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According to these consonant assimilation rules, the letters г and к form a voiced/voiceless pair, and the final consonant in the cluster voices or devoices the preceding consonant.

If these rules apply, then shouldn't the 'г' in "мягкий" be assimilated into another 'к'? Why is it pronounced like an 'х' instead (mʲæxʲkʲɪj)?

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  • It's very difficult to imagine an answer to a question why something is pronounced the way it is de-facto pronounced. Basically you are making an assumption and do not explain how exactly you came to this conclusion and then asking why the reality doesn't check up.
    – shabunc
    Sep 24, 2019 at 20:29
  • @shabunc I added the basis for the assumption to the question, hopefully it makes it clearer.
    – Orion
    Sep 24, 2019 at 20:47
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    From the practical point I'd say, that in language learning "rules" are just generalizations, which should help one to remember things without memorizing 1m cases. But there are exceptions too. They certainly have explanations, but often it's easier to just remember an exception without finding an explanation. Like in English, the construct "it's part of a …". Why doesn't the word part have an article? Or 'just in case'? I've decided that for me it'd be harder to find an explanation, then simply remember the fact without one. Sep 24, 2019 at 21:08
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    @YellowSky [волккий] first "к" is hard, second "к" is soft.
    – sanaris
    Sep 24, 2019 at 22:01
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    @user907860 This actually made me look into Portuguese phonology. As a native speaker, I had always assumed it had a fairly simple and predictable set of pronunciation rules. But revisiting it from the perspective of a new learner, it actually has quite a few special rules, exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. That's not even going into all the regional variations, of which there are many. I guess with any language you're just going to have to accept that not everything is going to be neatly defined.
    – Orion
    Sep 27, 2019 at 4:03

4 Answers 4

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It is an exception to the general pronunciation of "г" ([g] / [k]). In native Russian words, a "г" directly before "к" or "ч" is pronounced [x].

Other exceptions of the pronunciation of "г":

  • "г" is pronounced as в ( [v] / [ʋ] ) in genitive endings "-го" of adjectives, participles, their nominalizations (eg. "управля́ющего", "дежу́рного") and applicable pronouns (eg "его́", "како́го"); .

  • "г" is pronounced [х] in "Бог"

  • "г" is pronounced [ɦ] / [ɣ] in certain interjections ("ага", "гей") and in the vocative "Го́споди".

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In Belarussian (a close relative of Russian), the letter 'г' represents two different sounds; one forms a pair with 'х', and the other with 'к' (in the IPA, they're the velar fricative and the velar plosive, respectively). Russian, on the contrary, doesn't have the voiced velar fricative sound, but it has the unvoiced one — 'х'.

So you're half right — the pair is 'г'/'к'. It's just a different, non-existent 'г' in "мягкий" :D

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    Actually, Russian does have the voice velar fricative phoneme, it just doesn't have a distinct letter to represent it. It's an allophone of x and can be heard in: горох же [gʌˈroɣʒɨ] and бухгальтер [buˈɣal̡t̡ɪr], for instance.
    – CocoPop
    Feb 4 at 16:51
  • @CocoPop are you conflating бухгалтер and бюстгальтер?
    – mustaccio
    Feb 5 at 14:48
  • @mustaccio: No, that would be [b̡uzˈɣal̡t̡ɪr].
    – CocoPop
    Feb 5 at 14:51
  • I'm talking about the spelling
    – mustaccio
    Feb 5 at 14:53
  • @mustaccio: Oh, I didn't mean to add the m.z. — force of habit))
    – CocoPop
    Feb 5 at 14:56
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As far as I know, this phenomenon is called linguistic economy principle in English, or закон лингвистической экономии in Russian. It refers to when you have to pronounce certain words a special way just because it's easier to pronounce them that way. I think you'll agree with me when I say that to pronounce мягкий with [x] is much easier and sounds better than with [к].

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Because it's actually not the pair г/к, but rather г/к,х.

Мягкий [м'aхк'ий]. Лёгкий [л'охк'ий].

Here ' stands for the soft sign/palatalization.

Also, despite any rules pursuant to which the (theoretical) pronunciation рюкзак [р'угзак] is prescribed, when you actually hear this word in speech, you can detect a little "aftersound", and, with some training, realize what letter is used because it actually contains a hint of the sound [к'].

There are even certain people who pronounce it in a way that kind of leans towards [р'укзак]. This к is closer to киянка than to катер.

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  • That doesn't give any answer at all... In most Slavic languages the root is M(a vowel)K (cf. Rus. МЯКоть). The question is the source of [x] and why it alternates with [g] (cf. мяГенький), although the Proto-Slavic form was *mękŭkŭ.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 24, 2019 at 21:20
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    @YellowSky Потому, что на определённом этапе звуковое разнообразие расширилось. Поэтому язык отошёл от стандартного "двузвучного" альтернирования.
    – sanaris
    Sep 24, 2019 at 21:23
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    Давайте разберёмся. Начнём с краткой формы. Протослав. *mękŭkŭ должно было бы закономерно дать рус. *мякок, а дало мягок, со звонким Г. Допустим, К между гласными озвончилось в Г (хотя ни в одном другом слав. языке такого не произошло). Но тогда почему в мякоть тоже между гласными К остался? Откуда взялся этот Г?
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 24, 2019 at 21:37
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    Я это просто привел как пример, как СМИ влияют на то, как люди что-то произносят. Т.е. 1000 лет назад, когда никаких СМИ не было, в селе за 30 километров от тебя уже могли говорить по-другому. А за 1000км уже слабо вообще можно было понять язык. Сегодня же все больше и больше людей на огромных расстояних говорят все более одинаково. Т.е. разнообразие произношений в целом сужается, а по вашей версии оно со славянских времен расширилось Sep 24, 2019 at 22:01
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    @user907860 вы абсолютно не правы, 1000 лет - это огромный срок, за который фонетический строй может претерпевать очень сильные изменения - далеко не всегда это будет уменьшение количества фонем.
    – shabunc
    Sep 25, 2019 at 6:33

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