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Thread: Confused about soft vowels

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    Confused about soft vowels

    I learned that the Russian vowels е, ё, ю and я have a distinct y-sound at the beginning of a word and after another vowel.

    At first I thought this meant that there's no "y" sound after a consonant, especially after a native speaker told me that "медленно" is pronounced "MEHD-lee-nah". However, it seems that in all the pronunciation guides, the "y" sound is included even after consonants.

    Is this because a soft consonant, when pronounced correctly, naturally provides the "y" sound?

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    Quote Originally Posted by rebmaboss View Post
    I learned that the Russian vowels е, ё, ю and я have a distinct y-sound at the beginning of a word and after another vowel.

    At first I thought this meant that there's no "y" sound after a consonant, especially after a native speaker told me that "медленно" is pronounced "MEHD-lee-nah". However, it seems that in all the pronunciation guides, the "y" sound is included even after consonants.

    Is this because a soft consonant, when pronounced correctly, naturally provides the "y" sound?
    It is because that is how the untrained ear of non-natives hears soft consonants

    In fact, медленно does not have any "y" sound! But "м" and "л" are palatalized: ['mje-dljɪ-nnə], where both [mj] and [lj] are palatalized ("soft") consonants. A soft consonant is a single sound, it does not really contain "y", but it is pronounced with the middle part of the tongue raised towards the front palate (during all the time of its pronunciation, not just at the end phase!).

    For more details, see hear:
    Russian phonology - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The contrast between palatalized and unpalatalized consonants is important in Russian, but English lacks this feature entirely.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Боб Уайтман View Post
    It is because that is how the untrained ear of non-natives hears soft consonants

    In fact, медленно does not have any "y" sound! But "м" and "л" are palatalized: ['mje-dljɪ-nnə], where both [mj] and [lj] are palatalized ("soft") consonants. A soft consonant is a single sound, it does not really contain "y", but it is pronounced with the middle part of the tongue raised towards the front palate (during all the time of its pronunciation, not just at the end phase!).

    For more details, see hear:
    Russian phonology - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The contrast between palatalized and unpalatalized consonants is important in Russian, but English lacks this feature entirely.
    That makes sense. So, with palatalization, "ся" is pronounced "ca", and те is pronounced "te", right? Not "cya" and "tye"?

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    However, it seems that in all the pronunciation guides, the "y" sound is included even after consonants.
    All those "guides" must be burnt, because they mislead learners. The pronunciation of a hard consonant and "y" instead of a soft consonant is a typical mistake. lya will be written лъя, in fact.

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    Quote Originally Posted by rebmaboss View Post
    That makes sense. So, with palatalization, "ся" is pronounced "ca", and те is pronounced "te", right? Not "cya" and "tye"?
    Noooo! "Ся" and "ca" are pronounced differently. You may say, that "ca" + palatalization = "cя", and vice versa, "ся" without palatalization = "са".

    It's important to understand, that there's no such thing as soft vowels, but there are soft and hard consonants, and that most Russian consonants can be either hard or soft, depending on the following vowel. It' crucial for correct pronunciation.

    Check these two topics. There are explanations on a similar issue and helpful videos.
    What is and what is not important in Russian pronunciation
    Confused over "e" in these words

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    Many Russian consonants come in "hard"/"soft" pairs, and the quality is expressed in print by the letter used to represent the vowel. That is, the letters in these pairs a/я, э/е, о/ё, у/ю are all pronounced the same! (the pair ы/и is a slightly different issue). It is the preceding consonant that is pronounced differently. Except for word-initial position, where both members of the pairs can occur, in which case you get the "y-glide" as in English "yet" occurring before the "soft" member of the pair (the second one in my examples). So the word for Christmas tree ёлка is phonemically represented with this y-glide (a semivowel) as /jólka/, but the word тёлка has an initial palatalized ("soft") consonant: /t'о́lka/
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    Just to make it clearer. There are 4 possibilities:

    са [sa] - hard s + ah
    ся [sja] - soft s + ah
    съя [sja] - hard s + y + ah
    сья [sjja] - soft s + y + ah

    The IPA symbol of [j] stands for the English "y" sound in "yes", [sj] stands for the palatalized [s] (a single sound!).

    All the four syllables above are pronounced differently.
    But the difference between the latter two (съя and сья) is never used to distinguish between different words, although the difference is still noticeable.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Боб Уайтман View Post
    Just to make it clearer. There are 4 possibilities:

    са [sa] - hard s + ah
    ся [sja] - soft s + ah
    съя [sja] - hard s + y + ah
    сья [sjja] - soft s + y + ah

    The IPA symbol of [j] stands for the English "y" sound in "yes", [sj] stands for the palatalized [s] (a single sound!).

    All the four syllables above are pronounced differently.
    But the difference between the latter two (съя and сья) is never used to distinguish between different words, although the difference is still noticeable.
    What a perfect summary! Just what I needed!

    Wow, I guess Russian isn't as hard as english after all

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    Quote Originally Posted by Боб Уайтман View Post
    Just to make it clearer. There are 4 possibilities:

    са [sa] - hard s + ah
    ся [sja] - soft s + ah
    съя [sja] - hard s + y + ah
    сья [sjja] - soft s + y + ah

    The IPA symbol of [j] stands for the English "y" sound in "yes", [sj] stands for the palatalized [s] (a single sound!).

    All the four syllables above are pronounced differently.
    But the difference between the latter two (съя and сья) is never used to distinguish between different words, although the difference is still noticeable.
    I wonder why many textbooks fail to explain that.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Marcus View Post
    I wonder why many textbooks fail to explain that.
    Most anglo beginners will struggle to hear or even understand the distinctions between soft and hard consonants, let alone be able to reproduce them, and in the meantime explaining "ся" as "s + ya" gives a good enough approximation of the correct sound to get by on.

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    Quote Originally Posted by zedeeyen View Post
    Most anglo beginners will struggle to hear or even understand the distinctions between soft and hard consonants, let alone be able to reproduce them, and in the meantime explaining "ся" as "s + ya" gives a good enough approximation of the correct sound to get by on.
    No, it doesn't. It is absolutely wrong. Sya and ся are as similar as w and v in English. If it is difficult to hear and understand, it must be properly explained and emphasized.
    These are all PHONEMIC distinctions which are represented by Russian orthography. When we studied English, we used to write phonemic transcriptions in the IPA. We did not hear the difference between many English sounds, especially vowels, but we were taught that there were different sounds.
    Replacing soft consonants with a consonant + yot is not an approximation at all for a Russian ear. Saying lya instead of ля is worse than saying la with hard L. Georgian accent with their нэт sounds better. Such explanations do not allow to understand the meaning of the disjunctive signs, how to pronounce soft consonants at the end of a syllable, give wrong and simulteniously difficult pronunciation.
    In this case it is really better to pronounce са in reflexive verbs because such pronunciation exists.
    And it is very difficult to correct then, because the pronunciation must be established at the first stages of language learning and because people say: "It was written in textbooks".
    It is a comon mistake made by anglophones to say a consonant + y instead of a soft consonant, because to an untrained English ear it can sometimes really sound like that. But textbooks should pay attention at it and say that students should avoid this pronunciation.
    The words лёд and льёт differ by the presence of this "y" sound, they are [l'ot] and [l'jot]. Do you know how Russians pronounce the word "word"? вёрд. Does it sound similar? No. But that's how "nyedyelya" sounds to a Russian, with the same degree of accuracy.

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    I'm not arguing the toss one way or the other, I was just pointing out the justification for glossing over that aspect of the language in beginner texts.

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    Quote Originally Posted by zedeeyen View Post
    I'm not arguing the toss one way or the other, I was just pointing out the justification for glossing over that aspect of the language in beginner texts.
    Entirely wrong expalanations cannot be justified, because they do not help but make big harm to a language learner. I explained why. It is difficult to understand for a native English speaker that replacing a soft consonant with a consonant (usually hard) is not an approximation, that's just a replacement of one sound with two different. Like w is v and oo pronounced simulteniously, lets approximate w like voo. Or English th in think is f and s pronounced simulteniously, lets say fs instead of th - fsink.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Marcus View Post
    Entirely wrong expalanations cannot be justified, because they do not help but make big harm to a language learner. I explained why. It is difficult to understand for a native English speaker that replacing a soft consonant with a consonant (usually hard) is not an approximation, that's just a replacement of one sound with two different. Like w is v and oo pronounced simulteniously, lets approximate w like voo. Or English th in think is f and s pronounced simulteniously, lets say fs instead of th - fsink.
    Don't forget that English in Russia is a widespread academic subject which most learners begin in school, so beginner English texts in Russia are introductory-level academic works. In contrast, academic Russian is virtually unheard-of in anglo countries and the overwhelming majority of Russian-learners are teaching themselves in their own time, and so beginner Russian texts are more like hobby or self-help books than academic textbooks.

    There is a world of difference between learning a language as an academic subject and learning a language to "get by" conversationally. Different motivations, different market, different approach.

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    Quote Originally Posted by zedeeyen View Post
    Don't forget that English in Russia is a widespread academic subject which most learners begin in school, so beginner English texts in Russia are introductory-level academic works. In contrast, academic Russian is virtually unheard-of in anglo countries and the overwhelming majority of Russian-learners are teaching themselves in their own time, and so beginner Russian texts are more like hobby or self-help books than academic textbooks.

    There is a world of difference between learning a language as an academic subject and learning a language to "get by" conversationally. Different motivations, different market, different approach.
    I couldn't have said it better myself. I'm hoping to be in Russia long-term, which is why I wanted to know precisely how to pronounce things. But some people just want to take a short trip to Russia, so they want to learn just enough to communicate. If they speak slowly, Russians will understand them based on context, just like we in America still understand people who speak poor English.

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    Quote Originally Posted by zedeeyen View Post
    Don't forget that English in Russia is a widespread academic subject which most learners begin in school, so beginner English texts in Russia are introductory-level academic works. In contrast, academic Russian is virtually unheard-of in anglo countries and the overwhelming majority of Russian-learners are teaching themselves in their own time, and so beginner Russian texts are more like hobby or self-help books than academic textbooks.

    There is a world of difference between learning a language as an academic subject and learning a language to "get by" conversationally. Different motivations, different market, different approach.
    Russian with English sounds is practically incomprehensible, and you have to understand native speakers as well. Just think of a Russian saying vafe instead of wave, debt instead of dad, вёрт instead of word, will he be always understood?
    These books do not help, they only make harm. you have seen yourself: Боб Уайтман's table helped a learner more than many textbooks, and Bob managed to write it even not being a professional Russian as a second language teacher, as far as I understand.
    It is for a learner to decide what is important for him and what is not, textbooks must say correct things. Why should be the pronunciation fully negected and the grammar be studied if Russian is a living language?
    And it is still difficult to pronounce Russian words in this way. For example there is no "ly" in English, so it is not easy to pronounce such a combination of sounds especially after consonants. What for should they make effort to get wrong pronunciation if they can make effort to get the correct one? Russian soft L is very close (close enough for practical purposes) to the French or the German L. Does anyone hear the German or French L as ly?

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    I'd much rather learn it right the first time, and not 'un-learn' improper pronunciation. The books I've been using stressed the points Marcus has been making from the beginning, with exercises parallel to what Боб Уайтман has shown, with audio to drive it home. But then I've been using books written by Russians. Shop around.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Seraph View Post
    I'd much rather learn it right the first time, and not 'un-learn' improper pronunciation.
    I agree. Unless a person aims to learn a few phrases in Russian to impress his or her friends, it's better to be aware of correct pronunciation from the start.

    I believe, that the fact zedeeyen has mentioned is not directly connected to one language being learned academically, while another is not. Most Russian textbooks are very thorough about pronunciation, regardless of the language taught. It's just an example of different approaches, with western textbooks aiming mostly for quick results and instant communication, and Russian traditional textbooks aiming for "learning the language" (a global and almost never achievable goal).

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    Russian with English sounds is practically incomprehensible, and you have to understand native speakers as well. Just think of a Russian saying vafe instead of wave, debt instead of dad, вёрт instead of word, will he be always understood?
    No one is suggesting speaking "Russian with English sounds", merely that the distinction between hard and soft consonants is rarely (if ever) a real-world impediment to understanding on its own, especially for beginners who are struggling with so much more already. I was using Russian for years before I really understood the difference between hard and soft consonants, let alone became able to pronounce them myself. In all that time this inability hindered me not one iota. What impeded communication was gaps in my vocabulary and grammar and mistakes with declensions and conjugations. There are literally no real-world situations where pronouncing ся as sa or s-ya will confuse a listener.

    These books do not help, they only make harm.
    Don't be silly. If communication is your motivation, then of course they help. If your motivation is learning the language for academic purposes, or to perfect it, or to pass as a native, or even to avoiding offending the delicate sensibilities of native speakers who are overly precious about their language, then you might have to pay more attention to it.

    you have seen yourself: Боб Уайтман's table helped a learner more than many textbooks, and Bob managed to write it even not being a professional Russian as a second language teacher, as far as I understand.
    No it doesn't. Боб Уайтман's table only explains the orthography of soft and hard vowels and how they relate to preceding consonants. It doesn't explain the actual distinction between soft and hard consonants at all. To learn that you have to hear it, and to be able to hear it you need an understanding of the basics.

    It is for a learner to decide what is important for him and what is not, textbooks must say correct things. Why should be the pronunciation fully negected and the grammar be studied if Russian is a living language?
    Who has said that pronunciation should be "fully neglected", or even anything like that? You asked why beginner texts tend to ignore the subtleties of soft and hard sounds, and I attempted to explain it for you. It's not about neglecting anything, it's about prioritising that which makes a big difference over that which makes less of a difference. A beginner text can only contain so much information. Of course an author could include an in-depth explanation on softness (not that it's really possible to explain the difference between a soft and hard sound using only text anyway), but they'd have to lose something else to make space for it. What would you suggest should make way for this explanation? The chapter on verbal adverbs? Numbers? Reflexive verbs?

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    Quote Originally Posted by zedeeyen View Post
    No one is suggesting speaking "Russian with English sounds", merely that the distinction between hard and soft consonants is rarely (if ever) a real-world impediment to understanding on its own, especially for beginners who are struggling with so much more already.
    It's a somewhat harmful point of view in a way that it gives a learner an impression that hard and soft consonants are less important than other aspects of pronunciation. It's the same as telling a Japanese ESL learner that he should not bother learning to distinguish between R and L, because the difference is hard to explain and people would understand him anyway (from the context, if anything).
    And they would. But does he really wants to speak with a cartoonish accent after putting so much effort into learning grammar and vocabulary??? Or people having to decipher his every word and constantly asking him to repeat yourself?

    My personal point of view that there's no reason to postpone mastering correct pronunciation. Relearning it could be hell. And if you won't be able to pronounce some sounds from the start (maybe even for months), it's one more reason to start early.

    An additional bonus of decent pronunciation is that it makes your language seem better than it is! It's a fact (really).

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