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I often encounter claims that these letters formerly were pronounced differently. Can anybody please point me to a sound record that shows the difference?

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Well, in short here are main facts about "ять":

  • In Slavic it had evolved from PIE long e, but Indo-European diphthongs ai and oi also became ѣ.
  • Actually, nowadays nobody know for what exactly sound it stands in Slavic. But most probably, according to language reconstruction, it represented long æː.
  • There is also another hypothesis that this "ять" represented diphthong 'ie'.
  • We can hardly speak about separate phoneme in Old Russian, since it had been lost on early stages of language evolution. Yet, very subtle difference between e and ѣ had held pretty long (especially in dialects). For example, Lomonosov wrote in XVIII century that "слух требует ... в е дебелости, в ѣ тонкости", and I do believe that it hardly can be described somewhat more precisely )
  • In different Slavic languages "ять" became different vowels. For example, in Russian, in majority of dialect, it became "е" - as in хлеб, in Ukrainian - i (хлiб).
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In Russian, е and ѣ completely lost their difference about the end of XVIII, long before sound recording was invented.

PIE contrasted long and short vowels. ѣ originated from the PIE's long vowel ē which in some other languages turned into diphtongs. It is commonly accepted that it was a long vowel in Russian as well, though it is disputed whether it was just a long vowel or a diphtong.

The Novgorod gramotas started to mix ѣ with е, и and ь in early XII, and Zaliznyak in Древненовгородский диалект mentions that *ѣ <-> и mix had phonetic nature, while *ѣ <-> е/ь does not allow to distinguish between phonetic and graphic reasons reliably. So in Old Novgorod dialect, it was most probably closer to и than to е.

Even now, different flavors or Serbo-Croatian pronounce words with historical ѣ differently: Rika / Reka / Rijeka.

That said, it is not clear how exactly ѣ was pronounced in Old Russian or Proto-Slavic, most probably its pronunciation heavily varied with dialect and time, and no reliable descriptions of its sounding persisted (to say nothing of sound records, of course).

It was surely a long vowel, close to и, е or the diphtong ие, and the three most probably coexisted in various dialects of Russian.

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It is worth noting that in modern Russian pronunciation there are three different e-ish sounds: one is a soft е as in "сеть", the second is a hard э as in "эхо", and the third appears in (very widely used) loanwords from English, like both е-s in "менеджер". It's harder than the first and softer than the second.

Now, some people pronounce this sound as a hard э or soft е, but it is kind of awkward and doesn't sound right; so the third sound is used.

I have no idea whether ѣ ever mapped to this sound, though.

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  • 3
    You are wrong, in Russian there are hard and soft consonants, not vowels. – Anixx Sep 19 '12 at 9:50
  • This is an extremelly simplified view of Russian phonetics. I can pronounce at least two distinct е-s without whatsoever consonant around. – alamar Sep 19 '12 at 15:40
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    Also irrelevant. If it suits you better you can think Russian has two distinct levels of patalization instead of just one: halfway in "менеджер", full in "мел" – alamar Sep 19 '12 at 15:43
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    @Anixx: this difference in vowels is usually thought of as a phonetic, not phonematic (i.e. allophony), but it is just a convenient theory. The “same phoneme” /e/ is pronounced [e] in its “soft” version (after soft consonants) and [ɛ] in its “hard” version (after hard consonants). Because coarticulation exists, one may not say that Russian hasn’t any hard–soft distinction of vowels. – Incnis Mrsi Oct 18 '14 at 2:24
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    IMHO alamar’s posting was unjustly −ed. There are actually different sounds, although this difference is coupled with the palatalization quality of the preceding consonant. Also, an intermediate degree on the hard–soft scale is not an impossible thing, although it is difficult to discuss since examples were not provided. – Incnis Mrsi Oct 18 '14 at 2:48

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