Getting to grips with ‘voiceless’ letters: Ь and Ъ

23 March, 2021

As if getting to grips with the cyrillic alphabet isn’t difficult enough for new students of Russian, two of the Russian alphabet’s 33 letters are ‘voiceless’: Ь and Ъ.

How is Ь pronounced ?

Ь is the soft sign (мягкий знак). It is voiceless, but its presence indicates a modification of the consonant which precedes it. The preceding consonant is made soft (palatalised). Palatalisation involves raising the tongue towards the roof of the mouth. Thus, in Russian, soft consonants involve touching part of your tongue to the palate, whilst hard consonants do not.

When is Ь used?

It is most commonly used:

1. At the end of a word 

  • Here Ь is used to soften consonants at the end of a word (in the following examples the softened consonant has been highlighted), for example конь (horse), шить (to sew), темь or темень(darkness).

2. Within words, to separate two consonants 

  • Here Ь behaves similarly to at the end of a word: it simply softens the consonant which precedes it. For example, in Ольга (Olga) and бросьте (drop!).

3. Within words, to separate a consonant and a vowel 

  • Here Ь separates a consonant from a palatalised vowel sound, such as Е, Ё, Ю, Я, И. The soft sign is placed either in the root or before the suffix, but never after the prefix of the word. For example, семья (family) and карьера (career).

How is Ъ pronounced?

Ъ is the hard sign (твёрдый знак). It is used to show that the consonant preceding it should not be palatalised and that the consequent vowel is preceded by the “y” sound as in yes.

When WAS Ъ used?

There have been 4 major official reforms of the Russian cyrillic alphabet: those of 1701, 1885, 1918 and 1956. These reforms aimed to modernise and streamline the cyrillic alphabet.

Besides replacing Ӏ  with И, the Reforms of 1918 were especially consequential for the use of Ъ. Prior to the Reforms of 1918 Ъ had two main uses: 

1. At the end of words that would otherwise end in a consonant (in the following examples ъ has been highlighted)

  • In most cases Ъ meant that the gender of the word (whether it be a noun or  verb) was masculine. For example, Санктъ-Петербургъ (St. Petersburg) and понялъ (he understood).

2. Within words, to separate the prefix and the root of a word 

  • In this case Ъ was used if the prefix ended with a consonant and the root began with a vowel. For example, the word сэкономить (to save money) was spelled съэкономить.

How did The Reforms of 1918 change the use of Ъ?

As a result of the reforms, the use of Ъ changed significantly. 

1. Ъ was no longer required at the end of words, after a hard consonant. 

  • Simply omitting the hard sign in such cases saved around 5% of text, which Time Magazine 1964 estimated meant a single copy of War and Peace would be seventy pages shorter than before the 1918 reforms! 

2. An apostrophe replaced Ъ when separating the prefix and root of a word. 

  • For example, объявление (announcement) became обявление. However, this new rule was applied inconsistently throughout the Soviet period. Therefore, today, we still use Ъ when separating the prefix and root of a word, but only if the root begins with Е, Ё, Ю or Я. For example, подъезд (approach, driveway, entrance).

How is Ъ used today?

Today Ъ is only used after the letters Е, Ё, Ю or Я and in the following cases: 

1. After prefixes that end in consonants 

  • As mentioned above, despite attempts to substitute  Ъ with an apostrophe in the Reforms of 1918, Ъ is used today. For example, объединение (union).

2. In compound words after двух-, трёх-, четырёх- etc.

  • For example, трёхъязычный (trilingual).

3. After foreign prefixes ending in a consonant 

  • For example, the prefix пан in панъевропейский (pan-European).

 

It’s as easy (/hard) as that! Whilst it can be tricky to get your head around how these ‘voiceless’ letters affect pronunciation and when they are used, we can at least be thankful that Ъ is far less common today as a result of the orthographic Reforms of 1918.

Want to get to grips with some more difficult-to-grasp aspects of Russian language? Take a look at https://lidenz.ru/common-mistakes-russian-learners-make/

Posted by Amy Wyatt

Привет! Меня зовут Amy. I study Russian and History at Durham University, and am currently interning and studying with Liden and Denz St Petersburg. I am particularly interested in Soviet and post-Soviet history, Russian literature, and current affairs.

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