Russian 3305/3306: Letters and Sound. Part 2

Part 1 suggests spelling problems because often there is no one-to-one correspondence between a sound and a letter. This section offers solutions for consonants.

Мягкие и твердые согласные звуки (palatalization)

  1. Use ь to indicate palatalization of a consonant when it is the last sound / letter in the word or when the next sound / letter is also a consonant. This includes the imperative forms of many verbs (i.e., commands, requests, or adivce)
    Examples: жизнь, площадь, сядь, встань, познакомь, познакомьте, маленький, мельче
  2. To indicate palatalization of a paired consonant (парный согласный звук) when the next sound / letter is a vowel, use palatal indicators и е я ё ю.
    Examples: пятка, Петя, белка, десятый
  3. After unpaired consonant sounds, use:
    1. After ж ч ш щ, always use и у а (never ы ю я), except in these three foreign words: брошюра, жюри, парашют.
      Examples: жизнь, чудо, широкий, площадь
    2. You will hear a stressed sound -о- after ж ч ш щ in the root of a Russian word, but you should write ё, except in these words: крыжћвник, шћрох, шћв, ожћг, чћкнуться, жћпа.
      Examples: щёлкать, жёлтый, чёрный, чёрт, жёлудь, пришёл. Do not confuse the root vowels with the sound -о- in the suffix, e.g. горшок, порошок, жучок; similarly, -онок is a suffix in медвежћнок (the root is медвед-/медвеж- or, more accurately, this word has two roots: мед- "honey" and вед-/веж- "know, knowledge"). Foreign words (where Russian spelling often reflects the original Latin spelling) don't always follow this rule, e.g. шок, капюшћн.
    3. After ц, use ы in Russian words and in all endings. Use и in foreign words.
      Examples: цыпленок, цыган, танцы, but цирк, цикл, Франциска, цивилизация, стронций.
      Note that in words like ситуация, организация, etc. the syllable -ци-, even though the -и- in it may look like an ending, comes from the original foreign word's root (-tion) and so is spelled with -и-. This may be easier to understand and remember if you realize that the root ends in the two sounds /iy/; only the /-a/ sound is the ending: /-ций+а/, spelled -ция.
    4. After ж ч ш щ аt the end of the word, use:
      • Nothing if the word is a masculine noun.
        Examples: мяч, малыш, финиш, шалаш, нож, муж.
      • ь if the word is a feminine noun.
        Examples: ночь, дочь, мышь, вещь, ложь.
      • ь if the word is a verb (infinitive, imperative, or the ты-form).
        Examples: мочь, лечь; ешь! не плачь!; пишешь, бежишь.
      • There are a few words ending in ч or ш that are neither nouns nor verbs and are spelled with a soft sign at the end, e.g. лишь "only," сплошь "solidly," and вскачь "at a trot." These words are adverbs.
    5. When in doubt about the choice between -о- and -e- after ж ч ш щ ц in an unstressed ending, use -е-. (When the ending is stressed you normally hear it well, and should not be in doubt: spell it as you hear it.)
      • the ending is not stressed and cannot be clearly heard, so spell it with -e-: фќнишем, мџжем, Петрћвичем, нљмцем;
      • compare to: мячћм, малышћм, ножћм, Ильичћм, латышћм, латышљй, карандашљй (the ending is stressed and can be clearly heard as either -о- or -е-);
      Note: this doesn't apply to the ending for the мы-form of verbs, which is also -ем if unstressed but -ём if stressed, e.g. мы рљжем vs. мы стрижём.
    6. The letter ы never follows к г х.
      Examples: Кира, гимнаст, ноги, короткий.

Глухие и звонкие согласные

When two consonants follow each other, and the second one unvoiced, the first is also pronounced in an unvoiced manner, e.g. трубка is pronounced as if spelled with a -п-. In сладкий and гладкий, we say -тк- but in fact these roots end in -д.
Similarly, when the second consonant is voiced, the first is also pronounced in a voiced manner, e.g. отдохнуть is pronounced as if spelled with -дд-; отгрузить is pronouncd as if it is spelled with -дг-.
The last consonant sound of a word is always pronounced in an unvoiced manner, e.g. лук and луг sound identical. It takes less effort to say an unvoiced consonant at the end of a word. Russian has numerous examples of this phenomenon, e.g. the last sound in враг, друг, мёд, лёд, год, проход, муж is unvoiced. If you hear a voiced consonant at the end of these words, then either the speaker has a strong non-Russian accent, or you are misinterpreting what you hear; yes, our hearing mechanisms are quite capable of deceipt, just like the eye often deceives us into seeing something that isn't there, e.g. the illusion of smooth movement in a film.
  1. To choose between a voiced and unvoiced consonant letter in the root (which may or may not be the last sound in the word), find another form of the same word (or another word with the same root) where the consonant is followed by a vowel.
    Examples: дуб - дуба, год - годы, трубка - трубочка, травка - трава, низкий - низенький, раб - работа
  2. To choose between с and з at the end of a prefix, look at the first letter of the root:
  3. To choose between a voiced and unvoiced consonant at the boundary between the prefix and root (other than for с vs. з described above), try to find another word with the same prefix where it is followed by a vowel.
    Examples: подпись - подушка (the prefix под- means "under"), отправиться - отойти (the prefix от- means "away, away from").
  4. Непроизносимые согласные

    A consonant cluster often mutes one of the consonants. To reveal the silent consonant, find a related word that does not have the same cluster. Examples: здравствуй - здравый, грустный - грустить, честный - честь, местный - место, счастливый - счастье, поздно - опоздать. Sometimes you will discover that there is in fact no silent consonant, e.g. опасный - опасаться, опасен; чудесный - чудеса, чудесен. An analysis of the word often helps: the -н- in грустный, опасный, etc. is a suffix; the -т- in грустный, etc. is part of the root. But sometimes we cannot find a word to clarify the situation. For example, there is no word to prove that the root does not have a -т- or a -д- between the "з" and the "н" in разный, разница. There is also no word to reveal the -д- in праздник, праздновать. Try to remember these two roots: they are common.

    Согласный звук Й

    1. Use the letter й to indicate the corresponding sound when it is the last sound / letter in the word or when it is followed by a consonant.
      Examples: сарай, дай, майка, найдут.
    2. Use а palatal indicator letter when this sound is between two vowels or at the beginning of the word.
      Examples: её, знаю, маяк, музеи, ёлка, юбка, язык.
    3. When the й-sound follows a consonant, use:
      • ъ (разделительный твёрдый знак) to separate (разделить, отделить) a prefix from the root (or the 1st root from the 2nd root) that begins with е ё я ю.
        Examples: объяснение, съехать, подъезд, сверхъестественный.
      • ь (разделительный мягкий знак) in all other cases.
        Examples: обезьяна, Татьяна, воробьи, нальёт, чьи.
    4. In some word you don't hear the sound й and may need to analyse the word to determine that it does belong there. E.g. английский and по-английски are spelled with й even though you normally don't hear the sound й there. You'll know why it is there if you consider the word Англия: the sound й is the last sound in the root. Similarly, many people pronounce сейчас without the sound й, but you'll know it should be there if you realize that the two roots in that word are сей "this" and час "hour." (You also hear сей in the expression сию минуту, but that is spelled as two words.)

    Compiled by Slava Paperno. Not copyrighted. May be reproduced without asking for permission. Comments sent to will be appreciated.