Updated: Feb 3, 2019
Despite its graphic equivalence to the Russian letter e as well as positional phonetic similarity of the Russian vowel /э/ with a few English sounds, these comparisons are not necessarily relevant from the functional point of view, when it comes to the modification of the English silent -e in Russian loanwords.
Instead, up until the early 20th century, the letters Ъ, (ер – yer that was renamed into твёрдый знак - hard sign later) and Ь (ерь – yer’, later мягкий знак – the soft sign) bore a similar to the silent -e function in the Russian grammar. In earlier versions of either language, both, the English silent -e and the Russian -ъ and -ь used to be vocal - they signified reduced vowels /u/ and /i/ respectively and have fallen down to a phonetic ‘nil’ as a result of evolutionary processes in languages.
In the contemporary grammar, the silent or so-called “magic” -e plays an important role at differentiating pronunciation of preceding vowels, for example, in such words as rid and ride. Therefore, the function of the silent -e is still significant in the English language.
The Russian soft sign (ь) also remains phonetically functional: it signifies softness of consonants in the end and middle of words, for example in words гель – gel, гость – male guest and гостья – female guest. Probably, for this reason, the soft sign could not be excluded from active use. Also, similarly to the English silent -e, the soft sign can be spelt for purely grammatical reasons 1) in feminine nouns of the 3rd declension after hissing consonants, e.g. ночь – night and мышь – mouse , 2) in verb infinitive after -ч- (мочь - can) and 3) in the conjugated form of 2nd person, singular (работаешь – you work).
Russian hard sign (ъ) once was a multifunctional grapheme too, in the Old Church Slavonic and probably even earlier. Before and during Middle ages, the rule of an open syllable was typical for Slavic languages, i.e., each syllable had to end in a vowel. Therefore, the sound presented by the grapheme Ъ formed syllables by “covering” consonants (e.g., въпрашалъ or въступилъ) and, as a result, it had become the signifier of the masculine gender to oppose the feminine gender of the 3rd declension that ends in -ь. Thus, the 19th-century Russian spelling of the word admiral - адмирал was адмиралъ. This syllabic function of the letters Ъ and Ь has become irrelevant after the process commonly known as the ‘fall of the reduced (vowels)’ when the extra-short vowels of the Slavic languages either became silent precisely like the English ‘magic -e’ or transformed into other vowels.
Hereby, for centuries, the letter Ъ had been a ‘dead limb’ in a large number of words alongside a few other graphemes from the Church Slavonic alphabet. Since it did not seem logical in the phonetic by nature Russian language, the Russian Academy of Science attempted to expel Ъ from use as early as in the 1730s. Various projects of reformation of the Russian grammar had been proposed a number of times since then. However, the “control shot” was conducted by Bolsheviks.
According to the famous Russian/Soviet linguist Lev Uspensky (1900 – 1978), the grapheme Ъ was “the most expensive letter in the world” as it was taking near 4% of paper and cost 400,000 rubbles annually. In addition, the spelling of this silent letter made texts bulky, which in turn would slow down the Ликбез/Likbez program (ликвидация безграмотности - elimination of illiteracy) that was eventually implemented by the Soviet Commissariat of Education with a huge success: thanks to the educational system that was set-up in the early years of the USSR, Russia remains a country with 100% literacy rate to date. Thus, the economic and social reasons prompted the reformation of Russian grammar.
The Soviet government declared the war against the grammatical rules that “outstayed their welcome” by passing the decree of 23rd December 1917 “Transferring to the New Orthography” signed by the People’s Commissariat of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875 – 1933). This document officially divided the Russian grammar into “before” and “after”. Due to the political context, in which this change had been carried out, those backing monarchy attempted to hold on to the old ways of spelling. Thereby, the poor letter Ъ became a symbol of monarchic Russia and, quite unfairly, one more victim of the opposition between the two worlds.
Not all book printers agreed with the new law and this resulted in the confiscation of the letter Ъ from printing houses, although there was an issue related to its remaining dividing a prefix and a root word function in such words as объект – object, изъять – to withdraw and съезд - congress. For some while, the forbidden grapheme was replaced by the apostrophe (суб’ект, из’ять, c’езд etc.); however, in 1928 the apostrophe was recognised as “not inherent in the Russian grammar” and the letter Ъ returned and became the 28th, silent letter of the Russian alphabet, твёрдый знак – hard sign. It is worth noticing that the hard sign has never returned into the Ukrainian alphabet that remains ‘stuck’ with the apostrophe to the present day, i.e., they spell it as об’экт, суб’экт and з’ïзд.
The attitude to the new reform in the educated strata of Russian society was and still is more than ambiguous. Thus, for dismissing Ъ as a sign of the masculine gender, communists are being accused of eliminating the masculinity from the Russian language. In this context, the reincarnation of this grammatical rule in contemporary commercial advertising, particularly the name of the popular Russian magazine «КоммерсантЪ» - “Commersant” acquires some interesting overtones. On the other hand, feminism seems to have progressed much further in Britain than in Russia still with no dedicated change of language.
Besides, exclusion of the letters Ѣ (ять), Ѳ (фита) and І («и десятеричное») from the Russian alphabet was much more sensitive than the elimination of silent hard sign as the ending of masculine nouns. The disappearance of these three letters has turned some homophones into homographs and hence into homonyms that in effect concealed the history of the language from the future generations of Russian speakers and created a lot of discrepancies. One of the famous examples of confusions is the title of Leo Tolstoy ’s novel known to English readers as “War and Peace” turned from «Война и миръ» into «Война и мир». The words мiръ and мир mean society/community and peace respectively. Thanks to the reform of grammar, these two words became homonyms, мир. Probably because of the thirst for sensation, some modern critics have been speculating that the original title was "Война и мiръ", i.e. “War and the Society” or maybe even ”War and the Nation”. Even the auther herself became carried away with the opportunity of such interpretation. However, a brief look at the photograph of a pre-revolutionary edition of the novel is enough to realise that the commonly known translation, "War and Peace" is, in fact, correct.
Even more confusing, particularly for new learners of the Russian language has become the word есть, while it would not have been the case in the Russian grammar before 1917, where eсть as to be in present tense, i.e. am, are, is, differed from Ѣсть - to eat. Therefore, these two words were homophones but not homographs. As a result, existence (eсть) became associated with food (Ѣсть). Some thinkers suggested that the Soviet government prompted de-spiritualisation of the society.
It is hard to say whether this accusation is fair. Everything flows and nothing stays still… and so do languages. Undoubtedly, changes in language reflect certain processes in society, and sometimes words and syntax give the most accurate idea about how things really used to be. To the Russians of the 1910s and early 1920s, who fought in World War 1, witnessed the two revolutions and the Civil War, who destroyed their own country and then rebuilt it from ruins and ashes and who have done all those things overcoming many hardships – maybe to them the simple fact that one needs to eat in order to exist was not a mere quibble…
The linguist community in the West seemed rather enthusiastic about simplification of the Russian alphabet: “The new spelling (now used throughout the USSR)… Being simpler it is an advance on the old” (Duff Charles and Anssime Krougliakoff.“The Basis and Essentials of Russian”, Edinburgh, Paris, Toronto, New York, 1937. Published for The Orthological Institute, Cambridge).
Getting back to the silent -e. Probably in the effect of such historic development of the Russian grammar, the English silent -e becomes ignored and dismissed in the absolute majority of loanwords in the Russian language, e.g. parade – парад, masquerade - маскарад and athlete - атлет. When loanwords with the silent -e in their English version are Russian feminine, e.g. serenade – серенада, phrase – фраза or cassette – кассета, they often retain the grammatical gender from a donor language other than English. Thus, the noun серенада was borrowed from Italian serenata, where it has the ending -a and the nouns phrase and cassette are feminine in Greek and French respectively.
More information and facts about the patterns of acquisition of grammatical gender by Russian loanwords can be found in my upcoming book “7000 English Words in the Russian Language”.