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The letter (Ъ, ъ) of the Cyrillic alphabet is known as the hard sign (твёрдый знак ) in the modern Russian alphabet and as er golyam (ер голям, "big yer") in the Bulgarian alphabet. The letter is called yer in the pre-reform Russian orthography, in Old Russian, and in Old Church Slavonic. Originally the yer denoted an ultra-short or reduced middle vowel. Its companion is the soft sign (Bulgarian er malek) (Ь, ь), which was originally also a reduced vowel, more frontal than the ъ, and is today used to mark the palatalization of consonants in all of the Slavic languages written in the Cyrillic alphabet, except for Serbian and Macedonian, in which its traces can be seen in the letters њ and љ. The two reduced vowels are together called the yers in Slavic philology.
In the Old Church Slavonic language, the yer was a vowel letter, indicating the so-called "reduced vowel": ъ = [ŭ], ь = [ĭ] in the conventional transcription. These vowels stemmed from the Indo-European short [u] and [i] (compare Latin angŭlŭs and Old Church Slavonic ѪГЪЛЪ). In all West Slavic languages the yer either disappeared or was transformed into long [e] vowel.
Old Russian: Yer
From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the original [ъ] sound became extinct in all Slavic languages; this so-called fall of the yers is typically considered as marking the final disintegration of Common Slavonic. In Russian, the yers were dropped entirely in "weak" positions, and were replaced by non-reduced vowels in "strong" positions. Modern Russian inflection is therefore at times complicated by the so-called "transitive" (lit. беглые /'bʲe.glɪjə/ "fugitive") vowels, which appear and disappear in place of a former yer. For example, OR сънъ /'sŭ.nŭ/ > R сон /son/ "sleep (nom. sg.) — OR съна /sŭ.'nа/> R сна /sna/ "sleep (gen. sg.)", OR угълъ /'u.gŭ.lŭ/ > R угол /'u.gəl/ "corner (nom. sg.)" — OR угъла /u.gŭ.'la/ > R угла /u.'gla/ "corner (gen. sg.)" etc.).
The basic rule governing the fall of the yers in Russian may be stated as follows:
- Strong yers are fully voiced: ь > е, ъ > о.
- Weak yers drop entirely, except that once-terminal ь has palatalized the preceding consonant.
- For determining whether a yer is strong or weak, it is necessary to break the continuous flow of speech into individual words, or very common phrases (typically prepositional) which are entirely run together in speech.
- A terminal yer is weak.
- A yer which is followed in the next syllable by a non-reduced vowel is weak.
- The yer in the syllable before one with a weak yer is strong.
- The yer in the syllable before one with a strong yer is weak.
That is, crudely put, in a string of Old Russian syllables each of which has a reduced vowel, the reduced vowels are in modern Russian alternately given full voicing and drop, and the last yer in this sequence will drop. There are some exceptions to this rule, usually considered to be the result of analogy with other words or other inflected forms of the same word, with a different original pattern of reduced vowels.
Modern Russian: Hard sign
In modern Russian the letter ъ is called the hard sign. 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 and is therefore written with one of the letters я, ё, е, or ю. The hard sign marks the fact that the [j] continues to be heard in the composition. (See also Russian phonetics and Russian orthography). It therefore functions as a kind of "separation sign". 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 (the letter и does not mark an iotated vowel). Such written usage has not yet been formally codified.
The letter is absent in the alphabets of the Belarusian. In the Cyrillic Belarusian alphabet its functions are performed by the apostrophe. In the Latin Belarusian alphabet (Łacinka) functions of soft and hard signs are performed by other means.
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