I wrote this article specifically for those who want to begin reading Russian unassisted. Here you’ll find a strategy that will allow you to learn Russian letters, sounds, and handwriting in four easy steps. The pronunciation is explained with examples familiar to any English speaker.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you the Russian alphabet. It consists of 33 letters: 11 vowels, 20 consonants, and 2 letters that don’t have a sound of their own. For those whose mother tongues are rooted in Latin (English, French, Spanish), the Cyrillic alphabet can seem weird and daunting. But it won’t be entirely unfamiliar — many of the letters and sounds will make perfect sense.
So what’s with this bizarre new alphabet? Where did it come from? The Russian alphabet can be dated back to 863 A.D. when brothers Cyril and Methodius from Greece (by order of the emperor) undertook the enormous task of adjusting the writing system of the Old Slavonic language (the ancestor language of Russian). They created a brand new alphabet used to translate Greek religious texts so that the residences of the East could be converted. This is where the majority of the non-Latin letters come from.
Obviously modern Russian and Greek do not share identical alphabets, despite their connected history. Some of the Russian letters seem Greek, and vice versa. Russian is a mix of Old Slavonic, Greek, and Latin. But don’t worry, it truly isn’t very difficult. It usually takes no more than two hours to memorize all the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet and begin reading your first Russian words.
The Russian alphabet in 4 steps
This article was handcrafted for those wanting to learn the alphabet themselves. So, to make certain explanations more clear I picked English words that contain sounds which are similar to the Russian words shown. However, remember that Russian and English have different phonetic systems. To avoid forming a strong accent, pay attention to the video and use the English “hints” at first.
What I’m offering you today is the ability to learn every Russian letter, and every sound in four easy steps. To help you through it, I’ve divided the letters into groups ranging from, easiest to hardest.
At the end of the article, you’ll find a bonus – a special Russian alphabet cheat sheet in PDF form that will speed up your learning! And don’t forget to take a quiz to check yourself.
1. Russian letters similar to English
First we have all of the Russian letters that resemble their English counterparts; the easiest to understand. Even so, some explanation will be necessary.
|Аа||Approximate English examples: rather, father, but, some, country, other, under, such, become, must
This vowel is pronounced with a widely opened mouth. I mean not that’s wide as when you yawn, but more than when you speak English. You also shouldn’t mix this one with other sounds, that may seem pretty much the same, for example, “a” in “cat” or “u” in “cut” – they are different!
|Кк||Approximate English examples: close, call, close, require, can, seek, call, kind, kid, kiss, kinder, cute
When you pronounce the letters Kk in English, you breathe out a big portion of air. If you put an open palm to your lips you can feel a puff of air. To pronounce the Russian letters Кк, reduce the amount of air you breathe out.
|Мм||Approximate English examples: mom, minimum, mouse, company, time, from, may, midnight, miracle, million, meat,
Probably, the easiest letter for an English speaker, because the Russian version sounds identically to the English one.
|Оо||Approximate English example: morning, more, or, talk, also, almost, call, water, important, war, four
To pronounce this sound round up your lips and say this long “o”.
|Тт||Approximate English examples: task, track, too, tummy, top, tip, teacher, team, esteem, tube, turn
Do the same thing as with the letter K – reduce the flow of air that you breathe out when you pronounce this letter, say it more gently.
2. Russian letters that look different, but sound familiar
Though these letters look different, the sounds they represent are very familiar to you. That is why in most cases, I’ll give a just a set of English examples with no further explanation. The bigger task here is to memorize that sounds that you use in daily speech are represented in the Russian alphabet with different signs.
|Бб||Approximate English examples: basketball, bounce, brave, stubborn, believe, bil, maybe|
|Гг||Approximate English examples: good, glance, gold, go, garage, giggle, begin, login, forget, give, girl|
|Дд||Approximate English examples: do, drama, darling, duck, double, does, deep, dude, deal, dynasty|
|Зз||Approximate English examples: zoo, result, zone, citizen, doesn’t, loose, amusing, music, zip|
|Ии||Approximate English examples: leave, see, feel, sheep, me, east, easy, bean, cheap, keep, seem
This reversed N is an equivalent to the long “i”, not the short one like in the words “it” or “in”.
|Лл||Approximate English examples: large, language, goal, load,balloon, listen, live, lyrics, Olympic|
|Пп||Approximate English examples: power, plus, pose, poverty, practice, people
The English closest equivalent Pp is produced with a strong puff of air, while Russian Пп is pronounced in a more relaxed manner.
|Фф||Approximate English examples: fall, fail, France, fantastic, flag, enough, find, fulfill.|
|Ээ||Approximate English examples: met, set,
left, well, again, every, never, help, many
3. Russian letters that look familiar but sound different
These letters may easily mislead a beginner, because they the same as the English letters, but sound differently.
|Вв||Approximate English examples: vlog, village, voice, vase, violet, value, video, shave, forgive, receive
While learning this letter, keep in mind two differences. First of all, don’t mix it with the English “w” like in the word “wow”. Secondly, when you pronounce the Russian Вв, you should bite your lower lip more than you do that in English.
|Ее||Approximate English examples: yes, year, “Yellowstone”.
This is is a vowel that consists of two sounds – [j] and [e], that should be pronounced together, like in the English words “yes”.
|Нн||Approximate English examples: no, never, nonsense, null, nerve, morning, niece, Nina, new
Pronunciation of this letter is identical to the English “Nn”
|Рр||Approximate English examples: rice, prize, rock, rich, brave, rocket, brick
Though I gave you some approximate English examples, keep in mind, that Rr and Рр are different. If the English letter sounds like a bear wounding around a forest, the Russian one resembles you’re trying to start an old tractor: you tongue is vibrating.
|Сс||Approximate English examples: so, sarcastic, some, mistake, solid, miss, sew, siblings, see
While in the English language this letter has two meanings: [s] and [k], in the Russian language it’s pronounced as [s] and not the other way around.
|Уу||Approximate English examples: moon, loop, blue, true, group, rude, cool, spoon, crew, chew
This letter represents the sound close to the English [u], but in the Russian version, you should round up your lips as if you’re going to kiss someone.
|Хх||Approximate English examples: home, hint, humor, huge, behavior, perhaps, ahead
This consonant is considered to be one of the most difficult letters if the Russian alphabet. It resembles “Hh” in “home” and “house”, but it’s much harder. To form the proper pronunciation I ask my students to stretch the sound [khhhhhh] and then to omit [k] and leave just [hhhhhh]
4. Russian letters that look and sound different
We’ve finally come to the most interesting part of the Russian alphabet – a group of letters that neither sound nor look like the English ones. Let’s begin with the vowel that is unusual for all English speakers and for those, whose languages are rooted in Latin.
|Ыы||Approximate English examples: mouses, houses
To pronounce this letter you’ll have to activate muscles that don’t normally work when you speak English. Here’s a little phonetic exercise for you. Pronounce and “stretch” the sound [и] (eeeeeeeeeeeeeee), then while doing this move your chest forwards and keep pronouncing [и] (eeeeeeeeeeeeeee). The quality of your sound will change. This will be your first step to the proper pronunciation of the letter Ыы
Now, let’s talk about the letter Йй (brief “e”, [j]) and “double” vowels where the sound [j] takes place. Actually, we’ve already met one representative in the previous group – Ee, but now let’s have a closer look at them.
It may seem strange, but the consonant sound й [j] “participates” in several vowels: Ее, Ёё, Юю, Яя.
|Йй||Approximate English examples: yogurt, boy, toy, hey, they
If the reversed “Nn” represents the long sound [i], the letter “i kratkoe” or the “brief i” in English, as you may guess, shows the short sound.
|Ёё||Approximate English examples: New York, your, yogurt
this vowel is a combination [j] (or й in Russian) and [o]. At first sight, it looks not typical for the English language, but in truth, there are some words that have this combination too: “yours” or “your”.
|Юю||Approximate English examples: you, few, amuse, music
is another “double” letter, that consists of [j] and [u] (й+у in Russian).
|Яя||Approximate English examples: yard, yacht, Yap
This is the last “double” thing. It is made of [j] and [a] (й+a in Russian).
Now let’s have a look at the group of hushing sounds: Чч, Жж, Шш, Щщ. Not only these letters look very unusual, but most of them also sound bizarre.
Hushing sounds are called so because when you pronounce them as if you hiss or sputter at someone.
|Жж||Approximate English examples: measure, seizure, television, confusion, usual, decision, occasion, provision
This letter has 100% equivalent in English and is rightfully considered to be one of the most difficult letters of the Russian alphabet. You could probably hear this letter from the novel “Doctor Zhivago” or the surname of a Russian writer and Nobel prize winner – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
|Чч*||Approximate English examples: chair, coach, change, scotch, chew, cheap, cheat, match, watch
This letter has a direct equivalent in English, that is expressed with the combination “ch”.
|Шш*||Approximate English examples: shore, bush, shore, champagne, hush, shrimp, fish, station, vocation
The sound that stands behind this letter is also very frequent in the English language, in most cases it’s expressed by the “sh” couple.
*I know, according to my classification, Чч and Шш should be in the previous group of letters that look different, but sound familiar. But I wanted to gather all the company of hushing letters in one place.
|Щщ||Approximate English examples: she, ship, sheet, sheer, shear, machine
This letter looks like the previous one but has its special feature – it’s soft. At first sight, it seems, that the English language doesn’t have any soft “sh” sounds. But compare the following words: “shop” – “ship”, “short” – “shirt”. Did you notice that the “sh” in second words is different? I would say this is the closest example to the Russian Щщ in the English language.
|Цц||Approximate English examples: What’s, that’s
phonetically this letter is not in the group of hushing sounds, but it’s close to them. The sound represented by this letter is located somewhere between [t] and [s]. To train proper pronunciation say [t] and then [s] several times. Then speed up and say [t] – [s] – [t] – [s] – [t] – [s] as fast as you can. This exercise will lead you to the proper pronunciation of the Russian letter.
We’ve finally come to the last letters of the Russian alphabet. The concept that stands behind them evokes a huge amount of questions among English speakers.
The letters Ъ and Ь don’t have their own sounds but have other different functions: make sounds harder or softer or separate one sound from another.
|Ъъ||no sound||Separates some vowels and consonants.|
|Ьь||no sound||Approximate English examples: amusing, few, coupon
The basic aim of this letter is to soften consonants that they follow.
The problem here is that sometimes students don’t hear the difference between “hard” and “soft” versions of the sound. That is why the topic deserves a big article and detailed explanation.
However, I believe that the idea of a “soft” consonant may be shown even on the English words.
Read aloud the following pairs of words:
- Moon – muse
- Fun – few
- Cool – coupon
Did you notice that the quality of the very first sound at the first column is a bit different from the similar one in the second column? If I wanted to describe this difference with a dry phonetic language, this would look like this:
- mu:n – mju:z
- fʌn – fju:
- cu:l – kju:pɑn
In the second column, the first consonant is followed with the [j] sound. What if we try to pronounce the first letter of these words without it’s ending: m
use (m ju:z), f ew (f ju:), c oupon (k ju:pɑn)? What if after saying the first letter we get ready to pronounce this [j] sound but at the last moment we stop ourselves? We’ll get a “soft” version of consonants m, f and k.
A real understanding of the difference between a hard and a soft consonant comes with some hours of speaking and listening practice. Anyway, I hope that this explanation gives you a chance to feel the difference in the quality of sounds, that you normally don’t pay attention when you speak English.
You’ve just covered all the letters of the Russian alphabet, and I bet you’ve already memorized some of them. If you’re ready to test yourself, take the following quiz!
As usual, I found some pages that might be useful is you delve into the topic deeper.
First of all, there’s a big fact sheet on Wikipedia, with references to the international phonetic alphabet and a peculiar chart describing the frequency of letters in the Russian written language.
What comes to further practice, you can use a resource that shows handwriting samples or the one that provides listening practice. If you’re familiar with such linguistic terms as palatalization, voiceless or voiced consonants, etc, I would advise you to have a look at the website that describes the alphabet in a more scientific manner.
Remember, that whatever option you choose, you’re always welcome to ask your questions in comments below.