I was taught that certain consonants such as ш are always 'hard'. What function does the soft sign ь have when placed after these 'always hard' consonants? For example, in words such as учишься? Does ш + ь change the pronunciation of the ш? Or does it just indicate a pause?

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    Joshualotz, have a look at this answer of mine, it also deals with the soft sign ь after ш. – Yellow Sky Sep 17 '13 at 23:09
  • You could ask the same question about the spelling of the city Керчь. – KCd Sep 18 '13 at 12:50

The reason is purely historical.

Before the orthography reform of 1918, the two words mentioned by @КуЪ were written as тушъ and тушь, accordingly.

Those two writings are relics of the law of open syllables which, among other things, forbade the words to end with consonants in early Slavic languages.

The letters ъ and ь denoted reduced vowels present in Slavic languages at the time the Cyrillic alphabet was developed, and, though they later had either fallen or been transformed into full-length vowels both in Russian and in Russian rendition of Church Slavonic, the end-vowel rule had survived in Russian orthography (though it was not reflecting actual pronunciation anymore), because some kind of marking was required to distinguish words in pairs like мол/моль, кров/кровь and similar, where palatalization of the final consonant distinguishes between the meanings.

1918's reform retained ь in final positions for all words where it was historically present (including those ending with consonants not forming soft/hard pairs anymore), and dropped ъ in all final positions.

Other Slavic languages using Cyrillic had also undergone similar reforms: 1945's reform of Bulgarian orthography dropped both trailing ъ and ь (as all trailing Bulgarian consonants are hard), and 1847's reform of Serbian removed both ъ and ь from the alphabet at all (as only л, н, ц, ч and ж have hard/soft varieties in Serbian, the Serbs introduced separate letters for the each variety instead).

Some orthography reform projects (i. e. Fortunatov's 1912 project) suggested that final ь would be dropped after hard consonants as well, as the distinction it marks is only valid for but a few pairs and not represented at speech at all. However, none of those projects had passed so far.

  • Просто интересный факт: в абазинском языке мягкий знак иногда пишется после твёрдого знака, дело в том, что в этом языке есть триграфы гъь и къь. – Yellow Sky Sep 17 '13 at 23:26

Ь doesn't change the pronunciation of the ш. It doesn't indicate a pause. It is only used in written speech to indicate the form of a verb. Also ь doesn't change the pronunciation in the words "туш" and "тушь", but these words have different meaning and gender.

  • OK, I understand the example with "туш" and "тушь" because the ь distinguishes in writing two words with different meaning/gender that otherwise have the same pronunciation. But is there any 'reason' to have ь in учишься other than orthographic tradition? If I wrote учишся without ь, would it be confused with another word? Basically, I'm wondering 'why' we bother to write the ь in this case? – joshualotz Sep 17 '13 at 11:14
  • @joshualotz In old times there was a phrase that the only meaning of letter ѣ (which sounded at that time exactly as letter е) is to distinguish literate from illiterate. I think this is the answer for your question as well. – Artemix Sep 17 '13 at 12:29
  • Говорят, на месте мягкого знака в славянских языках был сверхкраткий звук "и", затем он редуцировался, звук "ш" был смягчённым; затем "ш" отвердел, но мягкий знак остался. Когда была реформа, которая отменила "ъ" после твёрдых согласных, хотели "ь" после "ш" в окончаниях глаголов во 2 л. ед.ч. тоже отменить, но почему-то этого не сделали, хотя сторонники такого решения до сих пор есть. – КуЪ Sep 17 '13 at 14:38
  • @КуЪ historically there was not reduced sound, but full -и in -ши (and -си in athematic verbs: даси, еси). It is still kept in church tradition. Eliminating of this -и happened generally later than reducents falling. So, the reason to keep -ь is totally orthographic without any real historic grounding. – Netch Sep 25 '13 at 19:23

All verbs and adverbs with trailing ж, ш and ч always have soft sign as the last character. It's just grammar rules, so soft sign in this cases has no function. In your example, "учишься" is derivative from "учишь".

You can read more info and make exercises here: http://www.gramota.ru/class/coach/tbgramota/45_88

  1. Глаголы с шипящим на конце всегда пишутся с мягким знаком. Например: СМОТРИШЬ или ПОСМОТРИШЬ (в форме второго лица ед. числа настоящего или будущего времени), РЕЖЬ (в повелительном наклонении), ЖЕЧЬ (в неопределенной форме). Обратите внимание, что в глаголах мягкий знак может оказаться после шипящей и не на самом конце слова, а перед постфиксами –СЯ или -ТЕ, например: КУПАЕШЬСЯ, СПРЯЧЬТЕ.
  • This isn't good answer because it denotes only current state without its origin. – Netch Sep 25 '13 at 19:24

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