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|
|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]|
- Е will be read as И
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|
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|
- 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.
б — [п]
в — [ф]
г — [к]
д — [т]
з — [с]
ж — [ш]
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:
The following table of syllables will help you to practice reading in Russian
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.
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.