Softness of consonants in Russian
There are 36 consonant sounds in Russian. All consonant sounds are divided into hard and soft. Most sounds come in pairs "hard vs. soft", i.e. their pronunciation differs only by softness. There are 15 pairs of consonants "hard vs. soft".
It is important to know that for each pair "hard vs. soft" only one letter is used.
How Russian letters denote softness
In order to determine whether the letter denotes a hard or a soft consonant, you should take a look at the letter which follows it. There can be two options:
- If the letter is followed by и, е, ю, я, ё or ь, it denotes the corresponding soft consonant.
The following highlighted letters denote soft sounds:
диплом * [diplom] diploma
текст [t'ekst] text
мёд [m'ot] 'honey'
бюро [b'ooro] office
мясо [m'asa] 'meat'
ноль [nol'] zero
* Note: In transcriptions on our website, we do not show the softness of consonant sounds before the sound [i], since only soft sounds can be encountered before [i] in the Russian language. In other cases, the softness of a consonant is indicated by the sign [']
- In other occurrences, i.e. if the letter is followed by consonant letters (except cases of a group of soft consonants, see below), by vowel letters а, о, у, ы, э, ъ or if the letter is found at the end of the word, it denotes the corresponding hard consonant.
The following highlighted letters denote hard sounds:
дом [dom] house
бар [bar] bar
Consonants that are always hard or soft
Some sounds do not come in pairs: these are hard sounds [j] , [sh] , [ts] and soft sounds [sch] , [ch] , [y] . They are denoted, respectively, by letters ж, ш, ц, щ, ч, й. Since these letters designate sounds which do not form pairs "hard vs. soft", their reading will be always the same, including the cases when they are found before the group of letters used to indicate softness (и, е, ю, я, ё, ь). It should be mentioned that if letters ж, ш, ц are followed by the letter и, the letter и is read as [i] (not as [i] ).
The following words have the letter и read as [i] :
ужин [oojin] evening meal, dinner
машина [mashina] car
станция [stantsiya] station
Group of soft consonants
Some letters which designate consonant sounds may denote soft sounds even when they are found in a word before other consonants, but on conditions that the following consonant is soft. It may happen in the following combinations of letters: ст, зд, н + т, д, с, з, ч.
Take a look at the following examples and note that
In the highlighted combinations of letters, both consonants are soft:
постирать [pas'tirat'] to wash, to launder
Peculiarities of reading the letters е, ю, я, ё following consonants and signs ь, ъ
We have already mentioned that letters е, ю, я, ё indicate the softness of the previous consonant, and, as you may already have noticed, the initial sound [y] which is present in their basic meaning may disappear if these letters follow a consonant.
Thus, when these letters designate stressed vowels and follow consonants, they are read as:е - [e] : ферма [f'erma] farm
ё - [o] : осётр [as'otr] sturgeon
ю - [oo] : люстра [l'oostra] lustre, chandelier
я - [a] : пять [p'at'] five
You can find more info about reading of these letters on the page Stress and reduction of vowels
- Softness of consonants is indicated by letters и, е, ю, я, ё, ь
- In some cases, not just one, but a group of consonants become soft
- Letters е, ё, ю, я indicate the softness of the previous consonant + vowel sound [e], [o], [oo], [a], respectively