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Hard sign

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The letter Ъ (italics Ъ, ъ) of the Cyrillic script, also spelled jer or er,[citation needed] is known as the hard sign (твёрдый знак [ˈtvʲɵrdɨj ˈznak] tvjórdyj znak) in the modern Russian and Rusyn alphabets, as er golyam (ер голям, "big er") in the Bulgarian alphabet, and as debelo jer (дебело їер, "fat yer") in pre-reform Serbian orthography.[1] 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.

Italic Cyrillic letter Yer - uppercase and lowercase.svg
Slavic letters
Non-Slavic letters
Archaic letters



Modern Russian: hard signEdit

In Modern Russian, the letter "ъ" is called the hard sign (твёрдый знак tvyordy 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 consonants from subsequent morphemes that begin with iotated vowels. It is therefore commonly seen in front of the letters "я", "е", "ё", and "ю" (ya, ye, yo, and yu in English). The hard sign marks the fact that the sound [j] continues to be heard in the composition. For example:

  • съёмка ([ˈsʲjɵmkə] s'yomka): 'filming'
  • Сёмка [ˈsʲɵmkə] Syomka): diminutive form of the male name Семён (Semyon), "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, the proposals were never implemented. The hard sign ъ is written after both native and borrowed prefixes. It is sometimes used before "и" (i), non-iotated vowels or even consonants in Russian transcriptions of foreign names to mark an unexpected syllable break (e.g. ЧанъаньChang'an), the Arabic ‘ayn (e.g. ДаръаDara'a, Arabic pronunciation: [ˈdarʕa]), or a Khoisan click (e.g. ЧъхоанǂHoan), similarly to the use of the apostrophe when transcribing such names in English. However, such usage is not uniform and has not yet been formally codified (see also Russian phonology and Russian orthography).

Final yer pre-1918Edit

Before 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 the printing houses to comply, red sailors of the Baltic Fleet confiscated type carrying the "parasite letters".[2][3] 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 that did not include the hard sign, which became the rarest letter in Russian. In Belarusian and Ukrainian, the hard sign was never brought back, and the apostrophe is still in use today.

According to the rough estimation presented in Lev Uspensky's popular linguistics book A Word On Words (Слово о словах), which expresses strong support for the reform, the final hard sign occupied about 3.5% of the printed texts and essentially wasted a considerable amount of paper, which provided the economic grounds to the reform.

Printing houses set up by Russian émigrés abroad kept using the pre-reform orthography for some time, but gradually they adopted the new spelling. Meanwhile in the USSR, Dahl’s Explanatory Dictionary was repeatedly (1935, 1955) reprinted in compliance with the old rules of spelling and the pre-reform alphabet.

Today the final yer is sometimes used in Russian brand names: the newspaper Kommersant (Коммерсантъ) uses the letter to emphasize its continuity with the pre-Soviet newspaper of the same name. 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 former spelling rules, such as the use of ѣ and і.[4] It is also sometimes encountered in humorous personal writing adding to the text an "old-fashioned flavour" 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 English "but" [bʌ̘t]. It is similar to the Romanian language letter "ă".

Before the reform of 1945, this sound was written with two letters, "ъ" and "ѫ" ("big yus", denoting a former nasal vowel). Additionally "ъ" was used silently after a final consonant, as in Russian. In 1945 final "ъ" was dropped; and the letter "ѫ" was abolished, being replaced by "ъ" in most cases. However, to prevent confusion with the former silent final "ъ", final "ѫ" was replaced instead with "а" (which has the same sound when not stressed).


Although Macedonian 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 that the corresponding vowel exists in many dialects of Macedonian, but it is not systematically present in the west-central dialect, the base on which the Macedonian language standard was being developed.

Among the leaders of the Macedonian alphabet and orthography design team, Venko Markovski argued for using the letter yer, much like the Bulgarian orthography does, but 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.[5]

The absence of yer leads to an apostrophe often being used in Macedonian to print texts composed in the language varieties that use the corresponding vowel, such as the Bulgarian writer Konstantin Miladinov's poem Taga za Jug (Тъга за юг).[5]

Belarusian and UkrainianEdit

The letter is not used in the alphabets of Belarusian and Ukrainian, its functions being performed by the apostrophe. In the Latin Belarusian alphabet (Łacinka), the hard sign's functions are performed by j.

Languages of the Caucasus and CrimeaEdit

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 charactersEdit

Computing codesEdit

Character Ъ ъ
Encodings decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex
Unicode 1066 U+042A 1098 U+044A 7302 U+1C86
UTF-8 208 170 D0 AA 209 138 D1 8A 225 178 134 E1 B2 86
Numeric character reference Ъ Ъ ъ ъ ᲆ ᲆ
KOI8-R and KOI8-U 255 FF 223 DF
Code page 855 159 9F 158 9E
Code page 866 154 9A 234 EA
Windows-1251 218 DA 250 FA
Macintosh Cyrillic 154 9A 250 FA


External linksEdit

  •   The dictionary definition of Ъ at Wiktionary