This question also has an answer here (in Ukrainian):
Як пояснити іноземцеві "м'який знак"?

I am aware that most sources say that Ь does not have a sound but instead "softens" the previous consonant. As a native English speaker, this made no sense to me.

The only way I was able to understand was when one of my books said that

Ь + А = Я

But to me the following seems equally true:

Й + А = Я

The only difference seems to be that Ь is used before O, at the ends of words, or between consonants, and Й is used after vowels or at the start of words.

Is there something I'm missing? Furthermore, if the difference is subtle, could I still be understood pronouncing both letters the same?

4 Answers 4


This one is a tough question.

Phonetic Difference

Is there something I'm missing?

Й is a full-featured consonant, while Ь is a phonological aspect that affects the preceding consonant.

Practically, the difference is very subtle and it affects only the phonetic duration.

Furthermore, if the difference is subtle, could I still be understood pronouncing both letters the same?

I'd say yes, if you manage to make them of middle or short duration. The long one is definitely Й for me, while the short can be perceived as elision during a rapid speak.

As yet another hint, you may try substituting /ь/ with a very short [i] (tested by myself). This also has a very solid historic background, see below.


If you are a Spanish speaker, you need no further words:

  • uñón [uɲon] "large nail";
  • unión [unjon] "union";

The classic example for an English speaker, would be New York.
Many speakers pronounce the former word as [nʲuː] or even [nuː] (instead of a more standard [njuː]), while the [j] in "York" retains its full features as a palatal approximant.

Other English (Br.Eng) examples include maniac versus cognac.

By the way, English undergoes the same effect of elision of [j], we call it Yod-dropping.

Historical Aspect

(rant mode on) The book is wrong, Ь + А ≠ Я. (/off)
All in all, Ь + А make no sense because «Ь» Used To Be A Vowel, and two consequential vowels were impossible in Old Slavonic. Remember, we have no diphthongs.

There were two major vowels that extincted in 19-20 centuries, Yer and Yer'.

  • Yer' (Old Slavonic ѥрь, Church Slavonic єрь) — used to be short I, now exists as "soft sign" Ь.
  • Yer (Old Slavonic ѥр, Church Slavonic єр) — used to be short O, now exist as Apostrophe ('); you may have also noticed it in Russian, they call it "hard sign" Ъ;

During the course of East-Slavonic languages' evolution, vowel length became extinct.
Stressed short vowels became long ones, while
unstressed ones reduced to nothing else than the palatalization aspect applied to the preceding consonant. In writing, it is the "soft" sign (yer') and Apostrophe (') (yer), correspondingly.


Letter Я can actually represent one or two sounds depending on its position in word and the letter it follows.

Я should be pronounced as /йа/ in the following cases:

  1. Я is the first letter: яблуко — /йаблуко/;
  2. Я follows vowel sound: маяк - /майак/, змія — /зм’ійа/;
  3. Я is preceeded by apostrophe or soft sign (Ь): плем'я — /племйа/, Фольяр — /фол'йар/, альянс — /ал'йанс/.

When Я is used in any other situation, it softens the previous сonsonant and than is pronounced as /а/. For example:

  • коріння — /корін:'а/;
  • поляна — /пол'ана/;
  • криниця — /криниц'а/.

Й is actually a sound by itself, pronounced as [j] in Latin or [й] in Ukrainian transcription, while Ь only softens the previous consonant, thus adding the ' to the transcription:

  • ймовірність — /ймовірн’іст'/;
  • йон — /йон/;
  • сталь — /стал'/;
  • бульйон — /бул'йон/.

That is why you have two different rules to expand Я: The first,

Ь + А = Я

corresponds to the second case, while the second,

Й + А = Я

is for the first.

Compare: луна with [л] and льох з [л'].

  • They sound the same to me. Is there something I'm missing?
    – eshimoniak
    Feb 9, 2017 at 20:43
  • @FracturedRetina are you talking about non-soft and soft sounds, like [л] and [л'] or about something else?
    – Tsumiman
    Feb 9, 2017 at 20:46
  • 1
    @FracturedRetina, "Ь" can only make the consonant soft, it doesn't affect the vowel after it. There are only letters, which you can make softer: д, т, з, с, ц, л, н. There is a phrase "Де Ти З’їСи Ці ЛиНи" to make it easier to memorize. It is used before vowels like "о", "я", "є", "ю", "ї", which already contain "а", "е", "і", "у", but still you don't affect them with the soft sign
    – Makhauser
    Feb 9, 2017 at 20:56
  • @Tsumiman лй and ль seem to sound the same to me
    – eshimoniak
    Feb 9, 2017 at 23:00
  • 1
    @Tsumiman I suggest adding recomendations for pronounciation to your answer. Also please fix transcriptions: "н", "м" before і ("змія", "ймовірність") are also softened. "в" and "р" in "ймовірність" and "коріння" are semi-softened (denoted by apostrophe character). Feb 10, 2017 at 6:39

Well, first thing that I want to say:

Ь does not have a sound (but instead "softens" the previous consonant)

is simply wrong from international point of view. It looks like true from point of view of Ukrainian (and Russian, and some other) linguistics — because every hearing is individual, different humans have different perception of sound shades and when standardizing interpretation of nuances, people often more follow tradition than real physics.

But, according to International Phonetic Alphabet, the soft sign (ь) does produce a sound, denoted as [ ʲ ]. As the sound of й is [ j ], you are quite close to truth when saying ь and й produce similar sounds (at least, closer to truth than official Ukrainian phonetics, IMHO).

In addition to producing the [ ʲ ] sound, the soft sign (ь) also sometimes modifies preceding consonant:

  • ла → [ ɫa ]
  • льа (ля) → [ lʲa ]

Actually, I think [ ʲ ] by its nature (very short [ i ] or [ j ], which is pronounced immediately after preceding consonant and partially mixed with it) always modifies preceding consonant, but in some cases (like л) modification is more significant than in others.

So, probably Ukrainian palatalization both modifies preceding consonant (and BTW the following vowel, which is also ignored by official Ukrainian phonetics) and inserts a ultrashort in-separated vowel. But inserting ultrashort-j-or-i is, probably, a first step for English-background learner, as it'll probably cause some modification of preceding-consonant/following-vowel per se. Then additional tuning may be needed for combination of specific consonants with [ ʲ ], e. g. л.

To get perception of [ ʲ ] I recommend you:

  • listen all sound examples for Russian (sadly, it has no examples for Ukrainian, but palatalization in these languages works similarly) in the Palatalization (phonetics) Wikipedia article noting how [ ʲ ], preceding consonant and following letter are pronounced;
  • enter some test words like ла льа ла льа ла льа and ту тьу ту тьу ту тьу into Google Translate and listen for generated sound:
    • Google Translate pronunciation isn't ideal, but it would give some initial perception;
    • official Ukrainian spelling doesn't allow to write "льа" instead of "ля" (despite "я" in this case acts like "ьа"); in some cases Google Translate pronounces "unofficial" expanded form ("ьа") correctly, in others fails to recognize it ("ье"); it's always better to write in official way;
    • you can put commas instead of spaces to make pauses longer;
  • listen for words with ь and consonant+{я/є/ю} on one of sites providing user-supplied pronunciations:

I understand your problem as you don't feel difference between ь and й. I assume that you know {я/є/ю/ї} decompose into {ь/й}+{а/е/у/і}. In case you don't — я, є, ю and ї:

  • in the beginning of the word, after " - " (hyphen), " ' " (apostrophe), " ь " (soft sign) or any vowel (аеєиіїоюя) — turn into йа, йе, йу and йі (accordingly);
  • after any consonant (бвгґджзйклмнопрстфхцчшщ) — turn into ьа, ье, ьу and [nothing, ї is never after consonant] (accordingly).

Example: "п'янючий" → "пйаньучий".

Then to get difference between ь and й you can type other samples into Google Translate, like "ля лья ля лья ля лья", "тю тью тю тью тю тью", etc (unlike previous examples that emphasizing difference between [ tu ] and [ tʲu ], these show difference between [ tʲu ] and [ tju ]).

NB: Everything above is just my personal perception. I may be simply wrong, especially when declaring that [ ʲ ] is a separate sound. Still, IMHO, such perception, even if wrong, allows to feel the difference more precisely.

  • Sorry, I've downvoted it. It is truly simply wrong :) IPA was based on French+English and describes Ukrainian pretty poorly. "Soft" sounds are separate sounds, they could have been even denoted by other letters. It is same as we could denote "дзвінкі" (sorry, I don't know English term) consonants with two lines near "глухі" instead of separate letters (as Japanese do). Feb 10, 2017 at 6:15
  • Hm... Ok, I'm taking my downvote back: otherwise I would have to downvote three answers here, and I'm not confident enough to do it :) Feb 10, 2017 at 6:48
  • I can't take my vote back: it writes that it is too late... :'( Feb 10, 2017 at 6:54
  • @KyryloYatsenko, well, I realize that IPA'a representation of Ukrainian phonology may be not the best/the most correct, but a bit English-centric. But author's background is English (+Spanish), so I suppose such point of view (though not fully correct per our, Ukrainian, opinion) may make him to understand things easier.
    – Sasha
    Feb 10, 2017 at 11:03
  • (@KyryloYatsenko, BTW I don't believe in "IPA was based on French+English and describes Ukrainian pretty poorly". It has huge amount of nuances for much more rare languages than Slavic. Never-the-less, I agree that the way of representation they use — but not their ability to represent — may be far from ideal.)
    – Sasha
    Feb 10, 2017 at 11:07

What the book seems to be saying, is that Я can mean different pronunciations - softening the preceding consonant, plus A, or a ja. It does not imply that Ь and Й are identical or similar.

As an example, consider that since the Ь can occur at the end of the word, or between consonants, you simply cannot pronounce it the same as Й. As in: пень cannot be pronounced penj. It is closer to penny [ˈpɛn-ni] without saying the final [i]. You can try saying [i] super-short first. Ь has evolved from reduced [i], after all.

Й, on the other hand, is a sound that is always like [i] in day. Although you may say that both of penny and day end with [i] in English phonetic notation, you need to consider that in penny the consonant n is affected, too - compare to n in pen - that change of the consonant is the effect of Ь in Ukrainian.

Some dialects in modern Ukraine do pronounce Я without softening the preceding consonant, so it sounds ja in all positions, and it is still possible to understand the speech - albeit it does sound unusual. Many WWII emigrants and their children, too, use such pronunciation - possibly because many of them originated from the areas with such speaking tradition.

  • Several factual mistakes: "ja" is not diphtong: j is consonant. diphtong = two vowels. Letter "й" denotes two different sounds depending on whether the following letter is consonant or vowel. (in "ймовірність" it is "нескладовий і" denoted by ĭ, in "яблуко" it is close to sound you described) Feb 10, 2017 at 6:47

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