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Hard/Soft Signs

Russian also has two signs which have no sound themselves but which modify the pronunciation of nearby letters. Don't worry too much about these for now. Once you've been listening to Russian for a while you will start to pick up the differences. Way back in the good old days of Cyril and Methodius these two signs used to actually represent two short vowels, but over time the pronunciation of Russian changed and their effect on pronunciation diminished. So much so that after the revolution 1917 in the Bolsheviks decided that the Hard Sign wasn't even necessary, though it has since recovered it's place.
ь - The Soft Sign
The soft sign serves to “soften” the consonant before it. When it occurs between a consonant and a vowel it softens the preceding consonant and also indicates the following vowel is pronounced fully.

Compare the pronunciation of these two words that differ only by the soft sign:

FamilySeed
семья
семя


The most common occurance of the soft sign is at the end of verbal infinitives, (the "dictionary form" of a verb):

To speak
говорить


To read
читать

ъ - The Hard Sign
The hard sign occurs primarily after prefixes like об and с. It doesn’t change the sound; it denotes a slight pause which allows the following vowel to be pronounced as a hard sound.

In the following word:

Explanation
объяснение

the letter я is pronounced as normal, and not as BYA. With the help of the hard sign, the prefix об is combined with the word root ясно (meaning “clear”) to make a new word.