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The soft sign (Ь, ь, italics Ь, ь; Russian: мягкий знак Russian pronunciation: [ˈmʲæxʲkʲɪj znak]) also known as the front yer or front er, is a letter of the Cyrillic script. In Old Church Slavonic, it represented a short (or "reduced") front vowel. As with its companion, the back yer ⟨ъ⟩, the vowel phoneme that it designated was later partly dropped and partly merged with other vowels.

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

In the modern Slavic Cyrillic writing systems (all East Slavic languages and Bulgarian and Church Slavic), it does not represent an individual sound but indicates palatalization of the preceding consonant. In Belarusian history, the soft sign was used to soften letters at the end of words or syllables. It was also used in the Soviet Union in the Latinized Karelian alphabet, made official in 1931 and used until re-Cyrillicization of Karelian in 1937.

Uses and meaningsEdit

Palatalization signEdit

The soft sign is normally written after a consonant and indicates its softening (palatalization). Less commonly, the soft sign just has a grammatically determined usage with no phonetic meaning (like Russian: туш 'flourish after a toast' and тушь 'India ink', both pronounced [tuʂ] but different in grammatical gender and declension). In East Slavic languages and some other Slavic languages (such as Bulgarian), there are some consonants that do not have phonetically different palatalized forms but corresponding letters still admit the affixing soft sign.

The Serbian Cyrillic alphabet has had no soft sign as a distinct letter since the mid-19th century: palatalization is represented by special consonant letters instead of the sign (some of these letters, such as ⟨Њ⟩ or ⟨Љ⟩, were designed as ligatures with the grapheme of the soft sign). The modern Macedonian alphabet, based on the Serbian Cyrillic variant, has had no soft sign since its creation, in 1944.

Before a vowel in East Slavic languagesEdit

Between a consonant and a vowel, the soft sign bears also a function of "iotation sign": in Russian, vowels after the soft sign are iotated (compare Russian льют [lʲjut] '(they) pour/cast' and лют [lʲut] '(he is) fierce'). The feature, quite consistent with Russian orthography, promulgated a confusion between palatalization and iotation, especially because ⟨ь⟩ usually precedes so-called soft vowels. Combinations ⟨ья⟩ (ya), ⟨ье⟩ (ye), ⟨ьё⟩ (yo) and ⟨ью⟩ (yu) give iotated vowels, like corresponding vowel letters in isolation (and word-initially), and unlike its use immediately after a consonant letter in which palatalization can occur but not iotation. In those cases, ⟨ь⟩ may be considered as a sign indicating that a vowel after it is pronounced separately from the previous consonant, but that is the case neither for ⟨ьи⟩ (yi) nor for ⟨ьо⟩ (yo), because these vowels are not iotated in isolation. The latter case, though, is rarely used in Russian (only in loanwords such as ⟨бульон⟩) and can be seen as a replacement of phonetically identical ⟨ьё⟩, which gets rid of an "inconvenient" letter ⟨ё⟩. In Ukrainian and Bulgarian, the spelling ⟨ьо⟩ indicates palatalization, not iotation.

⟨ъ⟩, an "unpalatalization sign", also denotes iotation, as in the case of ⟨ъя⟩, ⟨ъе⟩, ⟨ъё⟩ and ⟨ъю⟩ in Russian.

Similarly, the soft sign may denote iotation in Belarusian and Ukrainian, but it is not used so extensively as in Russian. Ukrainian uses a quite different repertoire of vowel letters from those of Russian and Belarusian, and iotation is usually expressed by an apostrophe in Ukrainian. Still the soft sign is used in Ukrainian if the sound followed by an iotated vowel is palatized.

In BulgarianEdit

Among Slavic languages, the soft sign has the most limited use in Bulgarian: since 1945, the only possible position is one between consonants and ⟨о⟩ (such as in names Жельо, Кръстьо, and Гьончо).

As a vowel in SlavisticEdit

In Slavistic transcription, Ь and Ъ are used to denote Proto-Slavic extra-short sounds /ĭ/ and /ŭ/ respectively (slověnьskъ adj. ‘slavonic’), like Old Slavonic orthography.


The soft sign does not occur after vowels in Slavic languages, but the ⟨аь⟩ digraph for [æ] or [a] was introduced to some non-Slavic Cyrillic-based alphabets such as Chechen, Ingush and various Dagestanian languages such as Tabasaran. Similarly, the ⟨оь⟩ digraph was introduced for [œ] or [ø], and ⟨уь⟩ for [y], plus iotated forms such as ⟨юь⟩ and ⟨яь⟩ as required. This use of ь is similar to a trailing e as used in, for example, German, when umlauts are unavailable (cf. Goethe).

There were proposals to use the same for Turkic languages,[1] as a replacement to Cyrillic Schwa (Ә) for [ə] or /æ/. Unlike Schwa, which is not represented in many Cyrillic character repertoires such as Windows-1251, both ⟨а⟩ and ⟨ь⟩ are readily available as letters of the basic modern Russian alphabet.


Under normal orthographic rules, it has no uppercase form, as no word begins with the letter. However, Cyrillic type fonts normally provide an uppercase form for setting type in all caps or for using it as an element of various serial numbers (like series of Soviet banknotes) and indices (for example, there was once a model of old Russian steam locomotives marked "Ь" – ru:Паровоз Ь).

In the romanization of Cyrillic words, soft signs are typically replaced with the prime symbol ′. Occasionally, an apostrophe is used, or the soft sign can even be ignored if it is in a position that it does not denote iotation: Тверь=Tver, Обь=Ob.

Name of letterEdit

  • Church Slavonic: ѥрь (yerĭ), with unknown meaning
  • Church Slavonic: єрь (yer')
  • Bulgarian: ер малък [er ˈma.lək] ('small yer'), the hard sign ⟨ъ⟩ being named Bulgarian: ер голям ('big yer')
  • Russian: мягкий знак [ˈmʲæxʲ.kʲɪj znak] ('soft sign') or (archaic, mostly pre-1917 name) ерь [jerʲ]
  • Ukrainian: м’який знак [mja.ˈkɪj znak] ('soft sign')
  • Belarusian: мяккі знак [mʲak.kʲi znak] ('soft sign')
  • Serbian (and all its variants): tanko jer / танко јер ('thin yer'), or simply jer/јер ('yer'), the hard sign ⟨ъ⟩ being named debelo jer / дебело јер ('thick yer') or simply jor / јор ('yor')

Related letters and other similar charactersEdit

Computing codesEdit

Character Ь ь
Encodings decimal hex decimal hex
Unicode 1068 U+042C 1100 U+044C
UTF-8 208 172 D0 AC 209 140 D1 8C
Numeric character reference Ь Ь ь ь
KOI8-R and KOI8-U 248 F8 216 D8
Code page 855 238 EE 237 ED
Code page 866 156 9C 236 EC
Windows-1251 220 DC 252 FC
ISO-8859-5 204 CC 236 EC
Macintosh Cyrillic 156 9C 252 FC

External linksEdit

  •   The dictionary definition of Ь at Wiktionary
  •   The dictionary definition of ь at Wiktionary
  1. ^ Sergeyev, Andrey V. (2001-04-19). "QazaNovica practical transcription – a project of reformed Cyrillic-based Turkic alphabet". "21st Century: language, time and space" international workshop. Retrieved February 12, 2012.