- твёрдый знак – the hard mark (sign)
- мягкий знак – the soft mark (sign)
These two letters are silent. They don’t make any sound. So probably you want to ask me – why do we need them ?
To be completely honest we really need the soft sign (ь) only. It’s much more frequent than the ъ. We use the soft sign in two cases:
1) to make softer a consonant followed by ь . Look at the example:
угол /`oo-gal / – corner, angle
уголь /`oo-gal’/– coal ( the “л” became really soft like in the french word “elle“).
2) Also you may see the soft sign as a separation between a consonant and one of these 4 soft vowels: я, ё, е, ю
коньяк – cognac
семья – family
Regarding the hard sign (ъ) as I’ve already said we don’t use it a lot. But you may see it as a separation as well between a consonant and one of 4 softing vowels (я, е, ё, ю).
объект – object
субъект – subject
подъезд – entrance
The reason why we have the hard sign is in the history of the Russian language. Before 1917 the hard sign had to be written at the end of words if they ended in a consonant. But then people realized that having ъ at the end of words took about 4% of all text which was just wasting of paper. This is why it had been made a decision not to use the hard sign at the end of words. But sometimes even nowadays we can see this old style of writing. Let’s look at the famous restaurant in Moscow which is called “Pushkin cafe”. It is spelt in this old way with ъ at the end to emphasize its vintage noble style.
As you know now really it should be spelt as “Пушкин
I could find some Russian advertisements older than 1917. Test yourself if you will be able to understand what it says.
1. Театр миниатюр – theatre of miniatures
2. Жуков (typical male last name); С. Петербург (Saint Petersburg)
3. Шоколад – chocolate
4. Бар – bar