Lesson 1: Russian Alphabet and Pronunciation

Many people find learning Russian especially challenging because of all those letters that do not look anything like people are used to seeing. The Russian alphabet is based on Cyrillic alphabet which initially had 43 letters. You are lucky ‑ now Russian has only 33 letters in its alphabet. Which can be still pretty much for anyone considering that there are only 26 letters in English. Yet, there is no reason for panic. It is not as scary as you might have pictured.

 

Let’s start with introduction of Russian letters. There are 10 vowels, 21 consonants and 2 signs in Russian. In the table we have presented the letters as they are written and pronounced.

 

The Letter in Cyrillic Transliteration Pronunciation Examples Translation
А, а A If stressed – ah as in father Мама Mother
Б, б B B as in big Банан Banana
В, в V V as in victory Вор Thief
Г, г G G as in god Гусь Goose
Д, д D D as in dog Дом House
Е, е Ye Ye as in yes Ель Fir
Ё, ё Yo Yo as in yoke Ёж Hedhehog
Ж, ж Zh Zh as in treasure Жук Beetle, bug
З, з Z Z as in zebra Зебра Zebra
И, и I Ee as in feet Игла Needle
Й, и J Y as in may Май May
К, к K C as in cat Кот Cat
Л, л L L as in love Лес Forest
М, м M M as in mother Мир World
Н, н N N as in no Нет No
О, о O O as in walk Он He
П, п P P as in plan План Plan
Р, р R R – flap r, close to a Spanish ‘r’ in padre Река River
С, с S S as in sit Стол Table
Т, т T T as in take Тигр Tiger
У, у U Oo as in took Утка Duck
Ф, ф F F as in fat Факт Fact
Х, х Kh As in the name of German composer Bach Хобби Hobby
Ц, ц Ts Ts as in cats Цирк Circus
Ч, ч Ch Ch as in check Чашка Cup
Ш, ш Sh Sh as in English Шар Sphere
Щ, щ Sh’ Soft sh as in sheep Щенок Puppy
ъ Hard sign Съел Ate
ы Y ih (not present in English) Дым Smoke
ь Soft sign Пить To drink
Э, э E E as in end Эмоция Emotion
Ю, ю Yu Yu as in use Юла Pegtop
Я, я Ya Ya as in yam Яблоко Apple

 

Of course, there are special cases of pronunciation but in general the letters are pronounced as they are written (according to their transliteration).

The vowels are highlighted in green.  They are pronounced the way it is shown in the table when they are stressed, when they are positioned in the beginning of the word or after another vowel.

 

Vowels in unstressed positions

 

 

  • О will be read as А

О stressed А stressed О→ [А]
Он (he) 

Сок (juice)

Мама (Mother) 

Папа (Father)

Карта (Map)

Она (she) 

Собака (dog)

Молоко (milk)

Корова (cow)

Хорошо (good)

  • Е will be read as И

Е Ε→ [И]
Лес (forest) 

Реки (rivers)

Леса (forests) 

Река (a river)

 

Consonants in different positions

  • Consonants can be pronounced soft and hard depending on the vowel that follows the consonant

 

Consonants become soft if the following letters come after them ‑ Е, Ё, И, Ю, Я and Ь:

paired (15 pairs of consonants) Not paired
hard б в г д з к л м н п р с т ф х ж ш ц – always hard
soft + 

Е, Ё, И, Ю, Я, Ь

б’ в’ г’ д’ з’ к’ л’ м’ н’ п’ р’ с’ т’ ф’ х’ ч’ щ’ й’ – always soft

Some examples:

hard Translation soft Translation
бар 

вор

гора

дом

замок

кот

лук

мама

нога

папа

рука

это

сад

флаг

хор

Bar 

Thief

Mountain

House

Castle

Cat

Onion

Mother

Leg

Father

Hand

This

Garden

Flag

Choir

берег 

виза

герой

дядя

зима

кит

люк

мята

небо

пепел

брюки

новость

село

кофе

химия

Shore 

Visa

Hero

Uncle

Winter

Whale

Hatch

Mint

Sky

Ash

Pants

News

Village

Coffee

Chemistry

 

 

  • There are voiced and voiceless consonants. Voiced consonants can be pronounced as an according voiceless one depending on their position in the word

As a rule, voiced consonants in the end of the word or before a voiceless consonant are pronounced as their voiceless opposite.

 

PAIRS 

б — [п]

в — [ф]

г — [к]

д — [т]

з — [с]

ж — [ш]

EXAMPLES  

зуб – зубы

автобус – аванс

друг – другой

город – города

мороз – морозы

нож – ножи

 

This short guide to pronunciation of Russian letters in different positions should be enough for now. It can be overwhelming at first but it gets better the more you practice.

Let’s start with practice right now.

 

Read the following Russian words and try to guess their meaning based on their similarity with English words:

 

 

Аэропорт

Алгебра

Астрономия

Доктор

Футбол

Гимнастика

Космос

Кредит

Музыка

Нос

Стадион

Водка

Жираф

Журнал

 

 

 

The following table of syllables will help you to practice reading in Russian

 

А Е Ё И О У Ы Э Ю Я
Б БА БЕ БЁ БИ БО БУ БЫ БЮ БЯ
В ВА ВЕ ВЁ ВИ ВО ВУ ВЫ ВЮ ВЯ
Г ГА ГЕ ГИ ГО ГУ ГЮ
Д ДА ДЕ ДЁ ДИ ДО ДУ ДЫ ДЮ ДЯ
Ж ЖА ЖЕ ЖЁ ЖИ ЖО ЖУ !
З ЗА ЗЕ ЗЁ ЗИ ЗО ЗУ ЗЫ ЗЮ ЗЯ
Й АЙ ЕЙ ЁЙ ИЙ ОЙ УЙ ЫЙ ЭЙ ЯЙ
К КА КЕ КИ КО КУ
Л ЛА ЛЕ ЛЁ ЛИ ЛО ЛУ ЛЫ ЛЮ ЛЯ
М МА МЕ МЁ МИ МО МУ МЫ МЭ МЮ МЯ
Н НА НЕ НЁ НИ НО НУ НЫ НЮ НЯ
П ПА ПЕ ПЁ ПИ ПО ПУ ПЫ ПЭ ПЮ ПЯ
Р РА РЕ РЁ РИ РО РУ РЫ РЮ РЯ
С СА СЕ СЁ СИ СО СУ СЫ СЭ СЮ СЯ
Т ТА ТЕ ТЁ ТИ ТО ТУ ТЫ ТЮ ТЯ
Ф ФА ФЕ ФЁ ФИ ФО ФУ ФЫ ФЮ ФЯ
Х ХА ХЕ ХИ ХО ХУ
Ц ЦА ЦЕ ЦИ ЦО ЦУ ЦЫ
Ч ЧА ЧЕ ЧЁ ЧИ ЧО ЧУ !
Ш ША ШЕ ШЁ ШИ ШО ШУ !
Щ ЩА ЩЕ ЩЁ ЩИ ЩО ЩУ !

 

Legend:

 

БА – syllables with hard consonants

БЕ – syllables with soft consonants

Ц – consonants without a soft/hard pair

ШИ – pay special attention to spelling (we will need it at later stage)

 

It is interesting

  • Most of words that start with an “A” or have an “Ф” do not have a Russian origin
  • The letter “Ы” will never be positioned in the beginning of the word
  • There are only few words that start with an “Й”. Most of them are borrowed words.
  • Russian language has 33 letters but it is in no way a record. The most number of letters is there in Khmer language – 72!
  • 2 most complicated for pronunciation for foreigners Russian words are здравствуйте (hello) and достопримечательность (sightseeing attraction). Try to read them using the information in our lesson.

 

Vocabulary

Please write down all the Russian words that are used in this lesson, practice their reading and learn their meanings. We will use them in our future lessons.

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2 Responses to Lesson 1: Russian Alphabet and Pronunciation

  1. John says:

    Just great Lesson! Thank you! By the way, a Read Aloud book in Russian is very helpful. For example, this one http://itunes.apple.com/us/book/roodkapje-voorlees/id502550577?mt=11

  2. Iaroslav says:

    Thank you very much for your Russian classes. So far, I have checked Lesson 1 and I like it: it is well structured and the material is presented clearly.

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