Let’s go for the signs now. There are just two. The signs themselves are very easy.
However… to understand them, you need to understand something about consonants. This is not needed to speak Russian, but this is useful to know. Bear with me.
First, let’s learn what a consonant is. Basically, consonants are sounds where your breathing is stopped at least for a bit while you are pronouncing it. Because of that, you can’t keep pronouncing a consonant continuously.
Consonants can be contrasted with vowels. Your breathing is not stopped, and you can hold it while you are pronouncing it. The vowels in English are letters a, e, i, o, u. Try pronouncing them – you can just keep on for a minute if you have enough air. While consonants, if continuously pronounced, will simply turn into vowels. The consonants are b, p, d, k and so on. Try holding in a p for some time and you will see what I mean.
Now, in theory, there are two kinds of consonants. The first kind is hard – where you stop breathing completely, the second kind is soft – where you stop breathing almost completely. Whether a consonant is hard or soft depends on the vowel that goes after it. You have the same thing in English. For example, you say a soft consonant in new (you see how that nj sound makes it softer?) and a hard one in net.
Russian has this as well. In Russian, a consonant is always hard if the vowel after it does not make it soft.
The only vowels that make a consonant soft are the ones that have a j (as in yet) sound in them. These vowels are я, е, ё, и, ю. They would be written ja, je, jo, i and ju the way we wrote them. You can see that all of them have this j sound, and this j sound makes the consonant before it short! (Well, all of them except i, but in i the sound is still present, just not written; we could as well write it as ji.)
So, bottom line: unless a consonant has one of the softening vowels (я, е, ё, и, ю) after it, it is hard.
But what are the signs we were going to learn for? Well, of course, to break the rules!
The signs are two. Look at the first one:
This is called the soft sign (мякий знак). What it does is… it makes the consonants that come before it short regardless of what follows them.
In theory, this sign is not pronounced, but, in practice, it comes out as j, because, as we have already learned, the j sign makes consonants soft.
I will mark the sign ь with ’.
Let’s have a few words with this sign. First of all, let’s return to tsar. It is actually written tsar’. Write it.
It is also very noticeable in the word mother which is mat’. Write this one down: