Voiced and unvoiced consonants in Russian

David A. Tanzer, March 26, 2021

For languages in general, consonants are either voiced — involving vibration of the vocal cords — or unvoiced. A voiced consonant may have as its “partner” an unvoiced consonant produced by suppressing its vocal action. For example, the ‘b’ consonant in English becomes ‘p’ when devoiced. The articulation of the two consonants is the same — e.g. the motion of the lips — except for the aspect of voicing.

In Russian there are six pairs of voiced/unvoiced consonants: б/п, в/ф, г/к, д/т, ж/ш, з/с. (English equivalents: b/p, v/f, d/t, zhe/sh, z/s.)

To see the correspondence, try saying each of the voiced consonants, then with the voice omitted, and you will hear the unvoiced equivalent.

There are three pronunciation rules involving transformations between voiced consonants and their unvoiced counterparts.

1. Devoicing at the end of words

At the end of a word, a voiced consonant gets pronounced as its unvoiced counterpart:

  • хлеб sounds as хлеп
  • Смирнов sounds as Смирноф
  • друг sounds as друк
  • Ленинград sounds as ленинграт
  • нож sounds as нош
  • мороз sounds as морос

Next, in a cluster of two consonants, the first consonant is voiced/devoiced to match the status of the second consonant. This breaks down into two rules.

2. A voiced consonant before a devoiced consonant becomes devoiced

  • юбка sounds as юпка
  • завтра sounds as зафтра
  • вегство sounds as векство
  • водка sounds as вотка
  • ложка sounds as лошка
  • сказка sounds as скаска

3. A devoiced consonant before a voiced consonant becomes voiced

  • рюкзак sounds as рюгзак
  • футбол sounds as фудбоп
  • вас зовут sounds as ваз зовут

Except: the voiced consonant в does not cause preceding consonants to become voiced. Without this exception, Москва would turn to Мозгва.

4. Double applications of the rules

  • мозг sounds as моск. Because: мозг changes to мозк changes to моск.
  • роезд sounds as роест. Because: роезд changes to роезт changes to роест.

Copyright © 2021, David A. Tanzer, All Rights Reserved.

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