Phonology · Vocabulary

Russian Consonant Clusters

The Russian language is well known for its consonant clusters. There are many clusters that are very difficult for English speakers to pronounce.

Why do these consonant clusters exist?

The English language once had some “strange” consonant clusters. Look at the word ‘know’. This word was once pronounced just as it looks. However, we English speakers have simplified our pronunciation over the past few hundred years, making it easier to speak. Our hardest word now would have to be ‘strengths.’

The Russians have also simplified their pronunciation…in a different way. They have removed the short vowels that once existed in their language, thus forming many of the clusters they have today.

Let’s look at the Russian word ‘где’ (gdye) “where?”. This word descends from the Proto-Slavic word: kŭdě. Notice how the short vowel (ŭ) was dropped in this word and the /k/ became /g/. This has happened in many other common words:

кто (kto) “who?” > from kŭto
что (shto) “what?” > from čĭto
все (fsye) “all” > from vĭsĭ
много (mnogo) “many” > from mŭnogŭ

So there’s the reason why these difficult consonant clusters exist. They have developed over time with the loss off the short vowels. Russians haven’t always spoken with difficult clusters like these, and who knows, in the next five hundred years they might not exist! You can never be 100% sure with the development of languages.

So, let’s take a look at some difficult consonant clusters that you are going to encounter while learning Russian.

Plosive + Plosive clusters

There are a lot of words that begin with two plosives.

Don’t know what plosives are?

<п б т д к г>
/p b t d k g/

Here are some example words involving initial plosive+plosive clusters.

пти́ца (ptítsa) “bird”
бди́тельный (bdítyel’niy) “vigilant”
ткач (tkach) “weaver”
кто (kto) “who”
где (gdye) “where”

As you can see, some of these words are very hard to pronounce.

Fricative + Plosive clusters

We have fricative+plosive clusters in English, as in the word “start”, “skip”, “skate.” But Russian has some clusters that are strange for us.

Don’t know what fricatives are?

<ф в с з ш ж х>
/f v s z sh zh kh/

Here are some example words involving initial fricative+plosive clusters:

вбежа́ть (vbezhát’) “to run in(to)”
вперёд (fpyeryót) “forward”
вто́рник (ftórnik) “Tuesday”
спать (spat’) “to sleep”
здесь (zdyes’) “here”
что (shto) “what” (pronounced as ‘што’)
ждать (zhdat’) “to expect; to wait for”

Plosive+Fricative clusters

Russian also has some very ‘interesting’ plosive+fricative clusters. We have words in English like “psycho” and “psychology” but we do not pronounce that first /p/. The Russians do!

Here are some example words involving initial plosive+fricative clusters:

пфе́нинг (pfénink) “pfennig”
псих (psikh) “pyscho”
психоло́гия (psikhológiya) “psychology”
пшени́ца (pshenítsa) “wheat”
Пхенья́н (pkhyen’yán) “Pyongyang”
твой (tvoy) “your”
два (dva) “two”
Ксе́ния (ksyéniya) “Kseniya (female name)”
гвалт (gvalt) “row”

Fricative + Fricative clusters

Even stranger than the fricative+plosive clusters are the fricative+fricative clusters.

Here are some example words involving initial fricative+fricative clusters:

всё (fsyo) “everything”
взаи́мный (vzaímniy) “mutual”
взвод (vzvot) “platoon” (three initial clusters)
вход (fkhot) “entrance”
сфе́ра (sfyéra) “sphere”
свет (svyet) “light”
схва́тки (skhvátki) “contractions” (three initial clusters)
сход (skhot) “descent”
звезда́ (zvyezdá) “star”
шве́дский (shvyétskiy) “Swedish”
хвата́ть (khvatát’) “to grab hold of”

Other two segment clusters

Here are some other clusters that contain two initial segments (two sounds).

вме́сто (vmyésto) “instead of”
вниз (vnis) “down”
вчера́ (fcherá) “yesterday”
дни (dni) “days”
кни́га (kníga) “book”
лгать (lgat’) “to lie”
мно́го (mnógo) “many”
пчела́ (pchelá) “bee”
ртуть (rtut’) “mercury”
тьма (t’ma) “darkness; gloom”
хму́рый (khmúriy) “gloomy”
цвето́к (tsvyetók) “flower”

Three segment clusters

So far we have focused on two segment consonant clusters, but what about three segment clusters? There are some fairly simple three segment clusters like ‘скр-‘ /skr/, but there are also a lot of difficult ones.

вдруг (vdruk) “suddenly”
взба́лмошный (vzbálmoshniy) “hysterical”
взлёт (vzlyot) “takeoff; flight”
впра́во (fprávo) “to the right”
вспять (fspyat’) “back”
здра́вствуйте (zdrástvuytye) “hello”
кста́ти (kstáti) “incidentally; by the way; by any chance”
мгла (mgla) “haze; gloom”
мгнове́нный (mgnovyénniy) “instant; instantaneous”
скрип (skrip) “squeak”

Four segment clusters

Okay. If you thought any of the previous clusters were difficult, they are nothing compared to the following words. These words have four initial consonants!

взгляд (vzglyat) “glance”
вздро́гнуть (vzdrógnut’) “to shutter”
всплеск (fsplyesk) “splash”
встре́тить (fstryétit’) “to meet; to encounter”

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you are new to learning Russian, don’t let all of these difficult words scare you away!

The words introduced in this post are not all of the difficult words that exist, there are many more out there! Grab a dictionary or look online for some more!

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