hard or soft?

If you ever came across the concepts of hard and soft c or hard and soft g you may have wondered, like me, why on earth they are called so. I know, I know, the same character may represent two (or more) distinct phonemes, but this happens with many other letters all the time. And what exactly is hard and what is soft? These phonemes are just different.

In many languages, the hard c is the one that is pronounced as the voiceless velar stop /k/, as in the English word cat. In English, the soft c is pronounced as the voiceless alveolar sibilant, /s/, as in face. In Italian, the soft c is the voiceless postalveolar affricate //, as in ciao, and in Peninsular Spanish it is the voiceless dental fricative /θ/, as in cero. Similarly, the hard g typically is the voiced velar stop /ɡ/ as in get , while the soft g could be either the voiced postalveolar affricate /d͡ʒ/ (English gentleman, Italian giallo), voiced postalveolar fricative /ʒ/ (French genre, Portuguese girassol), or voiceless velar fricative /x/ (Spanish gemelo).

As mentioned earlier, consonants in Russian also could be either “hard” (твёрдые) or “soft” (мягкие). This “hardness” / “softness”, however, is a totally different concept from that of “hard / soft c / g” and, believe me, it makes much more sense. To start with, when there is a hard/soft pair, we are talking not about two unrelated consonants but two “flavours” of the same basic sound. In phonetics, the process of “softening” is called palatisation, which means that the back of the tongue is touching the palate. Is that important? Yes! The subtle difference in pronunciation may lead to complete change of meaning, as could be demonstrated by minimal pairs быть / бить, об / Обь, воз / вёз, вол / вёл, кров / кровь, клад / кладь, вяз / вязь, лаз / лазь, был / быль, кол / коль, лыс / лис, лук / люк, мел / мель, мол / моль, мыл / мыль, пыл / пыль, угол / уголь, мал / мял, мыл / мил, вон / вонь, кон / конь, нос / нёс, пена / пеня, пыл / пил, рад / ряд, раса / ряса, хор / хорь, вес / весь, сом / сём, суда / сюда, ест / есть, жест / жесть, мат / мать, томный / тёмный, фон / фён etc.

The “softening” of Russian consonants before so-called iotified vowels (е, ё, ю and я) is often transliterated in English with letters y or i, which is both understandable (given that the very letters are transliterated as ye, yo, yu and ya, respectively) and unfortunate. Many people who learn Russian reading transliterated texts end up mispronouncing the soft consonants. Also, there is no difference between palatisation of consonants followed by iotified vowels and those followed by и. That IPA had adopted a superscript j as a “softener” symbol (as in // for soft б etc.) instead of developing the proper characters for palatised consonants does not help either. The softening achieved with the soft sign ь, especially that of terminal consonants, sometimes is marked with an apostrophe ’ but often is not transliterated at all.

б забыть забить
в кров кровь
г гэта гетто
д клад кладь
з вяз вязь
к укор ликёр
л пыл пыль
м мыло мило
н кон конь
п спать спят
р вихры вихри
с вес весь
т шест шесть
ф фарфор шофёр
х блоха блохи

Your Russian textbook most likely tells you that the consonants ж, ц and ш are always hard (even if followed by soft sign) while й, ч and щ are always soft. However, I see no intrinsic reason why ж and ц cannot be palatised. For instance, some Russian speakers pronounce words like вожжи /‘voʑːɪ/, дрожжи /‘droʑːɪ/, жужжать /ʐʊ’ʑːætʲ/, заезжий /zɐ’jeʑːɪj/, позже /‘poʑːe/ and even дождь /doʑː/ with soft ж. Although I can’t think right now of any “native” word utilising the soft ц, many Russian speakers can easily pronounce Ukrainian surnames such as Грицюк or Цюрупа. As for ш, its palatised version is щ. As is the case with other consonant softening, replacing ш with щ changes the meaning dramatically: cf. плюш / плющ, чаша / чаща, or шит / щит.

If the word finishes with either “always hard” or “always soft” consonant, what’s the point of using the soft sign at all? We have the same (hard) ж in both ёж and рожь, same (soft) ч in врач and ночь, same (hard) ш in both душ and сушь, same (soft) щ in лещ and вещь. Well, I think this is due to spelling regularisation of nouns: the soft sign, where present, is there simply to indicate that the noun belongs to the third declension. The soft sign is also found in the reflexive verbs infinitive ending -ться, as opposed to the third person present -тся, although both are pronounced /t͡sə/ (cf. нравиться and нравится, бояться and боятся).

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