January 17, 2020 0

More on Soft and Hard Signs in Russian

in an earlier podcast we looked at hard
and soft consonants, and how to spell them. Now
let’s talk a little more about the soft sign – мягкий знак – and also the
hard sign – твёрдый знак. Now, we know that soft signs are used after a
soft consonant in two places: at the end of a word, as in брать, and before another
consonant as in только. Now that would seem to imply that you won’t find the
soft sign before a vowel, but actually you will occasionally see a soft sign in
between a consonant and these vowel letters – е, ё, и, ю, and я – so how do
we pronounce that kind of a sequence? When you see a sequence like this, with
the soft sign before one of these soft series vowels, and listen carefully,
you’ll typically hear a Y-glide that is a distinct ‘y’ sound, as an English “yard”
or “yoke,” that will be in between the soft consonant and the vowel sound that
follows. Let’s look at some examples льёт… льёт… You may need to listen
carefully to distinguish these sequences from a combination of a soft consonant
that’s followed directly by a vowel sound. лёд… лёд… бельё… бельё… пелёнки… пелёнки… It may help to look at a
wave form of words that show this contrast. On the left you see first the
soft л and then the distinct ‘y’ sound before the ‘o.’ In the word on the right,
you have just the smooth transition from that soft л to the ‘о’ without that
intervening glide that distinct ‘y’ sound. Let’s listen to the native speaker
a few more times: льёт… льёт… лёд… лёд… Now besides the
soft sign, there is also a hard sign: твёрдый знак. Though it’s not used nearly as
often as the soft sign, you’ll see it occasionally between a consonant and one
of these soft series vowel letters е, ё, ю, and я. This sequence gives us the
y-glide, that distinct ‘y’ as in English ‘yard’ or ‘yell,’ between a hard
consonant and the vowel sound. Let’s listen for the contrast between
the spelling with a hard sign, which gives a hard consonant plus the ‘y’ plus a
vowel sound, as opposed to the spelling without the hard sign which, sounds like
a soft consonant followed directly by the vowel sound. объятие…объятие… обязан… обязан… объехать… объехать… обед… обед… подъезжать… подъезжать… поделать… поделать
And again, let’s look at a waveform of this kind of a sound on the left you see
that the hard ‘d’ is followed by that distinct y-glide, and on the right a soft
‘d’ is followed directly by the vowel sound. The hard sign is sometimes called
a separator sign, because you’ll see it’s separating a prefix from a verb as in
these examples. объехать… съездить… въезжать… подъехать.
You’ll never see the hard sign at the end of the word in modern Russian,
because if a consonant is the last letter and there’s no soft sign, we’ll
assume that it’s a hard consonant. In fact, if you do see hard signs at the
end of a word, you’re probably looking at an old text like this poster from 1917.
The hard sign actually represented a vowel sound many centuries ago, and it
was a pretty common sound, but over time it had become silent kind of like the ‘e’
in English name. It wasn’t until 1918 that a spelling
reform finally caught up with that change, so in books printed in the 1800’s
you’ll see a lot of these silent letters which are not nearly so common in
today’s Russian, and which we now just call hard signs.
Summing up: when words have a soft sign between a consonant and a vowel,
you’ll hear a distinct ‘y’ sound in between the soft consonant and the vowel
sound. When words have a hard sign between a consonant and a vowel,
you’ll hear a distinct ‘y’ sound in between the hard consonant and that
vowel sound.

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