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On soft consonants in English

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Disclaimer. I am not a linguist, I have technical background and do not speak English myself (I do not do it as a part of my regular everyday activity).
Some people, especially Slavic ones, do not make the difference in the pronunciation of the words, that differs by the long e and short i sounds, like beach-bitch, peace-piss, sheet-shit, beam-bim. Luckily, we pronounce all of them with long e sound. I decided to teach myself to pronounce it right and found an interesting (at least for me) phenomenon. We are taught that English does not have soft consonants the way Russian does. I believe that soft consonants we make the following way – we smile a little and raise the middle of the tongue in the upper position as for the long e sound: b b’. Our textbooks claim that the difference in “beat” and “bit” is in the vowel sound only. But if you start pronouncing the hard b in “beat” and then raise the middle of your tongue up for the long e sound for a very short time it will sound as the short i. But if you raise your tongue in advance and start pronouncing b in this position you will get traditional Russian soft b’ sound.
So, I wonder if it is valid to pronounce “beat” with the Russian soft b’ sound, i.e. if you raise your tongue in advance for long e sound and start pronouncing b in this position. If you start with the soft b’ it will be possible to continue with the long e only. But how it will sound for native English speaker: as a native accent, a foreign accent or just normal? And if you find this variant of pronunciation acceptable it will mean (from my point of view) that English does have soft consonants too and you just emphasize the vowels after them.

English speakers generally do not have problems understanding Russian accents in English, except perhaps extreme cases. So you will be understood if you say [bʲit], and there's a better than random chance people will identify you as a Russian speaker based on pronunciation. The fact that we can understand you doesn't mean that we have palatalized consonants. Non-native speakers often import sounds of their language into English, and we can still understand them. Russians can also understand English speakers who mess up pronunciation of Russian – "horosho", but Russian does not have h or ʃ (it has ʂ for ш).

One problem is assimilation, where any two adjacent sounds will at least subtly, or sometimes obviously, affect each other's pronunciation. This makes describing and understanding Russian pronunciation in technical terms difficult, because there are differences in how the consonants are pronounced, but also the vowels. In fact, while it is generally described as a difference in the consonants, it is actually written in the language mostly via the vowels!

To fully understand this, you should read about palatalization (for example, on Wikipedia), including a bit of the history of Russian.

Generally speaking, palatalization is not a general part of English pronunciation, so most consonants are just not palatalized, nor are the vowels that follow. But we do have some similarities. A few consonants pronounced near the palate do get pronounce that way and therefore change the vowels near them, or sometimes palatal (high front) vowels cause consonants to palatalize via assimilation. But this isn't a relevant factor for example with [b]. There are also some interesting details like with how <u> is often pronounces "yu", like in "union".

The "short/long" distinction of English vowels is generally unrelated to this, but also tricky, and as you say, not found in Russian. Speakers of many languages have trouble with this (for example, Spanish), so it's familiar to English listeners, who can probably still understand in context. (Very rarely does it actually matter whether you say "sheet" or "shit", because those are such different meanings it's clear anyway. And yes, it's helpful that you probably would make an error by pronouncing the longer for I guess!) But the "short/long" distinction is tricky because of English spelling: these aren't actually the same sounds, just shorter/longer. They're different qualities of vowels. English spelling was standardized about 500 years ago, and around that same time the Great Vowel Shift was affecting the pronunciation of long vowels, but not short vowels. So the short vowels mostly remained in their original positions (you can see this by comparing their pronunciation to Latin or various other languages, or even transliterated Russian), but the long vowels are now just different sounds, about "one place" away within the vowel space. But then we have pairs like "ee" [i] vs "i" [ɪ], which you identified, but which are not generally called "short/long" pairs by English speakers, although linguists know this of course.

Hello, and thank you for replies. My introduction was probably misleading and you emphasized different aspects of the problem than I expected. Yes, I do not speak English myself and do not know English very well but I know a lot about English, I know why “break” and “bread” are pronounced differently and why the “night” has such a strange spelling, I even know about the Big Northern Cities Vowel Shift (the accent I like) and can tell the difference between “Hi, ya’ll, whahdahrya’llfixin’to” and “hello, you guys”. I have listened to a lot of different American English pronunciation courses and all of them carefully hide the information about the consonant before long e pronunciation.
I do believe if you start to pronounce hard b in “beat” and then raise the middle of your tongue up for the long e sound than
1. There will be for the very short time the short i sound before you switch to the long e.
2. You will have to say a rather prolonged vowel in “beat”. (And yes, I do know that short i can be longer than long e and probably can even demonstrate it myself).
I also believe you may start to pronounce b in “beat” having your tongue put already in the position for the long e. In this very case, you do not need to move your tongue for the long e and can speak quicker. You will also get crystal clear long e sound. But, your b will be softened in this case – you just have no choice.
When I listen to the different (professional) speakers I either hear no difference in their way of pronouncing “bit” and “beat” or I hear clear soft b’ in “beat”. This very moment puzzles me a lot.
So, is your articulation for the consonant b the same in “beat” and “bit” or, probably, your tongue for the b sound is in a different positions?
Is different tongue position (when the middle of the tongue is raised for the b in “beat”) acceptable for the standard American accent? Or for a native English accent? Or such way of pronouncing is peculiar to non-native English speakers only and all natives raise their tongue for the long e after they say the consonant b?
Thank you in advance.

The example with [i] is a little unusual, because even in Russian, и vs. ы is clearly a vowel difference, rather than (only) a consonant difference, which is distinct from the other vowels where there is a clear "y" [j] sound which we could either consider as part of the consonant (palatalized) or as a diphthong for the vowel. So for example Russian я is basically a combination of йа, rather than a distinct vowel.

Anyway, for English, there is no such thing as a soft consonant. That's just not part of the grammar (phonology). There are a few consonants that are always pronounced like "soft" Russian consonants (they're palatalized), but there is no variation in this way. The front vowels [i, e] also do create to some extent a little palatalization, but that's not nearly as extreme or important as in Russian. On the one hand, because this is not an important (phonemic) contrast in English, you can in principle pronounce them either way without changing the word to a different meaning. On the other hand, (most) English consonants just aren't "soft" (they're "hard" if you need a label), so English speakers would pronounce them "normally" (for English), and any variation from that would sound like a "foreign" accent (but probably still understandable because there's no other word with "soft" variants that would be confused). There are also a few cases where coincidentally the same kind of pronunciation as in Russian might appear, as in beauty (roughly бюти [bjuti]), but not because English has a soft/hard contrast, just because similar sounds go together in some cases. As for [bi] specifically (or any consonant followed by [i]), there is just never a contrast, and we pronounce the vowel like и, not ы.

(As an interesting footnote, English speakers do pronounce ы in the very specific context of some quickly-pronounced words [mostly function words or simple adverbs?] like "just" as in "I just did it", but not when the word is stressed. Whereas most vowels reduce to schwa [ə], in just a few words instead the vowel reduces to a similar but raised form [ɨ], although it's really more of a lax version of that, which I guess we could write as [ɪ̵].)


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