Твёрдый знак (hard sign): a case study in Russian language reforms Posted by bota on Jul 2, 2020 in grammar, History
Last month we looked at мягкий знак (soft sign) and the rules that govern its proper use. In this blog, let’s explore the other unusual letter of the Russian alphabet: твёрдый знак (hard sign).
Твёрдый знак “ъ” is the 28th letter of the Russian alphabet and similar to the soft sign, it doesn’t carry its own phonetic meaning. The hard sign separates prefixes ending on consonants from morphemes that begin with е, ё, ю, я by bringing out the “й” between the consonant and the palatalized vowel.
Compare the following two words:
Сел [sel] (past tense of the verb сесть, as in он сел на диван = he sat on the couch)
Съел [sjel] (past tense of the verb съесть, as in он съел весь арбуз = he ate the whole watermelon)
Твёрдый знак inside the word “съел” changes both the meaning and the pronunciation of the verb.
Hard sign usage rules are generally easy to follow. The big one to remember is that “ъ” is only used after the letters е, ё, ю, я and in the following situations:
- After prefixes that end on consonants (including prefixes that with time became part of the root):
Предъявля́ть (to show)
Разъясни́ть (to explain)
Сверхъя́ркий (very bright)
- In compound words after numerical morphemes двух-, трёх-, четырёх-
Двухъя́русный (EXCEPTION: двуязы́чный)
- After foreign prefixes that end on a consonant:
ин- инъе́кция (injection)
об- объе́кт (object)
пан- панъевропе́йский (pan-European)
суб- субъе́кт (subject)
транс- тра́нсъевропе́йский (trans-European)
Here is when to NOT use the hard sign:
- Hard sign is not used in clipped compounds (сложносокращённые слова), for example:
Минюст (министе́рство юсти́ции) – Department of Justice
Иняз (Институ́т иностра́нных языко́в) – Language Institute
Детясли (де́тские я́сли) – nursery
- Hard sign is never written before the vowels а, и, о, у, ы, э.
Трёхэта́жный дом (three-story house)
Обуче́ние (educational training)
- Hard sign is also never written in hyphenated words:
Пол-Европы (half of Europe), пол-яблока (half an apple)
Твёрдый знак was part of the alphabet proposed by the Saints Cyril and Methodius (Кирилл и Мефодий), though speculations vary as to the original purpose of “ъ” or “еръ”. Some argue that the hard sign served as a sort of separation sign between words. Others claim the sign was a way to avoid ending words on consonants and, later on, to identify masculine gender.
Most critics of the hard sign were concerned with how expensive it was to keep it: a Russian writer Lev Uspensky calculated that an extra 8.5 million pages were being printed annually just because of the hard sign. So, when the Bolsheviks were conducting a number of linguistic reforms in 1917, the rules about the usage of the hard sign changed: “ъ” at the end of the word was banned. As part of the reform, many typewriter manufacturers of the time were instructed to abandon the hard sign key altogether, so when people had to use the hard sign inside a word, they had to substitute it with an apostrophe. Therefore, a number of publications that went into print had the apostrophe sign instead of the “ъ”.
Russian poet Konstantin Balmont’s remark on the matter paints a curious picture on what many thought of the world without the hard sign at the time: “Слово без твёрдого знака на конце похоже на собаку с отрубленным хвостом”. (“A word without the hard sign at the end is akin to a dog with a chopped tail”.) Obviously, the hard sign is still very much part of the Russian language, though speculations about the future of this letter have a place to be. I certainly have always wondered why the Russian keyboard on my phone has the hard sign “hidden” behind the soft sign. It can only be accessed by pressing and holding the soft sign button. Do you think this layout will gradually nudge us to move away from using the hard sign completely or will твёрдый знак carry on?