Soft and Hard, Voice and Voiceless - Consonants Explained
The basic rule is that consonants are "soft" if they are followed by soft-indicating vowels or the soft sign. Consonants are "hard" when they are followed by hard-indicating vowels or the hard sign. You may want to review a lesson on Russian vowels before you proceed any further.
Soft and Hard
The concept of "soft" and "hard" consonants should be familiar to you if you speak English. The following example roughly shows that the letters m and l can be both "hard" and "soft" in English. The word "soft" here means that your tongue should be arched against the roof of your mouth (called the soft palate) so that it "softens" the sound.
Voice and Voiceless
Just like in English, several Russian consonants come in pairs where one letter is pronounced voiced and another one is similar but voiceless. For example, the English letters b and p make the pair (try saing bat - pat to feel the difference). The word "voiced" here means that your vocal chords should vibrate when making a sound. Vibration of vocal chords is the main factor in grouping Russian consonants into voiced and voiceless.
Learn the following voiced-voiceless pairs in the Russian language:
г к (rarely х)
Now you are ready for the important rule that Russian voiced consonants are pronounced as their voicless counterparts when they appear in the the very end of the word. For instance, the word год (year) is actually pronounced as гот, the word глаз (eye) sounds like глас, the word бог (god) is said бох, etc.
Another rule is that voiced consonants become voiceless when they are followed by other voiceless consonants. For example, the word подпись (signature) sounds like потпись because the voiced letter д is followed by the voiceless п.
On the other hand, voiceless consonants sound voiced when they are followed by voiced consonants. For example, the word футбол is pronounced as фудбол.
(д becomes т, з becomes с)
(г becomes к, з becomes с)
(Courtesy of masterrussian.com)