found out after many attempts from my Russian friends to get me to say it correctly...) and you'll notice that the Y-sound is faster and more subtle than if you think of it as part of the vowel itself. It's not like it's taking up part of a syllable, just a passing sound. The only time they have a really noticeable Y-sound as part of the vowel is if there isn't a consonant before them to make that shape such as the beginning of a word.
Let me take this even further and possibly blow your mind by telling you that there are only 5 vowels in Russian**, not 10. That's right, your true vowels are the hard vowels а, о, у, э, and ы, and the Y-sound of a soft vowel comes from the ending tongue position of the soft consonant before it, not the vowel itself. What about at the beginning of a word when you do have that Y-sound? Imagine there's actually an invisible й before the vowel giving you the Y-sound there. A word starting with "я-" is really a word starting with "йа-" in disguise!
This brings us finally to и and ы... You'll notice that и doesn't really have a Y-sound before it (like "yee") but that's because, if you think about it, it already is that Y-sound. Pronouncing и puts your tongue in that exact position! So when you're saying this sound, there isn't much of a difference between the Y-sound and the и itself, so why do more work and put one at the beginning when it's already basically there?
But ы is a bit different. In fact, there's debate between linguists within Russia about whether и is just a soft ы or whether they're different sounds entirely. Ы has this guttural diphthong that was once explained to me as being pronounced "as though you are being punched in the stomach" and then ending it with something close to an И-sound. Sometimes people say it ends with more of a short-i sound like the i in the word "bit". To be honest, it sounds to me like it's often kind of half way between the two... Either way, it's close enough to ending with the и sound for me.
The other hard vowels, а, о, у, and э, are not diphthongs, meaning they sound the same from start to finish (think about the difference between "boo" and "bow" where the "oo" sounds the same from start to finish but the "ow" ends differently than it starts). Ы, on the other hand, is a very slight diphthong, so let's think about it in two parts: the guttural gut-punchy beginning and the и-ish sounding ending. If You think about the other soft vowels as the hard vowel with a Y-sound before them (I know I told you not to do this, sorry), let's do the same with ы except instead of putting the Y-sound before it, let's just replace the first half of it with that sound "Y-и"...wait...that's the soft и we talked about before... Maybe they really ARE variations of the same vowels. Take that, Saint-Petersburg school of linguistic thought!
Okay so maybe the debate still rages on, but if you at least think about it this way, it can help you remember to add that Y-sound at the end of consonants before ANY soft vowel, including и. И just seems to be the hardest one for me to remember otherwise simply because it doesn't feel like it has that Y-sound.
I know this was very long but I hope it can help some people who are struggling with this difficult pronunciation. I highly recommend using a website like forvo.com to listen to recordings of pronunciation. Find words with palatalized and non-palatalized consonants and listen for that difference. Again, it's VERY subtle and will take a while to really be able to notice but hey, you have to start somewhere.
I will again reiterate that I am not a native speaker and I would love to hear any corrections! Thanks for reading!
* This is identical to the Й-sound. For those of you confused about й, think of it as the letter Y. You're welcome.
** In Russian ь and ъ are considered "silent" vowels, but this is certainly confusing for an English speaker. While I recognize their vowel status, I think it's much easier to view them as consonant modifiers rather than vowels themselves
- If you see a soft sign followed by a soft vowel such as in the word льёт ("[he] pours") - the vowel is pronounced the same way as if it was starting a word, and the consonant is pronounced as if it is ending a word (and soft) so the pronunciation becomes more like льйот and that Y-sound becomes more pronounced.
Lingwat has it almost exactly right! This is an outstanding explanation! I would only adjust it slightly. Try thinking about it this way. Russian has five vowels (not 10), but each can be written in two different ways, with the glide and without, Thus, A and Я Э and Е Ы and И О and Ё У and Ю Ъ and Ь go together. The ones on the left follow hard consonants. The ones on the right follow soft ones, and thus have the glide or y sound in front to them. The final two are vowels that are always silent, but they are vowels, too. Consonants are hard or soft. Vowels come with or without the glide. You need the glide after soft consonants because the soft consonants are formed at the top of your mouth. So, yes, И doesn't have the glide, because it is the glide! When two vowels come together, the second is often (but not always, especially not in borrowed words) from the right side of the table, the side with the glides. The rest of what Lingwat wrote is spot on!
I tried to demonstrate that the soft vowels are actually the same as hard vowels and the glide actually comes from the consonants before them rather than the soft vowels themselves. I guess you're right that I didn't really emphasise that point though! I might change that a bit to make that point more obvious.
I decided to leave ь/ъ out of my list of vowels because I felt it would be more confusing to explain them as "silent vowels" even though they are considered such in Russian. I think it's easier for most English speakers to think of them as "modifiers" for consonants for pronunciation purposes.
Thank you for the input! I'm glad I explained it correctly!
Very good explanation. Take your well-deserved lingot. If I had seen an explanation like this before, it would have saved me so much time trying to figure out how to palatalize consonants.
The pairs I still struggle with are м/мь, в/вь, and б/бь. A friend of mine, who has more experience with Russian than I do, recommended labializing the consonant (adding a slight "w" sound) when it isn't supposed to be palatalized. I'm not entirely sure if others do this, though... any native speakers out there willing to weigh in?