9

As far as I understand, "ч" is always soft. The letter "ь" usually denotes that the preceding letter is soft.

These two facts together seem to imply that the combination "чь" (just like "щь") would/should always be redundant, and thus never used or replaced by "ч".

However, one sees this letter combination in the pronouns "чьё/чья/чьи" -- I have not seen it anywhere else in the Russian language although I do not presume to have a wide vocabulary.

Is the reason why this letter combination exists in these three words historical? Or does it actually affect the pronunciation of the words?

(Say compared to "чё/ча/чи" -- of course because of the spelling rule "чя" is illegal but such a combination would be redundant anyway since the vowel following "ч" is always soft.)

Sort of related: "чё?" or "чо?" - which is the correct spelling?

16

Not redundant, does affect. The soft mark is the reason чьи is pronounced [tɕji] and not [tɕi].

Basically, ь between a consonant and a vowel is pronounced [j] — an actual separate iotic consonant, as opposed to just the preceding one getting palatalised: пьяный ['pʲja-] vs. пятна ['pʲa-]. The principle works with the ь-unaffected sibilants too.

Now the soft mark supposedly isn't itself "pronounced" but rather "resets" the so-called modifier letters (е/ё, ю, я), causing them to iotate instead of palatalise, but with a word like чьи (or, say, бульон), the [j] can only really be regarded as the pronunciation of ь itself.

(Of course it's a little more complicated from a historical viewpoint: in obsolete and dialectal pronunciations, и can also be a "modifier letter" with a [ji] pronunciation in the same positions as where я would be [ja], etc., while ьо being pronounced [jo] is more recent and more random.)

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  • I would add that "ьо" is restricted to several loanwords, mostly in ьон corresponding to French ion or illon (лосьон, бульон, почтальон, etc.) but also sometimes word-finally for other Romance languages (каудильо, rarely ниньо). It is not productive (id est. words that are loaned nowadays usually don't take ьо). – Viridianus Aug 31 '16 at 12:33
  • @Viridianus I'm not at all sure it's not productive. If the Spanish word alloza, "green almond", were loaned tomorrow, what would its spelling be? "Альёса", rather than "альоса"? I don't think so. – Nikolay Ershov Aug 31 '16 at 12:44
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    @Nikolay_Ershov I would be almost certain it would be альёса (leaving apart the incredibility of making loanword for изумрудный). – Viridianus Sep 1 '16 at 23:53
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    I guess my confusion was that I don't really know how to distinguish clearly between a "y"/[j] sound and palatalization [ ' ]. I understand conceptually and physically why they are different, how I should move my mouth and tongue and such -- when I try to actually make them sound different I don't hear much of a change though. But just because I can't pronounce the difference/need to practice pronouncing the difference, doesn't mean that it isn't there or that I should ignore it. Thank you for the clear explanation re-introducing this mental distinction -- I appreciate it. – Chill2Macht Sep 26 '16 at 15:34
7

These vowels are iotized after ь but not after consonants. So the soft sign serves to indicate iotation.

чья = [ч'й'а]

чьё = [ч'й'о]

By contrast,

чё = [ч'о]

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3

We use "ь" in чья,чьи,чьё (pronounced differently from чё) to mark the sound [j] like in "й", so it's not redundant (чё--чьё).Examples : мужичьё,дурачьё,ничья, but чёлка,плечо,влечёт. Чё is spelt both ways(чо,чё) By the way,we also use ь with other consonants for the same reason пьяный--пятница.

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2

You probably know the difference between и and й. Think like е/ь relates the same way и/й does. Try to tell "чеё", feel the difference of "чё". Then make "е" as short as possible. The same is right (in most cases) for ы/ъ.

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1

It has nothing to do with letter "ч". "ьё" always produces "йо", "ья" - "йа" and "ьи" - "йи". For example, "лукоморье" -> "лукамор'йэ", "ульи" -> "ул'йи" etc.

For "ьё" or "ья" one may explain it as "opening a syllable", so it's pronounced as if there were two separate words, e.g. "спросонья" -> "спросонь + я". But for "ьи" it doesn't work that way and the reason why "ьи" is always pronounced as "йи" now is purely historical.

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1

The [j] element in чья, чьё, чьи also makes sense from a structural standpoint - it's the same [j] that's at the end of чей. The -е- in чей/чья etc. can be present or absent because of a historical sound change.

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    "е" is not actually absent, it still there in form of "short e" - "ь". Too bad that nowadays the historical roots of ь and ъ are forgotten and the letters are studied as if they were some incomprehensible and transcendental "signs". – yaapelsinko Sep 20 '16 at 9:12
  • @yaapelsinko Well, actually the linguistic theory of language can and must be synchronic (i. e. not explain facts of a state of the language using its history). However, as Zaliznyak has shown in "Russian Nominal Declension", the е/zero alternation can (and must) be predicted in synchronic model. – Viridianus Sep 29 '16 at 20:46

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