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I often read that Russian consonants are "harder" than English ones--that is, they are velarised. I understand how this affects the consonant when pronounced in isolation--Т, Т, Д, Д--with secondary articulation of the back of the tongue towards the soft palate.

But does this matter beyond the isolated pronunciation of consonants? I mean, when we pronounce a consonat with a vowel, are the consonants velarised?

т + velarisation + vowel?

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    No, the Russian consonants are not velarized. – Yellow Sky May 13 '18 at 12:58
  • @YellowSky Yes, they are. – Viridianus May 14 '18 at 9:59
  • i would love if someone gave a couple of examples of velarisation in Russian, i watched a video on velarised L in English and this is nothing like what i'm familiar with in Russian pronunciation – Баян Купи-ка May 14 '18 at 10:47
  • @Viridianus Care to elaborate? Wiki: Ashby (2011:133): "Note that though Russian has traditionally been described as having all consonants either palatalized or velarized, recent data suggests that the velarized gesture is only used with laterals giving a phonemic contrast between /lʲ/ and /ɫ/ (...)." – jwalker May 14 '18 at 12:08
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    @jwalker mostly already elaborated in the answer below, but note especially ш and ж which are nothing like sh and zh partially because of the velarization. – Viridianus May 15 '18 at 23:04
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Velarization is there, and it is (unlike, say, glottalization) simultaneous with the main articulation not consecutive to it. Therefore, having a vowel around does not usually affect it (rather, it goes the other way around, so э is not very fronted after hard consonants; и cannot combine with them, and other vowels are back themselves).

There is a dispute whether already velar consonants are velarized (к, г, х) though; for labial and coronal it is beyond doubt for a trained phonetician (and especially well heard for л, ж and ш). That said, speakers do not usually understand it until they're confronted with languages with non-velarized consonants - and sometimes even after that.

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That's how they used to teach native kids in Russian schools some years ago.

All vowels can be hard and soft except few. (Notice the use of "hard" and "soft" instead of "velarised" - "palatlised". I am not sure if the terms were avoided to make the rules more intuitive or because the kids were native and they didn't need more generic linguistic terms.)

Consonants are read "hard" or "soft" depending on the following vowels or special letters: hard and soft signs. The default state is "hard", so when a consonant is not followed by anything it is "hard", thus usage of hard sign to make consonant hard is obsolete in modern written language, but can be found in books dating before 1918.
Vowels that make consonants soft: e, ё, и, ю, я. Soft sign: ь.
Vowels that make consonants hard (or rather don't make them soft): э, о, ы, у, а.

Compare:

  • м in мера - мэр
  • т in тёр - топ
  • н in ныть - нить
  • л in люк - луг
  • р in ряд - рад
  • с in нос - ось

The following consonants are always hard: ж, ц, ш. The following consonants are always soft: й, ч, щ. (De facto these might be not completely true for certain dialects or variants of pronunciation: e.g. вожжи, дрожжи, дождь might be pronounced with "softish" ж).

Hard and soft signs also have "separating" function. In this case the soft sign may loose the softening function: льёт - soft л, but вьюн - hard в.

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Some info I could find. There are two opposite processes in Russian pronunciation : palatalization (connected with soft consonants) and velarization (connected with hard consonants) The vivid example of a velarized consonant is hard [л], but velarization also characterizes other hard consonants. In Russian soft [ Л'] in "люк", "мель" is palatalized, and hard [ Л] in "лук", "мел" is velarized. Веларизованные согласные могут быть губными и переднеязычными.Palatalization in Russian is stronger than velarization.

Источник. Русская фонетика. Мультимедийный Интернет-учебник. Автор/создатель: Кедрова Г.Е., Потапов В.В., Егоров А.М., Омельянова

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