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An example of two words which differ only by a soft sign are кон (round, as in "the next round of a game") and конь (stallion, male horse). Often, English speakers do not know how to enunicate the soft consonant at the end.

How can we understand the difference?

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  • It has no sound of itself and is a mark to soften the consonant before it. The softening is performed by pressing the tongue to the palate more flatly than usual. There's the answer about Palatalization, that's it. You can say that "н" and "нь" in your example are two different letters (yes, implying that you could say that "нь" is one letter)
    – noncom
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 11:34

4 Answers 4

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The Soft sign, called мягкий знак in russian, has no pronunciation itself. Rather, it affects the letter that precedes it, through a phenomenon called Palatalization.

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  • If you need further explanation, I can improve this later on. I can't do it now, sorry! :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Jun 14, 2012 at 1:09
  • The soft sign affects not only the preceding letter, but also the letter before that. When saying кон and конь, the letter о is pronounced slightly differently. I don't know how to explain that, but when I noticed myself doing it I checked with a native speaker if the vowel two letters before the soft sign has its pronunciation affected by the soft sign and she said it does, but also that it's subtle.
    – KCd
    Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 0:25
  • I am not a native speaker but I have been learning Russian for a while. The soft sign is difficult to get right. As far as I have understood you have to move your tongue closer to the tip of yours teeth and then pronounce the consonant the soft sign is attached to. In this way you can distinguish between т / ть, р / рь, с / сь, and so on.
    – Giorgio
    Commented Jun 16, 2012 at 9:19
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First, try saying the plural of both words: кон -> коны (accent in "ы"), конь -> кони (accent on "o").

Now try to separate the word кони into two phonemes (phonetic parts) - кон and и. You should feel the lack of the softness at the end of the first phoneme. Now combine again, and try to keep the soft н, but without the ee sound produced by the letter и. If you still have difficulty, try adding the letter и to words with the soft sign; gradually, shorten it as much as possible. Good luck.

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  • This answer actually belongs to Darya Shavarina, I will remove mine if she adds her own answer.
    – jrouquie
    Commented Jun 29, 2012 at 15:38
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At least in the case of н vs нь, you can actually use English to feel the difference. Take the words canon and canyon. Canon is pronounced with normal [n]: kæ•nuhn. But canyon has a different type of [n] which is like a combination (not sequence!) of [n] and [y]. The symbol for this sound is [ɲ]: kæ•ɲuhn. Now, if you remove the -on endings from these words, you get [kæn] and [kæɲ]. The same happens with Russian кон vs конь: [kon] --> [koɲ]. Listen as I say: https://voca.ro/14dqoTGDwH0i (1) canon canyon (2) can- cany- (3) кон конь

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Soft sign has no pronunciation. The letter it follows is softened.

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