I often encounter claims that these letters formerly were pronounced differently. Can anybody please point me to a sound record that shows the difference?
Well, in short here are main facts about "ять":
- In Slavic it had evolved from PIE long e, but Indo-European diphthongs
- 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).
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
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
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
е or the diphtong
ие, and the three most probably coexisted in various dialects of Russian.
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.