Bandit! Idler! Loafer! Sponger! As ever «she» was called. What sort of epithets were attributed to it! Even war was declared upon it. White officers, landlords and bankers held onto it. It was in one army with Kolchak, Denikin, Vrangeland Iudenich. It devided Great Russia into «before» and «after»! Who would think that it is referred to the letter Ъ.
Famous linguist of Soviet times Lev Uspenskii calls it the treasured letter in the entire world. It can be seen how he feels about it in his investigation about words origin. According to his words, ''it decidedly does nothing, helps nothing, expresses nothing''. The appropriate question arises: how did letter Ъ appear in Russian, and what purpose was alloted to it by the creators?
History of Appearing of Letter Ъ
The authorship of the first Russian alphabet is ascribed to Kirill and Mefodii. So called Cyrillic alphabet, the background of which was Greek, appeared in 863 A. D. Hard sign was under number 29 in their alphabet and sounded like ЕРь /IERi/ (till the 1917—1918 reform it was the 27th in succession). Letter Ъ represented short semi-vowel without pronouncing. It was placed at the of a word after hard consonant.
What is the use of this same letter? There are two digestible variants of the explanation.
The first variant concerned Old Slavonic writing itself. Inasmuch as at that time there were no spaces we are familiar with now, it was that the letter that helped to divide a line into words correctly. As an example: «къБогомъизъбраномуцарю» /to the tsar, chosen by God/.
The second explanation is related to Old Church Slavonic words pronunciation. Namely ЕРь didn't deafen a sonant during reading of a word, as we can notice it happening in modern Russian.
We pronounce the words грипп /flue/ and гриб /mushroom/ different in meaning identically: грип ([gripp]). There was no similar sound phonetics in Old Slavonic. All words were pronounced the same way they were written. For example: рабъ /slave/, другъ /friend/, хлебъ /bread/. It was explained by the fact that syllable division in Old Slavonic were subjected to the single rule, which sounded as follows:
"Word ending in Old Slavonic cannot include vowels. Otherwise syllable would be closed, what can't happen according to the present rule".
Considering what was mentioned above, it was decided to write up ЕРь (Ъ) to the words with consonants at the end. So there we have: Гастрономъ /gastronome/, Трактиръ /tavern/, Ломбардъ /pawnshop/ or Адресъ /address/.
There is the third reason, except two mentioned above. It turns out that Ъ was used for designation masculine gender. For instanse, in nouns: Александръ /Aleksandr/, волшебникъ /wizard/, лобъ /forehead/. It was also put into verbs, for example: положилъ /put/, селъ /sat/, (Past Tense, masculine gender).
In due course letter Ъ performed the function of words divider more and more rarely. However "useless" Ъ at the end of words still held its position. According to the words of above mentioned linguist L. V. Uspenskii, this little "scrawl" could take up to 4% of amount of the whole text. And this amounts to millions and millions of pages every year.
Reforms of the 18th century
One who considers "insurance" shot in poor letter's Ъ "head" was done by Bolsheviks, who thereby chastened Russian from church prejudices, is slightly mistaken. Bolsheviks simply "finished it off" in the 1917th. Everything started much earlier!
Peter the Great himself thought of language reform, especially the one concerning Russian writing. An experimentalist in reality, Peter the Great had dreamt of breathing a new life into "decrepit" Old Slavonic long ago. Unfortunately, his plans remained only plans. But driving this issue from the dead-lock is his merit.
Reforms, started from 1708 to 1710 by Peter the Great, foremost affected church print. Filigree "scrawls" of church letters were replaced by general civil ones. Such letters as «Омега» /omega/, «Пси» /psi/ or «Юсы» /iuses/ became history. Letters Э and Я we are familiar with appeared.
Russian Academy of Sciences considered over rationality of usage of some letters. That's how a thought about excluding of «Ижицы» /izhitsa/ from the alphabet arised among academicians in 1735. And in some years an article without notorious letter Ъ at the word end came out in one of print publishings of the named Academy.
"Insurance" Shot for Letter Ъ
There were two shots in 1917: one on the cruiser «Aurora», and the other in the Academy of Sciences. Somebody considers the reform of Russian writing to be solely Bolsheviks' merit. However, historical documents confirm that Tsarist Russia moved on in this issue, too.
Moscow and Kazan linguists have already talked about reform of Russian in first years of the 20th century. 1904 was the first step in this direction. A Special Commission, the purpose of which was simplification of Russian, was founded at the Academy of Sciences. One of the questions of the Commission was notorious letter Ъ. Then Russian alphabet lost "Фита" /fita/ and "Ять" /iat/. New spelling rules were introduced in 1912, but unfortunately they did not pass censorship then.
Thunder crashed on December 23, 1917 (05.01.18). On this day People's Commissar for Enlightenment A. V. Lunacharskii signed a decree about change-over to new spelling. Letter Ъ breathed one's last as a symbol of resistance to Bolsheviks.
To accelerate the funeral of everything connected with "tzarist regime", Bolsheviks issued the decree of taking out matrix and indiciums of letter Ъ from printing offices on November 4, 1918. As a result of this, Bolsheviks' orthographic miscarriage, which is apostrophe, appeared. The function of divider was performed by comma now (под’ем, с’езд).
One era ended and another began. Who thought that little letter Ъ would become so great and inportant in opposition of two worlds, white and red, old and new, worlds before the shot and after it!
However, letter Ъ has remained just as the 28th letter of the alphabet. It plays completely different part in modern Russian. But it is completely different story.