The soft sign (Ь, ь, italics Ь, ь; Russian: мягкий знак Russian pronunciation: [ˈmʲæxʲkʲɪj znak]) also known as the front yer or front er, is a letter of the Cyrillic script. In Old Church Slavonic, it represented a short (or "reduced") front vowel. As with its companion, the back yer ⟨ъ⟩, the vowel phoneme that it designated was later partly dropped and partly merged with other vowels.
In the modern Slavic Cyrillic writing systems (all East Slavic languages and Bulgarian and Church Slavic), it does not represent an individual sound but indicates palatalization of the preceding consonant.
Uses and meanings
The soft sign is normally written after a consonant and indicates its softening (palatalization). Less commonly, the soft sign just has a grammatically determined usage with no phonetic meaning (like Russian: туш 'flourish after a toast' and тушь 'India ink', both pronounced [tuʂ] but different in grammatical gender and declension). In East Slavic languages and some other Slavic languages (such as Bulgarian), there are some consonants that do not have phonetically different palatalized forms but corresponding letters still admit the affixing soft sign.
The Cyrillic alphabet of Serbo-Croatian (Vukovica) has had no soft sign as a distinct letter since the mid-19th century: palatalization is represented by special consonant letters instead of the sign (some of these letters, such as ⟨Њ⟩ or ⟨Љ⟩, were designed as ligatures with the grapheme of the soft sign). The modern Macedonian writing system, based on the Serbian variant, has had no soft sign since its creation, in 1944.
Before a vowel in East Slavic languages
Between a consonant and a vowel, the soft sign bears also a function of "iotation sign": in Russian, vowels after the soft sign are iotated (compare Russian льют [lʲjut] '(they) pour/cast' and лют [lʲut] '(he is) fierce'). The feature, quite consistent with Russian orthography, promulgated a confusion between palatalization and iotation, especially because ⟨ь⟩ usually precedes so-called soft vowels. Combinations ⟨ья⟩ (ya), ⟨ье⟩ (ye), ⟨ьё⟩ (yo) and ⟨ью⟩ (yu) give iotated vowels, like corresponding vowel letters in isolation (and word-initially), and unlike its use immediately after a consonant letter in which palatalization can occur but not iotation. In those cases, ⟨ь⟩ may be considered as a sign indicating that a vowel after it is pronounced separately from the previous consonant, but that is the case neither for ⟨ьи⟩ (yi) nor for ⟨ьо⟩ (yo), because these vowels are not iotated in isolation. The latter case, though, is rarely used in Russian (only in loanwords such as ⟨бульон⟩) and can be seen as a replacement of phonetically identical ⟨ьё⟩, which gets rid of an "inconvenient" letter ⟨ё⟩. In Ukrainian and Bulgarian, the spelling ⟨ьо⟩ indicates palatalization, not iotation.
⟨ъ⟩, an "unpalatalization sign", also denotes iotation, as in the case of ⟨ъя⟩, ⟨ъе⟩, ⟨ъё⟩ and ⟨ъю⟩ in Russian.
Similarly, the soft sign may denote iotation in Belarusian and Ukrainian, but it is not used so extensively as in Russian. Ukrainian uses a quite different repertoire of vowel letters from those of Russian and Belarusian, and iotation is usually expressed by other means in Ukrainian.
Among Slavic languages, the soft sign has the most limited use in Bulgarian: since 1945, the only possible position is one between consonants and ⟨о⟩ (such as in names Жельо, Кръстьо, and Гьончо).
As a vowel in Slavistic
Traditionally, the soft sign does not occur after vowels, but the ⟨аь⟩ digraph for [æ] or [a] was introduced to some Cyrillic-based alphabets such as Chechen, Ingush and various Dagestanian languages such as Tabasaran.
There were proposals to use the same for Turkic languages, as a replacement to Cyrillic Schwa (Ә) for [ə] or /æ/. Unlike Schwa, which is not represented in many Cyrillic character repertoires such as Windows-1251, both ⟨а⟩ and ⟨ь⟩ are readily available as letters of the basic modern Russian alphabet.
Under normal orthographic rules, it has no uppercase form, as no word begins with the letter. However, Cyrillic type fonts normally provide an uppercase form for setting type in all caps or for using it as an element of various serial numbers (like series of Soviet banknotes) and indices (for example, there was once a model of old Russian steam locomotives marked "Ь" – ru:Паровоз Ь).
In the romanization of Cyrillic words, soft signs are typically replaced with the prime symbol ′. Occasionally, an apostrophe is used, or the soft sign can even be ignored if it is in a position that it does not denote iotation: Тверь=Tver, Обь=Ob.
Name of letter
- Old Church Slavonic: ѥрь (yerĭ), with unknown meaning
- Church Slavonic: єрь (yer')
- Bulgarian: ер малък [er ˈma.lək] ('small yer'), the hard sign ⟨ъ⟩ being named Bulgarian: ер голям ('big yer')
- Russian: мягкий знак [ˈmʲæxʲ.kʲɪj znak] ('soft sign') or (archaic, mostly pre-1917 name) ерь [jerʲ]
- Ukrainian: м’який знак [mja.ˈkɪj znak] ('soft sign')
- Belarusian: мяккі знак [mʲak.kʲi znak] ('soft sign')
- Serbian (and all its variants): tanko jer / танко јер ('thin yer'), or simply jer/јер ('yer'), the hard sign ⟨ъ⟩ being named debelo jer / дебело јер ('thick yer') or simply jor / јор ('yor')
Related letters and other similar characters
- Ъ ъ : Cyrillic letter Yer
- Ҍ ҍ : Cyrillic letter Semisoft sign
- Ѣ ѣ : Cyrillic letter Yat
- Ы ы : Cyrillic letter Yery
- Љ љ : Cyrillic letter Lje
- Њ њ : Cyrillic letter Nje
- Й and Ј, Cyrillic letters denoting [j]
|Unicode name||CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER SOFT SIGN||CYRILLIC SMALL LETTER SOFT SIGN|
|UTF-8||208 172||D0 AC||209 140||D1 8C|
|Numeric character reference||Ь||Ь||ь||ь|
|KOI8-R and KOI8-U||248||F8||216||D8|
|Code page 855||238||EE||237||ED|
|Code page 866||156||9C||236||EC|
- Sergeyev, Andrey V. (2001-04-19). "QazaNovica practical transcription – a project of reformed Cyrillic-based Turkic alphabet". "21st Century: language, time and space" international workshop. Retrieved February 12, 2012.