Many Russian beginners are often daunted by the letters Ь and Ъ. And why wouldn’t they be? These letters are neither consonants or vowels, neither pronounced nor absent – a mystery to a person whose language may only consist of phonetically logical letters and laws. I think that understanding the letters Ь and Ъ is very beneficial as it helps to understand the way in which the entire Russian language is divided phonetically. This article sets out to cover both letters Ь and Ъ, and to show how they are demonstrative of the entire phonetic makeup of the Russian language.
Let’s start from afar
An important concept to understand before we set out to discuss Ь and Ъ, is the concept of softness and hardness. If we look at the vowels, we will see that some of them have the ability to soften the preceding consonant and some don’t:
- А (like ‘a’ in ‘market’)
- О (like 'a' in 'law')
- У (like 'ough' in 'through')
- Э (like 'e' in 'hell')
- Ы (like 'ee' if pronounced at the back of the throat)
- Е (like ‘ye’ in ‘kanye’)
- Ё (like 'yo' in 'yolk')
- Ю (like 'you')
- Я (like 'yu' in 'yuck')
- И (like 'ee' in 'lee')
What do I mean by ‘softening’? Well, most consonants have a hard and a soft version of their pronunciation. While six of of the consonants are always pronounced the same way.
- Ж (clutch your teeth and make a bee sound)
- Ц (like ‘ts’ in Trotsky)
- Ш (clutch your teeth and make a steam sound like a train)
- Й (like ‘y’ in ‘yolk’)
- Ч (like ‘ch’ in ‘Chechen’)
- Щ (like ‘sh’ in ‘shark’)
The rest can be soft or hard depending on the succeeding vowel (or, as we will later discover, the letter Ь or Ъ).
Hard version and soft version:
- Б (like ‘b’ in ‘bag’] and Бь [like ‘Bj’ in ‘Bjork’)
- В (like 'v' in 'van'] and Вь [like ‘Vj’ if ‘Bjork’ were ‘Vjork’)
- Г [like ‘g’ in ‘gallery’] and Гь [like ‘g’ in ‘geek’)
- Д (like 'd' in 'dome'] and Дь [like ‘Dj’ if ‘Bjork’ were ‘Djork’)
- З (like 'z' in 'zap'] and Зь [like ‘Zj’ if ‘Bjork’ were ‘Zjork’)
- К (like 'k' in 'Kant'] and Кь [like ‘k’ in ‘king’)
- П (like 'p' in 'pal'] and Пь [like ‘p’ in ‘pew’)
- Ф (like 'f' in 'fan'] and Фь [like ‘f’ in ‘Fiona’)
- Т (like 't' in 'table'] and Ть [like ‘Tj’ if ‘Bjork’ were ‘Tjork’)
- С (like 'S' in 'Sam'] and Сь [like ‘Sj’ if ‘Bjork’ were ‘Sjork’)
This list doesn’t include all of the changeable consonants in the Russian language, but outlines the common pattern which applies to all of them.
The purpose of the letters Ь and Ъ
One of you diligent students probably have already guessed that the letter Ь is used to denote softness of the preceding consonant when there is no vowel to do so. This is done because in some instances, writing a word without pointing out a soft ending can completely change the word’s meaning.
- Кров – krov – shelter
- Кровь – krovj – blood
- Брат – brat – brother
- Брать – bratj – to take
- Угол – ugol – corner
- Уголь – ugolj – coal
- Мат – mat – a mat
- Мать – matj – mother
The fact that the letter Ь only affects a preceding consonant, makes it only useable in the end or the middle of the word.
Examples of Ь in the middle of a word
- Меньше – menjshe – less
- Борьба – borjba – fight
- Тьма – tjma – darkness
- Семьдесят – semjdjesjat – seventy
TIP: Neither Ь nor Ъ are ever put at the beginning of a word.
As you can see, the letter Ь works to soften a preceding consonant. All Russian consonants are phonetically divided into hard and soft; some of them always remain hard or soft, while others change depending on the succeeding vowel or the letters Ь and Ъ.
- Ъ – твердый знак – trjerdiy znak – ’symbol of hardness’
- Ь – мягкий знак – mjakgiy znak – ’symbol of softness’
When a ‘symbol of softness’ succeeds a changeable consonant, the consonant becomes soft. However, when a ‘symbol of hardness’ succeeds a changeable consonant, the consonant remains hard. (That is because all changeable consonants are hard by default unless softened).
Back in the days of Leo Tolstoy, all words with a hard consonant at the end had to have the letter Ъ attached to them. Eventually it was decided that putting all of those ‘symbols of hardness’ at the end of words was too time-consuming, and that everyone knew that the words had a hard ending anyway. So writing words with a hard ending without a Ъ became the standard.
To put this small change into perspective, it is said that Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ became thirty pages shorter after it was edited to exclude all of the Ъ’s.
- Old Russian – Намъ здесь хорошо.
- Modern Russian – Нам здесь хорошо – Nam zdesj khorosho – we like this place / this place is good for us / we are satisfied here etc...
As the letter Ь softens the consonant, the letter Ъ also hardens it. Since this is no longer used at the end of a word, it can only be found in the middle, where a consonant is followed by a softening vowel but should retain hardness due to how it is pronounced. If we didn’t have the letter Ъ, we wouldn't have a way of signifying that the letter ought to be pronounced hardly and not softly.
Examples of Ъ:
- Панъевропейский – pan’yevropeyskiy (as opposed to panevropeyskiy) – Pan-European
- Инъекция – in’yektsiya (as opposed to inektsiya) – injection
- Адъютант – ad’yutant (as opposed to adutant) – adjutant
- Субъект – sub’yekt (as opposed to subekt) – subject / person
An important thing to keep in mind is that the letters Ь and Ъ are there to simplify things, not to complicate them. Another thing to keep in mind is that written language is but a description of something that already exists – spoken language. Both of these letters are valuable tools to transcribe meanings and sound through text.
When reading them, simply remember that:
- The preceding consonant is softened by Ь and hardened by Ъ as described in this article.
Not so mysterious now, are they? In the Russian education system, it is customary to overcomplicate things and to invent a vast variety of rules which deal with where a letter is put, which letters surround it, and in which tense the word it resides in is (as opposed to simply settling what the letter is and what the letter does). Hopefully, this article has helped you with your understanding of those legendary non-letters; and assists you with your studies of the Russian language.
Best of luck, and as always – Всего доброго!