In Russian, most consonants come in two different pairs: hard and soft. These “soft” consonants are palatalized. Palatalized consonants are pronounced with a palatal secondary articulation, making the consonant sound like it is followed by a “y” sound – much like the English word “pure.” With palatalized consonants, the middle of the tongue is raised towards the palate, during and after the articulation of the consonant. So it’s not as simple as “consonant” + “y.”
What is the palate? Check out the image below.
When you say “yes” [jɛs] you are pronouncing a palatal consonant. English’s <y> is a palatal approximant. Say <y>. Notice how the middle of your tongue is raised up to the middle of your mouth (palate)?
When you pronounce palatalized consonants, you allow the middle of your tongue to raise during the articulation of the consonant as well as after it. These consonants are clearly different from hard ones, and sound slightly softer — that’s why they’re known as soft consonants.
In the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), palatalization is denoted with a small <j>: [ʲ].
Let’s take a look at some minimal pairs, shall we? There are some words that are different only because of palatalized consonants.
Some additional, important notes
(See the image below for examples of each of the notes below)
- It is important to note that hard /t/ d/ /n/ /l/ are dental and apical: [t̪] [d̪] [n̪] [ɫ̪]. This means that the tip of the tongue touches the back of the teeth. These contrast with laminal consonants, which are produced with the blade of the tongue, the flat surface just behind the front of the tongue. Soft /tʲ/ /dʲ/ /nʲ/ /lʲ/ are alveolar and laminal: [tʲ] [dʲ] [nʲ] [lʲ]. They are pronounced just like the English consonants, except they are palatalized.
- Slight frication occurs with /tʲ/ and /dʲ/.
- Hard /r/ is postalveolar: [r̠]. Soft /r/ is dental and apical: [r̪ʲ].