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Surveying Sticky Sounds in Russian

Some Russian letters and sounds are hard for speakers of English. Take a look at a few of them and find out how to pronounce them.

The bug sound zh

This sound corresponds to the Russian letter that looks like a K leaning against a mirror (the eighth letter down on this list). It looks kind of like a bug, doesn't it? It sounds like a bug, too! In pronouncing it, try to imitate the noise produced by a bug flying over your ear — zh-zh-zh . . . The sound is similar to the sound in the words "pleasure" or "measure."

The very short i sound

This sound corresponds to the letter i kratkoye (the 11th letter down on this list), which literally means "a very short i," but it actually sounds like the very short English y. This sound is what you hear when you say the word boy. You should notice your tongue touching the roof of your mouth when you say this sound.

The rolled sound r

This sound corresponds to the letter P in the Russian alphabet. To say it correctly, begin by saying an English r and notice that your tongue is rolled back. Now begin moving your tongue back, closer to your upper teeth and try to say this sound with your tongue in this new position. You'll hear how the quality of the sound changes. This is the way the Russians say it.

The guttural sound kh

The corresponding Russian letter is X. To say it, imagine that you're eating and a piece of food just got stuck in your throat. What's the first reflex you body responds with? Correct! You will try to cough it up. Remember the sound your throat produces? This is the Russian sound kh. It's similar to the German ch.

The revolting sound y

To say this sound correctly, imagine that you're watching something really revolting, like an episode from Fear Factor, where the participants are gorging on a plate of swarming bugs. Now recall the sound you make in response to this. This sound is pronounced something like ih, and that's how you pronounce the Russian y (the transliteration is y). Because this letter appears in some of the most commonly used words, including ty (tih; you; informal), vy (vih; you; formal singular and plural), and my (mih; we), it's important to say it as best you can.

The hard sign

This is the letter tvyordiy znahk (the sixth from the bottom on this list). While the soft sign makes the preceding sound soft (see the next section), the hard sign makes it — yes, you guessed it — hard. The good news is that this letter (which transliterates to ") is rarely ever used in contemporary Russian. And even when it is, it doesn't change the pronunciation of the word. So, why does Russian have this sign? For two purposes:

  • To harden the previous consonant
  • To retain the hardness of the consonant before the vowels ye, yo, yu, and ya

Without the hard sign, these consonants would normally palatalize (or soften). When a hard sign separates a consonant and one of these vowels, the consonant is pronounced without palatalization, as in the word pod"yezd (pahd-yezd; porch), for example. However, don't worry too much about this one if your native language is English. Native speakers of English rarely tend to palatalize their Russian consonants the way Russians do it. In other words, if you're a native English speaker and you come across the situation described here, you probably make your consonant hard and therefore pronounce it correctly by default!

The soft sign

This is the letter myagkeey znahk, which looks like an English letter b (the fourth from the bottom on this list). It transliterates to ', and it doesn't have a sound. Its only mission in life is to make the preceding consonant soft. This sound is very important in Russian because it can change the meaning of a word. For example, without the soft sign, the word mat' (maht'; mother) becomes mat, which means "obscene language." And when you add a soft sign at the end of the word von (vohn; over there), it becomes von' (vohn') and means "stench." See how important the soft sign is?

So, here's how you can make consonants soft:

1. Say the consonant — for example, l, t, or d. Note where your tongue is. What you should feel is that the tip of your tongue is touching the ridge of your upper teeth and the rest of the tongue is hanging in the mouth like a hammock in the garden on a nice summer day.

2. While you're still pronouncing the consonant, raise the body of your tongue and press it against the hard palate. Can you hear how the quality of the consonant has changed? It sounds much "softer" now, doesn't it? That's how you make your consonants soft.

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