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Lesson Transcript

Intro

Hi everybody! Lena here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher where I’ll answer some of your most common Russian questions.
The Question
The question for this lesson is: What’s palatalization in Russian, and the difference between soft and hard signs?
Explanation
First off, what’s palatalization? I know it sounds complicated, but most Russians know it simply as the softening of consonants.
A way to think about it is while pronouncing certain consonants you have to move your tongue from the back of your teeth to the center of the roof of your mouth, the palate, which will soften your consonants. You can see this softening, for example, with the English word “new.”
Let’s do some examples so you can learn how to soften consonants correctly.
In English, the “hard” pronunciation of the letter “n” can be heard in the word “nook,” when saying this word, the tip of your tongue is right behind your upper teeth. However, in the word “new” the sound “n” is palatalized, or softened, and your tongue lies flatter in the middle of the roof of your mouth.
In Russian, palatalization, or “softness,” can be achieved by two means. First, you can palatalize your consonants by the vowels that follow them. There are 10 vowels in Russian and they come in hard-and-soft pairs:
a-я (ah-yah)
ы-и (yh-eeh)
у-ю (ooh-yuh)
э-е (e-yeh)
о-ё (oh-yoh)
So the soft vowels are Я, И, Ю, Е, Ё (yah, eeh, yuh, yeh, yoh), and the hard vowels are a, ы, у, э, о (ah, yh, ooh, e, oh).
So, if a consonant is followed by one of the soft vowels, it’s considered palatalized. For example, in the Russian name Katya, the consonant “k” is hard and not palatalized because it’s followed by a “hard” vowel “a,” but the sound “t” is palatalized, or softened, since it’s followed by a soft counterpart of the letter “a,” which is “ya.”
The second case where you can see a palatalized consonant is when it’s followed by a soft sign. The soft sign is a letter without its own pronunciation, which palatalizes the letter preceding it. Let’s compare two words: мел (mel) - "chalk" and мель (mel'), “strand of sand” or "sandbar" or “shoal”. Can you hear the softened ль in the end of the word мель? That’s what the soft sign does.
Can you hear the softened ть in the end of the word мать? That’s what the soft sign does.
Now, if there’s a soft sign, there should also be a hard sign, right? The hard sign in Russian doesn’t have its own pronunciation either. It's used to separate a consonant and a soft vowel in a word. For example: отъели (a'teli), “they ate (something).” If we didn’t have the hard sign between the letters т and е, the word would be Отели (ateli), which sounds different and means “hotels.”

Outro

How was it? Pretty interesting right?
Do you have any more questions? Leave them in the comments below and I’ll try to answer them!
До встречи! (Do vstrechi!) “See you soon!”

4 Comments

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RussianPod101.comVerified
Friday at 6:30 pm
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What Russian learning question do you have?

Annette Cairns
Thursday at 10:41 pm
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Hi Lena! Thank you so much for your clear explanations. It makes learning Russian seem much less daunting. However, I have a difficulty with the palatalization : for instance, I would pronounce both отъели and отели as "at'yeli". So I understand that, if there is no "soft" sign ъ before the Russian "e", I have to pronounce it "e" as in the English word "set" or "let". Is this correct?

RussianPod101.comVerified
Monday at 8:20 pm
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Hello "I am impressed how simple now it seems after your explanation. Thank you very much and I look forward to learn more."


Thank you for your kind comment!

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Elena

Team RussianPod101.com

I am impressed how simple now it seems after your explanation. Thank you very much and I look forward to learn more.
Friday at 6:53 am
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I am impressed how simple now it seems after your explanation. Thank you very much and I look forward to learn more.