Russian Alphabet in English – A Practical Guide

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The Russian alphabet uses the Cyrillic script and has 33 letters in total. Originated from the ancient Greek script, Cyrillic script is used in several Slavic languages like Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Serbian, and Bulgarian.

Mastering the Cyrillic script is the first step to successfully learning Russian. You’ll feel like entering a new world and understand so many words in no time! For example, the seemingly unfamiliar word журнал may look intimidating at first, but once you learn the alphabet, you’ll see it’s just “journal” wearing a “Cyrillic outfit”, and so is аэропорт, пицца, супермаркет, and so on.

Now, let’s get started and learn the Russian Cyrillic script!

 

Categorization

Letters of the Russian alphabet can be divided into 4 categories

  • Those that look like and sound like English (5 letters):
  • А а, О о, К к, М м, Т т 
  • Those that look unlike English but sound like English (17 letters):
  • И и, Й й, Э э, Ю ю, Я я, Б б, Г г, Д д, Ж ж, З з, Л л, П п, Ф ф, Ц ц, Ч ч, Ш ш, Щ щ
  • Those that look like English but sound different from English (8 letters):
  • Е е, Ё ё, У у, В в, Н н, Р р, С с, Х х
  • Those that neither look nor sound like English (3 letters):
  • Ъ ъ, Ы ы, Ь ь

Now, let’s take a look at them in detail.

English look- and sound-alikes

In Russian, there are 5 letters that look and sound like English. These are your friends and you can (mostly) count on them to sound the same with English pronunciation.

Cyrillic Cursive Pronunciation in English Transliteration Example
А а father  a мама
О о born o вот
К к kind k кошка
М м mother m метро
Т т time t тут

Don’t let the number deceive you: the five look- and sound-alikes are actually used frequently. For example, “О о” and “А а” rank the first and the third respectively among the most used Russian vowels. 

The letter “О о” is pronounced as [o] in “born” when it is stressed and it is pronounced like [a] or schwa ([ə]) when it is not stressed. For example, the word окно (window) sounds like [akno]. The first “o” is reduced to [a] while the second one is still stressed as a full [o]. This is known as the Vowel Reduction Rule which can be applied to many Russian vowels.

The letter “Т т” looks and sounds very much like English. But note that when it comes to lowercase and cursive handwriting, it still looks a bit different from English.

Sounds easy? Let’s move on to the slightly more difficult strange-looking sound-alikes.

Strange-looking sound-alikes

These are unique Cyrillic letters that don’t exist in the English alphabet. They may look strange at first sight but they’ll be your friends once you know them. This is also the largest category among the four, containing 17 letters in total.

The trick is to constantly write, read, and repeat them using flashcards or any other tools you find helpful. 

First, let’s look at the four vowels and 1 semivowel (Й й). 

Cyrillic Cursive Pronunciation in English Transliteration Example
И и police i учиться
Й й toy y, i, j русский
Э э bat e, è это
Ю ю you yu, ju Юля
Я я yard ya, ja моя

You may have noticed the first two letters “И и” and “Й й” look very alike. They sound alike! “Й й” (or и краткое which means short и) is pronounced as a shorter version of “И и” (like the [i] in the English word “toy”). These two letters are also often seen together in single masculine adjectives like “русский”. Actually, “Й й” was not even officially considered a separate letter until the 1930s. Nowadays, “Й й” is also considered as a consonant sometimes, using y or j in transliteration. It’s often seen in diphthongs like -ай, -ий, -ый, -ой, etc.

“Я я” is pronounced like “ya” in the word “yard”. A common mistake even proficient learners make is mispronouncing “Я я” as two separate sounds like йа. So make sure to pronounce “Я я” as a single unit. In some unstressed syllables, “Я я” can be pronounced as [ɪ] or [ɛ]. For example, лягу́шка is pronounced as [l’ɪguʃk’ʌ].

Like “О о” and “Я я”,  “Э э” also abide by the Vowel Reduction Rule. When stressed, it’s pronounced like the “a” in the English word “bat”, while it sounds more like “И и” when unstressed.

Cyrillic Cursive Pronunciation in English Transliteration Example
Б б 02-Russian alphabet-Б б.svg best b баскетбол
Г г guide g герой
Д д dog d два
Ж ж pleasure zh, ž журнал
З з zoo z из
Л л like l лото
П п pie p папа
Ф ф fine f футбол
Ц ц pizza ts пицца
Ч ч cheese ch, č чёрный
Ш ш show sh шок
Щ щ push ships shch, sch, šč борщ

These 12 consonants may look unlike roman letters but it’s quite easy to find an equivalent in pronunciation in English.

Above in the chart are the most common pronunciations of these letters, but sometimes there can be variants, too.

Note that “Г” is sometimes pronounced as a voiced sound в ([v]). For example, a very common word его (“his”) is pronounced as [иво] rather than [иго]. And when appearing at the end of a word, the voiced Г is pronounced as a voiceless к ([k]). For example, шаг is pronounced as [шак]. (The same applies to most voiced consonants: compare хлеб with [хлеп], плед with [плет], лаз with [лас] and so on.)

While the change in the pronunciation of Г may not be used very frequently, the following rule can be seen very often. So make sure to remember: after consonants “Ж ж”, “Ц ц”, and “Ш ш”, the vowel “И и” is pronounced as [ы] instead of [и]. For example, машина is pronounced as [машына] instead of [maʃyɪna].

False Friends

This is probably the trickiest category, as the letters look like those in English but sound totally different! After years of using English, it’s likely that your brain has paired the pronunciation with the writings and it can be hard to replace them with new sounds. Give it a month or so by practicing with audio-based resources, after several times of messing up words like вода and cok, you’ll remember the right pronunciation!

Cyrillic Cursive Pronunciation in English Transliteration Example
Е е yes ye, je, e лето
Ё ё your yo, jo, ë ёлка
У у book u улица
В в victory v водка
Н н note n ноутбук
С с silent s стол
Р р rolled r r Россия
Х х Loch Ness (closer to Scottish pronunciation than English one) kh, h химия

Sometimes, the letter “В в” can be pronounced as [f]. For example, “вто́рник” is pronounced as [ˈftɔrnik].

Total Strangers: Signs

Cyrillic Cursive Pronunciation in English Transliteration Example
Ы ы ill (but harder) y ты
Ь ь soft sign день
Ъ ъ hard sign ʺ объект

The letter “Ы ы” is probably the most difficult one to pronounce for English speakers. Some say it sounds a bit like the sound of vomiting, because when pronouncing it, you need to move your tongue to the back of your mouth near the throat. Try to say “oo” while keeping your mouth in the shape of “we” and you’ll roughly get the pronunciation. “Ыы” is used very often in Russian pronouns like мы (we), вы (you, plural & formal), ты (you, informal).

“Ьь” and “Ъъ” are signs that mark the quality of a preceding consonant. They are never pronounced though. The soft sign “Ь ь” is called мягкий знак in Russian and it softens the preceding consonant.  The hard sign “Ъъ” is called твёрдый знак and it separates the sound of a succeeding vowel from the preceding consonant. To hear exactly how they sound, check out the free alphabet lesson in the LingoDeer app and learn more about how to pronounce Russian words!

The letter “ь” is also used very often in many Russian nouns, verbs, adverbs, etc. Its softening function preserves one of the most unique and distinctive sounds of the Russian language.

 

Special Combinations

Russian is infamous for consonant clusters second only to Polish. Luckily for new learners, most of such clusters contain silent letters. Now, take a look at the pronunciation table of frequent letter combinations and boost your Russian reading skills!

Pronunciation Combinations Examples
ц (ts) -тьс- учиться
-тс- учится
щ (sch) -сч- счёт
-жч- мужчина
-зч- грузчик
х (kh) -г (before к) легко
silent л -лнц солнце
silent т -стн устно
-стл рестлер
-стск пацифистский
silent д -здн​​ праздник
-рдц сердце
-ндск шотландский
silent в -вст здравствуйте

How to TYPE in Russian

To type in Russian, the first thing you need to do is to add a Russian keyboard. Here are the steps of how to add a Russian keyboard on different devices. If you have already done this, you can skip these instructions and go directly to learn the layout of the Russian keyboard.

iOS/Mac

  1. Tap settings
  2. Tap General
  3. Choose Keyboards
  4. Add new keyboard
  5. Choose Russian
  6. Go to where you want to type
  7. Tap the globe icon to change languages

Android

  1. Install Gboard on your phone
  2. Go to where you want to type and enter text
  3. Tap Open features menu
  4. Tap More (…)
  5. Go to Settings
  6. Tap languages > Add keyboard > Choose Russian
  7. Pick a layout and tap done

Windows

  1. Go to the Control Panel
  2. Go to Clock-Languages and Region
  3. Choose Change Input Methods
  4. Click Add Language and choose Russian
  5. Go to where you want to type
  6. Click the language button in the taskbar and choose Russian

 

If you plan to type in Russian on your PC or cellphone, take a look at the Russian keyboard layouts below. It may take some time getting used to, so we recommend using a keyboard cover or stickers, pulling an on-screen keyboard, or perhaps buying a laptop from Russia 😉 

Russian Windows keyboard layout (source: konstantinbulgakov.com)

Russian Mac keyboard layout

How to Get Started with Russian Learning

You can find plenty of Russian learning materials on the internet. And the key is to find something not only well designed but also “catchy”, aka something you can stick to especially when you just get started. This is where LingoDeer might come in handy. LingoDeer is a language learning app designed for beginners and intermediate-level learners. It will teach you from the scratch and get you confident with speaking, listening, reading, and writing in only 15 minutes a day. Most importantly, its courses are comprehensively designed by professional teachers in a fun and effective way.

If you haven’t found the right method to learn Russian, check out this Essential Guide to Learning Russian, and hopefully you’ll find something useful there.

Conclusion

To get started with learning Russian, knowing the Cyrillic alphabet is a must. Whether you use the traditional method of dividing it into vowels and consonants, or you choose the categorization based on the Roman alphabet in this article, remember the sole aim is to master the script, sounds, and writing system of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. 

We hope this article can make you feel a little bit more confident about learning the Cyrillic alphabet and build a solid foundation for your Russian learning journey:) Did we miss anything out? Let us know in the comments~

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