I understand that the difference between "щ" and "ш" is (roughly) the difference between "shya-" and "sha-". But how do you differentiate "щ" and "шь"? For example, I always differentiated, for example "н" and "нь" as "na-" and "nya-". By that logic, to me, "щ" and "шь" sound the same when I pronounce it. Its probably not a very important distinction in practical usage, but I still want to understand why the sounds are different. If anyone can find an audio/video clip illustrating the difference, it would be great!

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    Is there a native speaker near you with whom you could practice pronunciation in real time and get feedback?
    – KCd
    Jan 15, 2013 at 2:51
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    There is no difference in pronunciation of "ш" and "шь". I am a native speaker.
    – A-K
    Jul 29, 2014 at 18:47

3 Answers 3


The point is there are at least 2 ways щ can be pronounced and there is no difference in the pronunciation between шь and ш.

First, let us have a look at ш. This sound is different from the English "sh" in the word "ship" in that respect, that it is non-palatalized, it is always 'hard' (Russian 'твёрдый'). The fact, that ь is written after it in the 2nd person singular preset tense verbs (пишешь) and in feminine nouns ending in ш (мышь) must not confuse you, this ь is just an orthographic convention, it does not influence the pronunciation of ш, ш is always non-palatalized. The IPA symbol for the English 'sh' is /ʃ/ and for the Russian 'ш' is /ʂ/, it is a retroflex consonant (you can listen to the sound there).

As for щ, it is a long alveopalatal consonant, IPA symbol for it is /ɕː/ (you can listen to the sound there, and there is also the sound for the Russian word 'счастье' in which 'сч' is pronounced as 'щ'). Roughly speaking, in Standard Russian it is pronounced like the English 'shsh' in the phrase 'the dish she likes'. Some people pronounce щ as 'шч', but this pronunciation is considered obsolete.

Also, remember, that Russian orthography is rather tricky, the /ʂ/ sound can be spelled as ш, ж, с, з, and the /ɕː/ sound as щ, сч, шч, зщ, сщ, жд. The word 'дождь' can be pronounced as 'дощ' or as 'дошть'.

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    Очень хороший вопрос! Спасибо вам большое! Jan 14, 2013 at 18:46
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    chubbycantorset: surely you meant Очень хороший ответ!
    – KCd
    Jan 15, 2013 at 2:50
  • ответ, да. Извините. Jan 15, 2013 at 5:00
  • What about the case when шь is not at the end of the 2nd person singular of the present tense? For example is мышьяка pronounced like "мышяка" or like "мыщяка", or neither of these?
    – kjo
    Mar 20, 2016 at 21:27
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    @kjo - Neither. "Mышьяка" is pronounced as "мыш - я - ка". In this word the soft sign serves as the so-called разделительній мягкий знак, 'the separating soft sign', it simply shows that the following я is pronounced as йа, but it cannot change the pronunciation of ш which is alway non-palatalized.
    – Yellow Sky
    Mar 21, 2016 at 11:10

The thing is that ш is usually (see exceptions in comments) hard (sha in your system), even when soft sign ь comes after it (делаешь, тушь are pronounced exactly how they would be pronounced without ending ь). Note situations like this: in word шип, и does not make ш soft, ш turns и into ы in pronunciation. And 'щ' is usually soft (shya).

This table is shown to students in primary school:

Russian alphabet phonetic table

Look at the consonants (the cyan section) -- green letters are always soft (щ is green), blue letters are always hard (ш is blue). Two-colored letters have both hard and soft sounds.

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    Seems the table is somehow rough and inadequate. "ч" can be hard (e.g.: лучший). "ц" can be soft (Цюрих, Цюрупа). "ж" is allowed to be soft in some combinations (e.g. "дождя" as /дʌжʲːӓ/). Correlation in pairs between upper series (voiced) and lower (voiceless) doesn't coincide in any way with palatalization, so signs "ъ" and "ь" on right margin are misplaced. Even if to justify simplification, needed for primary school, this table is bad.
    – Netch
    Jan 17, 2013 at 7:51
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    @Netch Yes, I definitely shouldn't say "always" because exceptions always exist. I'll change it to "usually". But I think for basic learning the table is quite suitable. BTW, in addition to your soft ж example "Замесили на дрожжах, — Не удержишь на вожжах!" Jan 17, 2013 at 8:52
  • Ж is always non-palatalised. There is no sound [ж'] in Russian according to the Petersburg's pronunciation norm. Дождя is pronounced [д^жд'а] not the way you wrote it, although Moscow people are notorious for such a pronunciation. Лучший and its derivatives are the only exceptions for ч, and actually there is no non-palatalised ч, the letter ч is pronounced in this group of words as if there were letter т there. Words like Цюрих are marginal. The table is right. Ъ and ь are not to show that voiced are hard and voiceless are soft. They are just two extra letters - neither consonants nor vowels.
    – Viridianus
    Feb 15, 2014 at 20:04
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    @Netch лучший is always pronounced [лутший']. Цюрих is pronounced [цур'их].
    – Anixx
    Sep 24, 2014 at 6:32

"Ш" is equal to "sh". And "Щ" is something between "th" and "sh". When you spell "Щ" your tongue is more close to teeth.

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