|The Cyrillic script|
The soft sign (?, ?, italics ?, ?) also known as the front yer, front jer, or er malak (lit. "small er") is a letter of the Cyrillic script. In Old Church Slavonic, it represented a short (or "reduced") front vowel. As with its companion, the back yer ⟨?⟩, the vowel phoneme that it designated was later partly dropped and partly merged with other vowels.
In the modern Slavic Cyrillic writing systems (all East Slavic languages and Bulgarian and Church Slavic), it does not represent an individual sound but indicates palatalization of the preceding consonant.
The soft sign is normally written after a consonant and indicates its softening (palatalization). Less commonly, the soft sign just has a grammatically determined usage with no phonetic meaning (like Russian: 'fanfare' and ? 'India ink', both pronounced [tu?] but different in grammatical gender and declension). In East Slavic languages and some other Slavic languages (such as Bulgarian), there are some consonants that do not have phonetically different palatalized forms but corresponding letters still admit the affixing soft sign.
The Serbian Cyrillic alphabet has had no soft sign as a distinct letter since the mid-19th century: palatalization is represented by special consonant letters instead of the sign (some of these letters, such as ⟨?⟩ or ⟨?⟩, were designed as ligatures with the grapheme of the soft sign). The modern Macedonian alphabet, based on the Serbian Cyrillic variant, has had no soft sign since its creation, in 1944.
Between a consonant and a vowel, the soft sign bears also a function of "iotation sign": in Russian, vowels after the soft sign are iotated (compare Russian ? [l?jut] '(they) pour/cast' and [l?ut] '(he is) fierce'). The feature, quite consistent with Russian orthography, promulgated a confusion between palatalization and iotation, especially because ⟨?⟩ usually precedes so-called soft vowels. Combinations ⟨⟩ (ya), ⟨⟩ (ye), ⟨⟩ (yo) and ⟨⟩ (yu) give iotated vowels, like corresponding vowel letters in isolation (and word-initially), and unlike its use immediately after a consonant letter in which palatalization can occur but not iotation. In those cases, ⟨?⟩ may be considered as a sign indicating that a vowel after it is pronounced separately from the previous consonant, but that is the case neither for ⟨⟩ (yi) nor for ⟨⟩ (yo), because these vowels are not iotated in isolation. The latter case, though, is rarely used in Russian (only in loanwords such as ⟨⟩) and can be seen as a replacement of phonetically identical ⟨⟩, which gets rid of an "inconvenient" letter ⟨?⟩. In Ukrainian and Bulgarian, the spelling ⟨⟩ indicates palatalization, not iotation.
⟨?⟩, an "unpalatalization sign", also denotes iotation, as in the case of ⟨⟩, ⟨⟩, ⟨⟩ and ⟨⟩ in Russian.
Similarly, the soft sign may denote iotation in Belarusian and Ukrainian, but it is not used so extensively as in Russian. Ukrainian uses a quite different repertoire of vowel letters from those of Russian and Belarusian, and iotation is usually expressed by an apostrophe in Ukrainian. Still the soft sign is used in Ukrainian if the sound followed by an iotated vowel is palatized.
Among Slavic languages, the soft sign has the most limited use in Bulgarian: since 1945, the only possible position is one between consonants and ⟨?⟩ (such as in names , ?, and ).
The soft sign does not occur after vowels in Slavic languages, but the ⟨??⟩ digraph for or was introduced to some non-Slavic Cyrillic-based alphabets such as Chechen, Ingush and various Dagestanian languages such as Tabasaran. Similarly, the ⟨??⟩ digraph was introduced for or , and ⟨??⟩ for , plus iotated forms such as ⟨??⟩ and ⟨??⟩ as required. This use of ? is similar to a trailing e as used in, for example, German, when umlauts are unavailable (cf. Goethe).
There were proposals to use the same for Turkic languages, as a replacement to Cyrillic Schwa (?) for or /æ/. Unlike Schwa, which is not represented in many Cyrillic character repertoires such as Windows-1251, both ⟨?⟩ and ⟨?⟩ are readily available as letters of the basic modern Russian alphabet.
Along with the hard sign and the palochka, the soft sign is a modifier letter in Caucasian languages and Crimean Tatar. Its function is to create a new sound, such as i.e. , which is used in Avar, Archi, and Tabasaran to denote /h/.
Under normal orthographic rules, it has no uppercase form, as no word begins with the letter. However, Cyrillic type fonts normally provide an uppercase form for setting type in all caps or for using it as an element of various serial numbers (like series of Soviet banknotes) and indices (for example, there was once a model of old Russian steam locomotives marked "?" - ru:? ?).
In the romanization of Cyrillic, the soft sign is typically replaced with a modifier prime symbol ⟨?⟩ (ʹ). Occasionally, an apostrophe is used, or the soft sign can even be ignored if it is in a position that it does not denote iotation?=Tver, =Ob.
In Belarusian it is romanized as a combining acute, e.g., -?,-?,-?,-?.
|Unicode name||CYRILLIC CAPITAL LETTER SOFT SIGN||CYRILLIC SMALL LETTER SOFT SIGN|
|UTF-8||208 172||D0 AC||209 140||D1 8C|
|Numeric character reference||Ь
|Named character reference||Ь||ь|
|KOI8-R and KOI8-U||248||F8||216||D8|
|Code page 855||238||EE||237||ED|
|Code page 866||156||9C||236||EC|