Russian consonants

Hard and soft Russian consonants

Almost all Russian consonants have two sounds: a hard one and a soft one.

The softness can be achieved by a vowel that follows the consonant. Out of 10 Russian vowels, 5 are soft and make the preceding consonant soft as well.

Listen to the following syllables and compare:

Hard Soft
ба [ba]
бя [bya]
бо [bo]
бё [byo]
бэ [be]
бе [bye]
бу [bu]
бю [byu]
бы [by]
би [bee]

Another way to achieve softness is using the soft sign. Listen and compare:

Hard Soft
ал [al]
аль [al’]
от [ot]
оть [ot’]
с [s]
сь [s’]

In transcription, the soft sign is indicated by an apostrophe [ ‘ ].

Some of the consonants are always soft (Ч, Щ), and some others are always hard (Ж, Ц, Ш). It means that neither the following vowel nor the soft sign change the way they sound.

Hardness or softness play a big role and might change the meaning of some words. Here are a few examples:

кон [kon] game, round
конь [kon’] horse
у́гол [ú-gol] corner
у́голь [ú-gol’] coal
лук [luk] lyuk
люк [lyuk] hatch

Voiced and voiceless Russian consonants

Consonants in Russian can be voiced or voiceless.

To explain the concept of voiced and voiceless consonants, let’s take the English letters V and F. To pronounce both them, you put your lips in the same position, but for V you make a sound, and for F you don’t. So V is voiced and F is voiceless.

Following this principal, some Russian consonants form pairs where one consonant is voiced and the other one is voiceless (in the audio you can hear only the sound that the letter makes and not how it is pronounced “correctly” when reading the alphabet):

Voiced Voiceless
Б б [b]
П п [p]
В в [v]
Ф ф [f]
Г г [g]
К к / Х х [k / kh]
Д д [d]
Т т [t]
Ж ж [zh]
Ш ш [sh]
З з [z]
С с [c]

Why is it important?

Knowing these pairs will help you to master the Russian pronunciation. Here are the rules:

– Voiced consonants become voiceless when they are followed by other voiceless consonants or are the very end of a word.

– Voiceless consonants sound as their voiced counterparts when they are followed by the consonants Б, Г, Д, Ж, З.

Other Russian consonants are voiced and voiceless too, but they don’t have a pair and don’t change their sound regardless of the position in a word and surrounding letters.

Learn Russian letters one by one