Speaking about translating letters to phonemes, Russian orthography works as follows ("С" stands for a consonant):As M goes before я why is it written семья and not семя? Is there a difference in the pronunciation of the two words?
The most important difference is the presence of underlying /й/. Those "iotated" letters ("е", "ю", "я", "ё") represent /йэ/, /йу/, /йа/, /йо/ in all positions except when they directly follow a consonant letter - and "ь" surely doesn't count as a consonant letter.So the only difference is the stress?
I wanted to mention those cases, but changed my mind for the sake of simplicity. Anyway, the position before /й/ is weak for most consonants in regard to softness, so it doesn't matter a lot how these consonants are actually pronounced.Семья can be also pronounced with hard m: [sʲemja].
I'd say all of them are pronounced with hard м. But anyway the difference between hard and soft м in this word is subtle due to the following j.I have a side question concerning the word семья. The corresponding Ukrainian word, сім'я, should be pronounced with a hard m sound. However, listening to the examples from Forvo, I really can't hear any difference with respect to the Russian word. Do native Russian speakers hear any difference from Russian in the Ukrainian recordings?
The Russian word on Forvo is pronounced about half of the time with the soft [м'], as I hear it. I wouldn't call that difference instantly audible, though. Still, Ukrainian "сім'я" demonstrates a different pronunciation of the both vowels, which is well audible (in Russian it would be an accent).