Notes on ъ


by Justin E. H. Smith

In Old Church Slavonic there were two letters representing short vowels. These were called ‘yer’, and there were two species of them: the ‘front yer’, ‘ь’, and the ‘back yer’, ‘ъ’.

These were reduced into ultra-short vowels in the modern Slavic languages, and eventually into signs that can’t really be called vowels at all. In Russian the ь became a мягкий знак or ‘soft sign’; while the ъ became a твёрдый знак or ‘hard sign’.

The soft sign is generally transliterated into the Latin alphabet with a single apostrophe: ’. It tells you more about how to pronounce the consonant that precedes it, than about a further distinct sound that needs to be made. When in The Magic Mountain Thomas Mann drops in a few Russian phrases, he prefers to use a ‘j’ for the soft sign: potselovatj rather than potselovat’(infinitive of ’to kiss’). I like the ‘j’; it is, after all, an orthographic variant of ‘i’, just as the soft sign is a descendant of it. And indeed, historically, at least into the early 18th century, it would have been an ‘i’: potselovati. The letter ‘i’ continues to play a role in Romanian similar to the soft sign, e.g., the local name for Bucharest, București, or for the Moldavian cities of Huși or Iași (pronounced, roughly, ‘Hush’ and ‘Yash’, with a little hint of a vowel at the end).

There are not a few jokes about the soft sign, as of the Soviet tour guide who is walking under a massive sequence of iron letters bearing the name of the city of Tver’ (Tverj, Тверь). A letter falls and hits him on the head. Was he injured? No, it was a soft sign. (There is a variant of this joke, told by my friend Abbas, in which his wife throws a can of Coke at his head. Was he hurt? No, it was a soft drink.)

It is a different story all together with the hard sign (ordinarily transliterated by two apostrophes), at least in the East Slavic languages. It went from being a generic back vowel in Old Church Slavonic, to being an ultra-short vowel in early Russian, to simply ceasing to do anything at all by the time of the Bolshevik (Bol’shevik, Boljshevik, Большевик) Revolution. It was, accordingly, purged in an early Soviet spelling reform. Now, as it had previously stood by convention at the end of every word that did not otherwise terminate in a vowel or in a soft sign, this made many, many words at least one sign shorter. It is said that the post-reform editions of War and Peacewere 100 pages shorter than the original as a result of the loss of the hard sign, but this is an exaggeration.

Or rather it is not that it was there as a mere convention, and the Bolsheviks were not entirely fair in judging it by the principle of ‘From each according to his work’. It was there as a reminder of an earlier stage in the history of the Slavic languages when every consonant had to have a vowel following it, and so, if there was to be any exception to this, it had to be marked. Languages that place vowels by default after consonants are numerous (after all, what it is to be a consonant is to be with-sound), including, familiarly, Spanish and Italian. In Sanskrit a consonant standing alone is presumed to be followed by a generic vowel, unless another vowel is explicitly indicated or unless one puts down a so-called foot: thus त is ta while त् is simply t. What the Russians realised is that the absence of a sign can in some cases do the job just as well as its presence: if nothing explicitly tells you that a word ends in a consonant, then you can simply take the consonant at the end as, well, the end.

But what I really wanted to talk about is the fate of these signs in Bulgarian, and how this can shine some light on the character of the Balkan Sprachbund, a beautiful example of the common linguistic phenomenon in which unrelated languages that overlap in a geographical region come to have significant syntactic and grammatical similarities. Bulgarian (along with Macedonian, which is often classified as on a dialect continuum with Bulgarian) is the only Slavic language with definite articles; as in Romanian and in Albanian, they are suffixed to the noun. Bulgarian is the only Slavic language to have entirely lost its nominal declensions; while Romanian is the only Romance language to have preserved cases, they are significantly reduced and, existing alongside a modern-Romance prepositional system, appear vestigial.

In phonetics, too, there is important cross-Danube influence of Romanian on Bulgarian, and vice versa. In Bulgarian the hard sign, curiously, evolved in exactly the opposite direction than in Russian: rather than withering into non-existence, it grew into a full-fledged, healthy vowel. It is not called a hard sign at all, but rather a ер голям or ‘big sign’. It is as it were the most basic vowel sound possible: just what you get when you open your mouth and make sound, something between an ‘u’ and an ‘a’, or, more precisely, an ‘ə’. It is the first vowel in the word for ‘Bulgaria’ itself: България. When I come across it in Bulgarian I tend to read it as if it were Russian, I see it as a sort of blank or interruption in a word, as if България were ‘Bxlgaria’ or ‘B-lgaria’. But it’s not, of course, and my mistake is to take Russian as the model of all Slavic languages.

Romanian was commonly written in Cyrillic into the late 19th century (Moldovan still is), and when it was the Romanian vowel ă, the so called ‘A-breve’, was rendered as ъ. Moldovan preserves Cyrillic because of its historical-cultural contact with the Russian and Soviet world, and thus linguistically with the East Slavic world. But the historical contact with Cyrillic of the Romanian written in, say, Giurgiu, is trans-Danubian, linguistically South Slavic, and culturally Orthodox. The ə is a Romano-Bulgarian vowel, and the evolution of the ъ to accommodate it has much more to do with the soundscape of the Balkans than with any distinctly or narrowly Slavic legacy.

I would like to go on and discuss the yat’ (ѣ), the yus, both little (Ѧ) and big (Ѫ), and so many other transitional fossils from the history of Slavic phonetics and of the always imperfect effort to render traces of sound by visible inscription, but this will be for another day.

–Ruse (Русе, Russe, Rousse, Rusciuc, Русчук), Bulgaria, 26 August 2017.

(The image is from the typography studio of Artem Lebedev, and is a tribute to all of the Russian letters that fell victim to the 1918 purge.)

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