|Cyrillic letter Yer|
|The Cyrillic script|
The letter Ъ (italics Ъ, ъ) of the Cyrillic script, also spelled jer or er, is known as the hard sign (твёрдый знак [ˈtvʲɵrdɨj ˈznak]) in the modern Russian and Rusyn alphabets and as er golyam (ер голям, "big er") in the Bulgarian alphabet. The letter is called back yer or back er in the pre-reform Russian orthography, in Old Russian, and in Old Church Slavonic. Originally the yer denoted an ultra-short or reduced middle rounded vowel. It is one of two reduced vowels that are collectively known as the yers in Slavic philology.
Modern Russian: Hard sign
In modern Russian the letter "ъ" is called the hard sign (твёрдый знак tvjordyj znak). It has no phonetic value of its own, and is purely an orthographic device. Its function is to separate a number of prefixes ending in a consonant from a following morpheme that begins with an iotated vowel. It is therefore commonly seen in front of the letters "я", "е", "ё", and "ю" (ja, je, jo, and ju in Russian). The hard sign marks the fact that the sound [j] continues to be heard in the composition. Example:
- съёмка ([ˈsjɵmkə]): 'filming'
- Сёмка ([ˈsʲɵmkə]): diminutive form of the male name Семён (Simon)
It therefore functions as a kind of "separation sign" and has been used only sparingly in the aforementioned cases since the spelling reform of 1918. The consonant before the hard sign often becomes somewhat softened (palatalized) due to the following iotation. As a result, in the twentieth century there were occasional proposals to eliminate the hard sign altogether, and replace it with the soft sign ь, which always marks the softening of a consonant. However, in part because the degree of softening before ъ is not uniform, these proposals were never implemented. The hard sign ъ is written after both native and borrowed prefixes. In recent years, it has sometimes been seen in borrowed words before the letter и, to mark a greater separation of the constituent syllables. Such written usage has not yet been formally codified (see also Russian phonology and Russian orthography).
Final yer – pre-1918
Prior to 1918, a hard sign was normally written at the end of a word when following a non-palatal consonant, even though it had no effect on pronunciation. For example, the word for "cat" was written котъ before the reform, and кот after it. This old usage of ъ was eliminated by the spelling reform of 1918, implemented by the Bolshevik regime after the 1917 October Revolution. Because of the way this reform was implemented, the issue became politicized, leading to a number of printing houses in Petrograd refusing to follow the new rules. To force these printing houses to comply, red sailors of the Baltic Fleet confiscated type carrying the “parasite letters”. Printers were forced to use a non-standard apostrophe for the separating hard sign, for example:
- pre-reform: съѣздъ
- transitional: с’езд
- post-reform: съезд
In the beginning of the 1920s the hard sign was gradually restored as the separator. The apostrophe was still used afterward on some typewriters which did not include the hard sign, which became the rarest letter in Russian.
According to the rough estimation presented in Lev Uspensky's popular linguistics book A Word On Words (Слово о словах), which expresses strong support to the reform, the final hard sign occupied about 3.5% of the printed texts and essentially wasted a considerable amount of paper, and this provided the economic grounds to the reform.
Printing houses set up by the emigrants from Russia kept using the pre-reform orthography for some time, but gradually they adopted the new spelling. Meanwhile, in the USSR the Dahl’s Explanatory Dictionary was repeatedly (1935, 1955) reprinted in compliance with the old rules of spelling and alphabet.
Today the final yer is sometimes used in Russian brand names – for example, Kommersant Коммерсантъ. Such usage is often inconsistent, as the copywriters may apply the simple rule of putting the hard sign after a consonant at the end of a word, but ignore the other outdated spelling rules. It is also sometimes encountered in humorous personal writing adding a text an "old fashioned flavor" or separately, denoting true.
In Bulgarian, the er golyam ( "ер голям" ) is used for the phoneme representing the mid back unrounded vowel (IPA /ɤ̞/), sometimes also notated as a schwa (/ə/). It sounds somewhat like the vowel sound in some pronunciations of "but" [bʌ̘t].
Although the Slavic language of Macedonia is closely related to Bulgarian, its writing system does not use the yer. During the creation of the modern Macedonian orthography from the fall of 1944 to the spring of 1945, the yer was one of the subjects of arguments. The problem was due to the fact that the corresponding vowel exists in many dialects of Macedonian, but is not systematically present in the west-central dialect, based on which the Macedonian language standard was being developed. Among the leaders of the Macedonian alphabet and orthography design team, Venko Markovski argued in favor of using the letter yer, much like the Bulgarian orthography does, while Blaže Koneski was against it. An early version of the alphabet promulgated on December 28, 1944 contained the yer, but in the final version of the alphabet, approved in May 1945, Koneski's point of view prevailed, and no yer was used.
Due to the absence of yer, apostrophe is often used in Macedonian when printing texts composed in the language varieties that use the corresponding vowel, such as Konstantin Miladinov's poem Taga za Jug.
Belarusian and Ukrainian
The letter is not used in the alphabets of Belarusian and Ukrainian. In the Cyrillic Belarusian alphabet its functions are performed by the apostrophe. In the Latin Belarusian alphabet (Łacinka), the hard sign's functions are performed by j. In the Ukrainian alphabet its purpose - non-palatalization of a consonant preceding the [j] - is served by an apostrophe.
Languages of the Caucasus and Crimea
In Cyrillic orthographies for various languages of the Caucasus, as well as for the Crimean Tatar language, the hard sign is used extensively in forming digraphs and trigraphs designating sounds alien in Slavic, such as /q/ and ejectives. For example, in Ossetian, the hard sign is part of the digraphs гъ /ʁ/, къ /kʼ/, пъ /pʼ/, тъ /tʼ/, хъ /q/, цъ /tsʼ/, чъ /tʃʼ/, as well as the trigraphs къу /kʷʼ/ and хъу /qʷ/.
Related letters and other similar characters
- "Лексикон" Валерия Скорбилина Архив выпусков программы, «ЛЕКСИКОН» № 238, интервью с Натальей Юдиной, деканом факультета русского языка и литературы
- Слово о словах, Лев Успенский, Лениздат, 1962, p. 156
- Артемий Лебедев, Ководство, § 23. Немного о дореволюционной орфографии.
- Dontchev Daskalov, Roumen; Marinov, Tchavdar (2013), Entangled Histories of the Balkans: Volume One: National Ideologies and Language Policies, Balkan Studies Library, BRILL, pp. 453–456, ISBN 900425076X