I've noticed that what some languages refer to as "soft k" and others as "soft t" seems to be the same sound. Is it so?

I was able to find a wiki page discussing the "soft g"/"soft d", but nothing on this case.

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    In what language? What kind of a difference? Since they're written with different letters and have different linguistic descriptions, I have no idea what you are really asking.
    – user6726
    Jan 11, 2023 at 5:34
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    @user6726 I am talking about symbols in the IPA. Do the two symbols refer to the same sound or two different sounds? If the latter is true, how are they different?
    – Džuris
    Jan 11, 2023 at 9:06
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    Are /t/ and /k/ different? Yes, they are. They are pronounced in different places, the former being much further front than the latter. Why then would they be the same when both are modified in the same way, by being palatalised? Sometimes you can have different ways of writing the same sound – for example, if a vowel is more fronted than IPA vowel A but less fronted than IPA vowel B, you can use the ‘fronted’ diacritic on A or the ‘retracted’ diacritic on B for it. But you can’t use the same diacritic on different sounds and end up with the same sound. Jan 11, 2023 at 9:26
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    @Džuris No, they are not the same sound! They are distinguished in a number of languages, including Russian and some dialects of Irish, and they are phonetically quite different. The page you link to also does not say they are the same sound – quite the opposite. Jan 11, 2023 at 11:42
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    @Džuris [c] can develop from earlier [t̠ʲ] or [kʲ], but all three sounds are unique. Just as [h] can develop from [s], [x] or many other sounds without those being identical phones
    – Tristan
    Jan 12, 2023 at 10:11

1 Answer 1


It depends.

IPA is a fairly limited tool to describe this area of pronunciation. Like /a/ for open vowels or /r/ for rhotic consonants, the IPA symbol /c/ can be used in a broad as well as a narrow sense.

One issue is that none of “/tʲ/“, “palatalized t”, ”/kʲ/“, palatalized k”, “soft k", “soft t” refers unambiguously to a single phone (a sound defined in terms of its phonetic or articulatory properties, rather than in terms of its function in a language’s sound system). The symbols /tʲ/ and /kʲ/ are in slashes, meaning they denote phonemes, and phonemes are language-specific. Terminology like "soft" is even more vague: you could say from a certain point of view that the English word “patience” has “soft t” and “soft c”. The term "palatalized" has multiple senses: a phonetic sense, a phonological sense, and a historic sense.

The phoneme inventory of a language may but does not have to distinguish /tʲ/ from /kʲ/

It is possible for a language to have a contrast between what can be described as a palatalized t phoneme and a palatalized k phoneme, in which case we can transcribe these phonemes as /tʲ/ and /kʲ/ respectively.

Irish is a good example, although the palatal(ized) counterpart to /k/ in Irish is often transcribed as /c/ rather than as /kʲ/. (user6726 posted a comment beneath my answer to another related question, What are the differences between palatal consonant and palatalized consonant?, suggesting that "under classical assumptions about binary features [[kʲ] and [c] (likewise [ç] and [xʲ]] could not contrast". Janus Bahs Jacquet posted a comment below saying "Irish /kʲ/ is actually [kʲ] or [k̟] in most northern dialects, that is, it is decidedly still (pre-)velar. Conversely, it’s fully palatal [c] in southern dialects").

Russian is another example, although a weaker one since in native vocabulary, Russian palatalized and unpalatalized velars are generally in complementary distribution.1

For these languages, we can justify the use of the notation /tʲ/ and /kʲ/ by noting that Irish and Russian seem to in general organize their phoneme inventories in terms of pairs of palatalized and velar(ized) consonants. Thus, on the level of their phonemic system, it is reasonable to say that there are /tʲ/ and /kʲ/ sounds just as there are other palatalized sounds like /pʲ/, /mʲ/, /lʲ/. On the phonetic level, things may be more complicated.

[c̟] or [t̠ʲ] would be narrow phonetic transcriptions of a particular sound

In theory, the sign [ʲ] in IPA phonetic notation is supposed to describe a secondary articulation of palatalization, so [tʲ] and [kʲ] should respectively represent a palatalized coronal plosive and a palatalized velar plosive.

Phonetically, the issue with the IPA palatalization diacritic in regard to [tʲ] and [kʲ] is that it's not actually so common for palatalized versions of these sounds to be realized with a "secondary" articulation present alongside a clearly distinct "primary" articulation (as we see with palatalized labial sounds like [pʲ]). Instead, since coronal, palatal and velar sounds are all articulated with somewhat similar areas of the tongue, "palatalization" of [t] or [k] tends to result in the sound being realized as a fully palatal stop, as a stop with some kind of intermediate place of articulation, or as some kind of affricate.

The IPA letter [c], when used to represent a phone rather than a phoneme, is vague: it is defined as a voiceless palatal plosive, but it is not clearly defined whether it is closer in quality to a [tʲ]-like sound or a [kʲ]-like sound. The transcriptions [c̟] or [t̠ʲ], mentioned in the Wikipedia article Voiceless palatal plosive, are ways to be more specific.

But many phonetic transcriptions aren't that specific (phonetic transcriptions can be "narrow" or "broad", and in broad transcription details like this can be left out), and in phonemic transcriptions, it can even be considered bad style to use diacritics that are not needed to mark a phonemic distinction in the language. So in practice, the IPA letter is underspecified in terms of what phones it represents, meaning might represent different sounds in different languages.

You can't necessarily compare phonemes between languages using IPA transcriptions

The phonetic value of a sound transcribed as /c/, /tʲ/ or /kʲ/ in a language that does not have a contrast between these symbols could be various things. A sound transcribed as /c/ in one language could conceivably be the same as a sound transcribed as /tʲ/ in a second language, or /kʲ/ in a third language.

In the case of Russian /tʲ/, Wikipedia says "Soft /tʲ, dʲ, nʲ/ are laminal alveolar [t̻ʲsʲ, d̻ʲzʲ, n̻ʲ]. In the case of the first two, the tongue is raised just enough to produce slight frication as indicated in the transcription", citing Jones & Ward (1969:104–105 and 162) (Russian phonology - Wikipedia). I don't know what more recent descriptions say about Russian.

As for Latvian "ķ", I haven't found a detailed discussion of its pronunciation but it seems to be generally described as a true palatal [c].


  1. We could argue based on the low contrastive load that /kʲ/ is only a marginal phoneme in Russian; nevertheless, sequences like /kʲu/ can occur in loanwords such as кювет, педикюр, and I do not believe Russian speakers generally have any difficulty distinguishing /kʲu/ from /ku/. See Parker, J. (2015). SOLVING RUSSIAN VELARS: PALATALIZATION, THE LEXICON AND GRADIENT CONTRAST UTILIZATION. The Slavic and East European Journal, 59(1), 70–90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44739582
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    One Russian example that comes to mind is типа “sort of” vs кипа “a pile”
    – Alex B.
    Jan 14, 2023 at 1:43
  • Note: Irish /kʲ/ is actually [kʲ] or [k̟] in most northern dialects, that is, it is decidedly still (pre-)velar. Conversely, it’s fully palatal [c] in southern dialects – I’m not entirely sure about western dialects, but I suspect palatal there as well, since Wikipedia’s default descriptions of ‘Irish’ phonetics generally describe southern and western commonalities. Jan 14, 2023 at 11:49

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