I am a native Russian speaker. Sometimes I encounter English speakers who are trying to learn Russian and wonder how to pronounce "soft" consonants.

At the same time while learning English I noticed that definitely not all consonants are pronounced "hard" in standard English (as we were taught in English classes). It seems that English speakers quite naturally pronounce "soft" consonants in plenty of words without knowing about that.

For example in words "kid" and "give" the first consonant is pronounced "soft" by both British and American speakers: http://lingvopro.abbyyonline.com/ru/Translate/en-ru/kid

http://lingvopro.abbyyonline.com/ru/Translate/en-ru/give

In "meeting" the first "m" is "soft" as pronounced by both speakers: http://lingvopro.abbyyonline.com/ru/Translate/en-ru/meeting

In "please" the British speaker pronounces "soft" "l" while the American pronounces "hard" "l": http://lingvopro.abbyyonline.com/ru/Translate/en-ru/please

In "business" they both pronounce "soft" "b" http://lingvopro.abbyyonline.com/ru/Translate/en-ru/business

In "limit" the British speaker pronounces "soft" "l" and "m" while the American pronounces the both "hard". http://lingvopro.abbyyonline.com/ru/Translate/en-ru/limit

In "cheese" the first "ch" is pronounced "soft" by both speakers: http://lingvopro.abbyyonline.com/ru/Translate/en-ru/cheese

while in "choice" the British speaker pronounces "soft" "ch" while the American pronounces "hard": http://lingvopro.abbyyonline.com/ru/Translate/en-ru/choice

Some consonants are always "soft" in English, such as [j] as in "yes". This consonant is always "soft" in Russian too.

At the same time IPA traditionally only indicates "softness" in Russian words while it does not indicate any in English words. I wonder, why.

  • 3
    I cannot understand what you mean by hard and soft here. – tchrist Aug 5 '12 at 14:58
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    In Russian, there is a phonemic distinction between palatalized and unpalatalized consonants. Traditional grammarians (and some linguists working on Russian) call the palatalized ones "soft" and the unpalatalized ones "hard." – Leah Velleman Aug 5 '12 at 17:30
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    The palatalisation dualism is also reflected in Cyrillic alphabet ("и" vs "ы" etc), but not in Latin alphabet. Because these sounds aren't perceived as different in English. – katspaugh Oct 26 '12 at 10:36
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    I saw the question title, and just knew it was coming from a Russian ;-) After long discussions with a Russian friend a few months ago, we came to the conclusion that these distinctions make no sense in English. The Russian was explaining these sounds to a group of people of various countries, including the US. None of us could hear the distinctions. – prash Apr 13 '13 at 10:18
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    @ColinFine Actually the two sets of consonants in Irish are usually known as "broad" and "slender" (or in Irish "caol agus leathan"). – Gaston Ümlaut Jul 2 '13 at 3:03

The key reason is that the "soft"/"hard" distinction is phonemic in Russian, but not in English. As such, the distinction is not rendered in phonemic (broad) IPA transcription. A narrow transcription may use the palatalisation diacritic ʲ.

Indeed, as you've observed, palatalisation before front vowels in English is subject to idiolectal and dialectal variation. For example, I doubt that unconditional palatalisation before front vowels is present in my idiolect (Australian English).

  • 3
    Please explain what this is actually talking about, because it makes no sense as written in the OP. – tchrist Aug 5 '12 at 14:58
  • See @Dan Velleman's comment. – jogloran Aug 6 '12 at 0:31
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    In your second sentence I think you meant to say "...not rendered in phonemic (broad) IPA transcription."? – Gaston Ümlaut Apr 13 '13 at 14:07

In English, there is no change in meaning due to the change in palatalization, like there is in Russian. We have no contrastive words or minimal pairs due to palatalization. Дан [dan] and дань [danʲ] are different, meaning "Dane" and "tribute" but this differentiation doesn't occur in English.

That doesn't mean that palatalization isn't an interesting concept in English though.

For example:

Western American speakers render "education" as [e.d͡ʒɪ̈.ˈkej.ʃɪ̈n], resulting from the palatalization of the 'd' followed by the /ju/.

Some British accents pronounce "tune" as [t͡ʃun] for the same reason, and despite these siginficant changes in pronunciation due to palatalization, they do not change meaning.

Our /ɹ/ sound has an interesting effect on palatalization as well in some dialects:

"try" -> [t͡ʃɹaj]

"dragon" -> [ˈd͡ʒɹæ.gɪ̈n]

In conclusion we have quite the opposite phenomenon occurring in English, words can be significantly palatalized but do not change meaning.

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