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Some background info. These two symbols don't have a reading on their own, but rather affect the sound that appears right before them. In modern Russian they are:

The distinction covers front-vowels and back-vowels (just like in most Fenno-Ugric languages). It also gave a consonant shift (just like in some Fenno-Ugric languages). Some languages spoken at the Slavic language area are Fenno-Ugric.

Can this be a result of Fenno-Ugric influence?

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Ь and ъ were alway distinguished in Protoslavic, long before Slavs came into contact with Uralic peoples. The reduced vowel ь developed from the PIE short *ĭ, the reduced vowel ъ developed from the PIE short *ŭ, Old Church Slavonic вьдова, Russian вдова, Old Indo-Aryan vidhavā, Latvian vĭdua. Old Church Slavonic дъва, Russian два, Old Indo-Aryan dŭva, Greek δύω ['düō]. Also, ъ developed from the PIE *ŭ < *ŏ at the end of the words: Old Church Slavonic сънъ, Russian сон, Greek ὕπνος ['hüpnos]: *sŭpnŏs > *sŭpnŭs > сънъ, *pn simplified into n, final s disappeared according to the rule of open syllables.

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    In the word for son there was u always: PIE seuo̯nus. Anyway, +1 – Anixx Feb 5 '13 at 5:16
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    The point bears emphasising that these symbols represented vowels - short vowels, it is true, but fully-fledged vowels (as ъ still does in Bulgarian). Russian has lost the vowels, but retained the palatalisation which went with the vowels (in a similar way to Germanic languages having often lost the following front-vowel that cause umlaut) – Colin Fine Feb 5 '13 at 13:36
  • Well, when did (proto)Slavs come into contact with Uralic people then? – Manjusri Feb 8 '13 at 8:27

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