hard sign

Soft sign

The soft sign (Ь, ь) is a symbol in the Cyrillic alphabet. In the Old Slavic language, it represented a short [i]-like vowel; but in modern Slavic Cyrillic writing systems (all East-Slavic plus Bulgarian and Church Slavic), it does not represent an individual sound but just indicates softening (palatalization) of the preceding consonant—or just has a traditional orthographic usage with no phonetic meaning (like Russian туш ‘flourish after a toast’ and тушь ‘India ink’, both pronounced [tuʃ], but different in grammatical gender and declension). Also, it has a function of "separation sign": in Russian, vowels after the soft sign are pronounced separately from the previous consonant and are iotated (compare Russian льют [lʲjut] '(they) pour/cast' and лют [lʲut] '(he is) fierce'). That is, the soft sign is functionally rather a modifier of the neighboring letters than a real letter itself.

Unlike the regular yer, or "hard sign" in Russian, the separation performed by the soft sign is only partial, meaning that it changes the sound of both the letters before and after it. This is why in Russian it is more orthographically correct to write подъезд (pod'yezd), the porch, than подьезд (podjyezd), where the д would be pronounced as [dje].

Among Slavic languages, soft sign has the most limited use in Bulgarian: since 1945, the only possible position is one between consonants and 'o' (for example, in names Жельо, Кръстьо, Гьончо etc.).

The Cyrillic variant of the Serbo-Croatian language (Vukovica) has had no soft sign since mid-19th century: palatalization is represented by special consonant letters instead of this sign (some of these letters, such as Њ or Љ, were designed as ligatures with the soft sign). The modern Macedonian writing system, created in 1944 and based on the Serbo-Croatian variant, has had no soft sign from the very beginning.

No words start with it, and under normal orthographic rules it has no uppercase form. However, Cyrillic type fonts do normally provide an uppercase form for setting type in all caps, or for using it as element of various serial numbers (like series of Soviet banknotes) and indices (for example, there existed model of old Russian steam locomotives marked "Ь").

In the romanization of Cyrillic words, soft signs are typically replaced with the prime symbol (or, alternatively, apostrophe) or just ignored (especially in the final position: Тверь=Tver, Обь=Ob etc.).

Name of the letter

  • Old Slavonic: ѥрь (yerĭ)—meaning of the word is unknown
  • Church Slavonic: єрь (yer’)
  • Bulgarian: ер малък (="small yer"), whereas the hard sign is named ер голям (="big yer")
  • Russian: мягкий знак (="soft sign"), or (an archaic, mostly pre-1917 name) ерь [jerʲ]
  • Ukrainian: м’який знак (="soft sign")
  • Belarusian: мяккі знак (="soft sign")
  • Serbocroatian (and all its variants): tanko jer/танко јер (="thin yer"), or simply jer/јер (yer)—whereas the hard sign is named debelo jer/дебело јер (="thick yer") or simply jor/јор (yor)

See also

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