When I was taking my ten week Russian course years ago, I ran across an MP3 with sample sounds. The pair that got me very worried was Борис vs Борись. At the time, I could hear only the vaguest difference between those sounds, much less be able to reliably pronounce them.

Recently I was wondering how common it is in Russian that two words differ only by a soft sign. Is that rare, not uncommon, or does it happen all the time? Is there any list of words like this somewhere? I was thinking of developing a list and saying one of the pair to a native speaker and asking them which one I said, and having them say a random choice and me telling them what I heard.

I remember reading about how close the French words for "over" and "under" sound (both sound like "desous"), and that French orators tend to avoid using them because it is hard to make sure everyone hears the right word over a PA system, etc. Does the same thing happen in Russian, or is the difference really obvious to the native Russian ear? Or does Russian encode words differing only in a soft sign with wildly different meaning so the correct word is heard easily in context? (Apparently, Борись is archaic.)

These days when I meet a native Russian speaker, I often ask them to pronounce Борис vs Борись, so I can again marvel at how subtle the difference is to this native English speaker's ear.

  • 2
    in Russian palatalization of hard consonants is absolutely perceived to be an accent – Баян Купи-ка Oct 15 '18 at 6:49
  • 3
    борись іs by no means archaic, it's an imperative form of the verb бороться, not sure about it as a variant pronunciation of the name Борис, have never encountered it – Баян Купи-ка Oct 15 '18 at 6:54
  • final soft sign seems non-typical to Russian male names, at least in modernity ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Категория:Русские_мужские_имена, the only one is Игорь – Баян Купи-ка Oct 15 '18 at 7:10
  • There aren't enough to worry about. But if you want to have a good accent you need to figure out how to make all the soft sounds. – VCH250 Oct 15 '18 at 7:18

The vowels in dessous and dessus are clearly different - like u in full vs u in dude. Unless you pronounce dude like dood there shouldn't be any confusion between 'below' and 'above' in French.

There is a clear difference to a Russian speaker between the consonants with and without the soft sign. Конь sounds different from кон and даль sounds different from дал. Palatalized vs non-palatalized consonant is easily audible for a native speaker. There might be more combination like that, but it's the only one I can think of that comes up often.

In fact the only two words that sound very similar and often have to be repeated loudly in Russian that I can think of are Июнь and Июль, but it's because of l and n sounding similar in that particular combination, especially when pronounced quickly.

Try saying Ron, then Ronnie. And try to cut off the 'ie' from Ronnie while keeping the trailing soft sound after the 'n'. It sounds as if you were going to pronounce 'e' or 'i' after a consonant but changed your way at the very last moment and the vowel got cut off, leaving consonant sounding different than normally.

Find an audio of дельфин In Russian. Don't worry about the stress (it's on the second syllable), just listen to the l sound and compare it with l in English dolphin. You can use Google Translate, the pronunciation is alright there. It might not be clear if you're not used to the sound, but once you get it, you shouldn't be confused afterwards.

This video starts right at the chorus. https://youtu.be/FqB-m0dKO-g?t=78 At the second line (repeated throughout) there are two words with and without soft sign after т - память and лет. The singer cuts off 't' very nicely so лет has a very nice short hard т sound, (while память has a soft t).

  • The vowels in "dessous" and "dessus" are indeed different, but the one in "dessous" is more like that in "dude". English (outside the Glasgow accent) doesn't really do the [y] vowel in "dessus", and as far as I know French doesn't really do the [ʊ] vowel of "full". (At least Lexique's list of pronunciations of French words doesn't use a separate symbol for [ʊ].) – Rosie F Oct 15 '18 at 10:04
  • Also I don't think you can find any palatalization in Ronnie vs Ron. English's [n] is very different sound from Russian one and it is not changed when soft vowel goes next. – alamar Nov 13 '18 at 16:04

It's a widely recognized point of view that one can claim that phoneme exist or does not exist in language (that said, is not distinguishable for a native speaker) that there exist a pair of meaningful words in that language such that they differ only by having or not having that phoneme.

In my personal opinion this requirement is too strict and quite often such phoneme exist if there's no such pair.

However, talking specifically about Russian and palatalized consonants - rest assured, they are distinguishable and in order to learn Russian one need to be able both distinguish palatalization both orally and audibly.

Ironically for Russian speakers palatalizing consonants that do not have palatalized counterpart in modern Russian (that is, ж, ш and ц) is much as difficult as it to, say, English speaker.

  • 1
    Doesn't ш have щ as its soft pair? The ж also happens to be soft in several words where it's written as doubled (although it seems that the pronunciation of those words is shifting towards the hard ж). – Joker_vD Oct 15 '18 at 10:20
  • @Joker_vD nope, soft ш was a different kind of beast and yes, ж was soft as well. – shabunc Oct 15 '18 at 11:13
  • Guess i can not imagine that "different kind of beast" then – Arioch Oct 15 '18 at 18:58

It seems to me that there are not so many Russian words like that.

Here are a few pairs I can think of:

Мол - моль

Ролл - роль (the spelling differs a lot but the sound at the end is very similar - the only difference is the l' sound at the end of роль)

Кров - кровь

Вонь - вон

Коп - копь

Зор - зорь

Мороз - морозь

Of course, there may be more examples. If I remember some more, I promise to edit my answer adding the pair(s).

As for understanding which word is being said, I don't think it's too hard. I can't remember a time when I or someone I know had such problems.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Quassnoi Oct 18 '18 at 17:43

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