|The Cyrillic script|
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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 it designated was later partly dropped and partly merged with other vowels. In the modern Slavic Cyrillic writing systems (all East Slavic plus Bulgarian and Church Slavic), it does not represent an individual sound, but rather 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 and some other Slavic languages (such as Bulgarian), there are some consonants which do not have phonetically different palatalized forms, but corresponding letters admit the affixing soft sign nevertheless.
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 this 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'). This 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 at the word beginning) and unlike its use immediately after a consonant letter, where palatalization can occur but iotation does not. In these cases, ‹ь› may be considered as a sign indicating that a vowel after it is pronounced separately from the previous consonant, but this 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.
Note that ‹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 this is not used so extensively as in Russian. Ukrainian orthography uses a quite different repertoire of vowel letters than Russian and Belarusian do, and iotation is usually expressed by other means there.
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› (for example, in names Жельо, Кръстьо, and Гьончо).
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As a vowel in Slavistic
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Traditional use of the soft sign does not allow its use 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. Similarly, the ‹оь› digraph was introduced for [œ] or [ø], and ‹уь› for [y], plus iotated forms such as ‹юь› and ‹яь› as required.
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 this letter. However, Cyrillic type fonts do 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 once existed 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 ′ (or, alternatively, apostrophe) or just ignored, if in a position where it does not denote iotation: Тверь=Tver, Обь=Ob etc.
Name of the letter
- Old Church Slavonic: ѥрь (yerĭ)—meaning of the word is unknown
- Church Slavonic: єрь (yer')
- Bulgarian: ер малък [er ˈma.lək] ('small yer'), whereas the hard sign ‹ъ› is named ер голям ('big yer')
- Russian: мягкий знак [ˈmʲæxʲ.kʲɪj znak] ('soft sign'), or (an 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')—whereas the hard sign ‹ъ› is 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.