The first thing to learn in any language always involves two main steps: the alphabet, so you can read and write, and pronunciation rules, so you can speak, understand other people, and make great communication. Let us introduce you to the Russian alphabet, the shape and sounds of the letters, and some pronunciation tips.
The Russian alphabet is based on the Cyrillic alphabet which was developed in the 9th century AD and derives some elements from Greek.
The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters: 10 vowels and, 21 consonants, and two neutrals which are called signs. You can find all of them in the common table below.
Common table of the Russian letters
|[je] at the beginning of the word|
[e] in other cases
|[jo] at the beginning of the word|
[o] in other cases
|Йй||и краткое |
|Лл||эль / эл|
|This letter has no sound. It serves to separate syllables in some words.||объЕкт
This letter is quite different from any of the English ones. It’s pronounced like the hard version of the sound [i].
The sound is a hard version of the sound [i].
[‘myahkij znak ]
|This letter also doesn’t have a real sound. It serves to soften the consonants in some words. However, in transcriptions, it is often marked as [‘] or [j].||пьЕса
play (in the theatre)
There are 10 vowels, 21 consonants and 2 so-called “signs” that do not represent any specific sound but work to soften the consonants or separate the syllables.
1. Vowels in Russian
The Russian vowels can be divided into “hard” and “soft” ones. Hard vowels include А, О, У, Ы, Э. Soft vowels Я, Ё, Ю, И, Е represent the same sound like the hard ones respectively but softens the preceding consonant of gives an extra sound [й] or [j] at the beginning of the word, after another vowel or the signs Ъ or Ь.
The vowel И softens the preceding consonant but represents the same sound [и]. Only after the Ш and Ж, it gives the sound [ы].
Two pairs of the vowels: А – О, И – Е are often confused in spelling because they sound quite similar in the unstressed syllables. Unstressed О represents the sound [а] and unstressed E represents [и].
подАрок [падАрак] [pa’darak] – gift
медАль [мидАл’] [mi’dalj] – medal
2. Consonants in Russian
All the consonant letters can represent two versions of a corresponding consonant sound: a hard and a soft sound. The soft sound is indicated with an apostrophe in the Russian transcription:
[б] – [б’], [к] – [к’], [с] – [с’], etc.
where [б] is a hard sound, [б’] is a soft one, and so on.
In the English transcription of the Russian words, it is common to represent the soft sound with the sound [j] after the consonant sound.
The soft versions of the consonant sounds are formed by following soft vowels or the soft sign Ь.
бЕгать [б’эгат’] [‘bjegatj] – run (verb)
We can also divide some of the consonants into voiced and voiceless sounds. They are usually put into the pairs:
|Voiced consonant||Voiceless consonant|
Depending on their position in the words, these consonants can replace each other. For example, at the end of the word, a voiced consonant represents the sound of its voiceless version:
хлеб [хлеп] [hlep] – bread
The same thing happens if a voiced consonant precedes any unvoiced consonant:
Юбка [йУпка] [‘jupka] – skirt
and vice versa, a voiceless consonant becomes voiced when followed by a voiced one.
рюкзАк [р’угзАк] [rjug’zak] – backpack
Both voiced and voiceless letters can have their hard and soft form:
прОсьба [прОз’ба] [‘prozjba] – request, favor
Let’s learn the Russian letters deeper. Since there are more letters in the Russian alphabet than in English (33 vs 26), it would be more convenient to divide them into groups as we show below.
Some of the Russian letters are almost the same as the English ones. Although their names may be pronounced differently, the sounds they make are very similar:
|Russian letters||English letters|
|А||А [a]||[а] – [a]||A||[ei]||[ei], [æ], [a:]|
|Е||Е [je]||[э] / [йэ] – [e]||E||[i:]||[i:], [e]|
|З||Зэ [ze]||[з] – [z]||Hand-written Z||[zi:]|
|K||Ка [ka]||[к] – [k]||K||[kei]||[k]|
|M||Эм [em]||[м] – [m]||M||[em]||[m]|
|O||О [o]||[о] – [o]||O||[ou]||[ou], [ɒ]|
|Т||Тэ [te]||[т] – [t]||T||[ti:]||[t]|
A – [а] – has the sound similar to [a:] in English, but short. In general, there are no distinguishing into long or short sounds in the Russian language. However, the stressed syllables can be pronounced a little longer.
Азия [Азийа] [‘azija] – Asia
E – [э] – has two variants of pronunciation. At the beginning of the word or after a vowel there are two sounds: [й] + [э] or [j] + [e]. Look at the example below:
Есть [йэст’] [jest’] – eat
Preceded by a consonant, the letter Е loses its sound [й] and becomes just [э] in Russian sounding similar to [e] in English only pronounced harder.
Note 1: Remember five vowels in the Russian alphabet that softens the preceding consonants: Е, Ё, И, Ю, Я. This means that the mentioned letters sound like their “hard” versions after the consonants:
E – Э
Ё – О
И – И (This one is an exception and turns into Ы only after Ш and Ж)
Ю – У
Я – А
Thus, in the word “век” letter Е gives the sound [э], and В is softened like [в’]
век [в’эк] [v’ek] – century
This rule works with all consonant letters of the Russian alphabet.
Note 2: When unstressed, this letter has the opposite sound [и]:
ЕгИпет [йиг’Ип’ит] [ji’gjipjit] - Egypt
З – [з] – is similar in writing to the handwritten Z and has a very similar sound [з] as [z].
зал [зал] [zal] – hall
зЕлень [з’Эл’ин’] [‘zjeljinj] – greenery
How many softened consonants does this word have?
K – [к] – has the same sound [к] as [k] in English, and similar writing, too.
кот [кот] [kot] – cat (a little similar to the English word, isn’t it?)
кит [к’ит] [kjit] – whale
М – [м] – is almost the same as English M and has the same sound as [m] although it is a little different in handwriting. English M written in lowercase can resemble the Russian letter Т handwritten in lowercase. Try not to confuse them.
мАма [мАма] [‘mama] – mother, mom (this word sounds very similar in many languages)
мир [м’ир] [mjir] – world, peace
O – [o] – is claimed to be the most popular letter in the Russian alphabet, including both vowel and consonant letters. The sound is just like the short [o] in the English language.
он [он] [on] – he (This word is pronounced just like on in English, but the meaning is totally different. In Russian the word on means he)
Note: When unstressed, this letter has the opposite sound [a]:
молокО [малакО] [mala’ko] – milk
Т – [т] – is very similar to its English analog T. Its sound [т] is a little harder than [t] in English. Handwriting is slightly different, too.
торт [торт] [tort] – cake
текст [т’экст] [tjekst] – text (same meaning, very lookalike pronunciation and writing)
Looking similar, but having different sounds
We can also distinguish the group of the Russian letters, which are similar in writing but totally different in pronunciation and sounds. See their comparison below:
|Russian letters||English letters|
В – [в] – is just very similar in writing to the English letter B, but has the same sound [в] as [v] made by V.
водА [вадА] [va’da] – water
вЕна [в’Эна] [’vjena] – vein
Н – [н] – has the same writing as capital H in English but represents the same sound [n] as the English N does. By the way, this letter is the most frequently used consonant in the Russian language.
ноль [нол’] [nolj] – zero
нЯня [н’ан’а] [‘njanja] – nanny
Р – [р] – is written just like the English letter P, in both capital or small, printed or handwritten versions. However, the sound it makes is like the English [r] given by R. The Russian [r] is represented as [р] in transcription and sounds harder, with your tongue put behind your teeth.
рабОта [рабОта] [ra’bota] – work
ребЁнок [р’иб’Онак] [rji’bjonak] – child
С – [с] – has exactly the same shape as English C does, sound [s] is similar, too, but the Russian С never makes the sound [k]. An interesting thing is that in both Russian and English keyboards these letters are located at the same place.
сОлнце [сОнцэ] [‘sontse] – sun.
Note that the word above has the silent Л. There are few words in the Russian language that have silent letters in the middle.
сИла [с’Ила] [‘sjila] – force, power
У – [у] – makes the same sound as U in English does, but its writing is a little similar to English Y, especially in handwriting. Unlike English U, this letter is always pronounced like [u], and never gives the sound [ʌ]. Also, the Russian У is always a hard vowel, so we never pronounce [j] before it.
Улей [Улий] [‘ulij] – beehive
рукА [рукА] [ru’ka] – hand
Х – [х] – is the same as the English X in writing, but its sound is pronounced like the English H. It can never be silent, and in Russian is pronounced a little harder.
хозЯин [хаз’Аин] [ha’zjain] – owner
хИмия [х’Им’ийа] [‘hjimjija] – chemistry
Letters that sound like some English sounds, but have a totally different shape
|Writing||Sound||English Letter||English Sound||Examples|
|Russian word||English word with the same sound|
|Ё||[й]+[o], [o]||O,Y+O||[j]+[o], [o]||ёж (ruff – the fish)||your|
|Й||[й]||Y, J||[j]||йога (yoga)||young|
|Ш||[ш]||S, S+H||[ʃ]||шоссе (roadway)||brush|
|Щ||[щ]||S, S+H||[ʃ]+[tʃ]||щит (shield)||sure|
|Ю||[й]+[у], [у]||Y+U||[j]+[u], [u]||юмор (humor)||use|
|Я||[й]+[а], [а]||Y+A||[j]+[a], [a]||яблоко (apple)||yard|
Let’s take a deeper look at the letters that give sounds like English but are different in writing.
Б – [б] – gives the exact sound [b] like the letter B [b] in the English alphabet. Compare:
брат [брат] [brat] – brother
Different letters, but the same sound and the same meaning of the words, too!
Г – [г] – gives the same sound [g] as the letter G in English. Except this letter is never pronounced like [dʒ], which can only be achieved by two letters ДЖ explained below.
гол [гол] [gol] – goal
This word also means score in sports games but is never used as the synonym of “target”.
Д – [д] – is exactly the same as [d] given by D in English.
докумЕнт [дакум’Энт] [daku’ment] – document
The words above have the same meaning and similar writing and pronunciation, except the Russian variant, have the stress on the third syllable.
Ё – [о] – has two sounds: [jo] at the beginning of the world like in York and [o] in the middle while softening the consonant before.
Ёмкость [ЙОмкаст’] [‘jomkostj] – capacity (electric), container (as a bowl or box)
берЁза [бир’Оза] [be’rjoza] – birch [bɜ:ʧ]
The sounds of Ё are also similar to the sound [ɜ:] in English like in the example above.
Ж – [ж] – gives the sound [ʒ] just like English s in the words treasure, decision, usually, and so on. The non-Russians that this is the hardest letter to write, especially in hand-writing.
жирАф [жырАф] [ʒi’ra:f] – giraffe
These words have the same meaning and very similar pronunciation. The important thing here is that unlike the English word, which starts with [dʒ], the Russian version has slightly different sound [ʒ] at the beginning. But if you put the letters Д and Ж together, you’ll get the sound [dʒ] usually given by G or J in English.
джаз [джас] [dʒas] – jazz
И – [и] – has the same sound [i:] as E in an open syllable or [i] I in the close one in English. There are no such things as long or short sounds in Russian, so both English sounds fit to draw an analogy.
игрА [игрА] [ig’ra] – game
The Russian letter И is different from any English letters but is a little similar in writing to N. In fact, И looks like an inverted N, and a lot of Russian children confuse them when learning to write.
Й – [й] – has a long name, but short sound [j], which is the same as in English given by Y in year or yard.
йОгурт [йОгурт] [‘jogurt] – yogurt
The words above are very similar in writing as well as in pronunciation. The letter Й at the beginning gives the sound [j]. The same sound we get by Й in the middle of the world:
волейбОл [вал’ийбОл] [voljij’bol] – volleyball
Л – [л] – is a totally different letter from any of English letters in writing, but gives the same sound [l] as the letter L.
лаборатОрия [лабаратОр’ийа] [labara’tОrija] – laboratory
The words above have the same meaning, similar writing, but are slightly different in pronunciation. The stress is on the fourth syllable in Russian, but the second in English.
П – [п] – has original writing and gives the sound [п] just like [p] in English. The writing is a little similar to the small English n, especially in handwriting.
пАльма [пАл’ма] [‘paljma] – palm tree
пилА [пилА] [pi’la] – saw
Ц – [ц] – is a new letter for English speakers. It is original in writing and give the sound [ц] as two English sounds [t] and [s] put together: [ts].
ценА [цинА] [tsi’na] – price
Ч – [ч] – is different from any English letters in writing but has the sound [ч] which is the same as [tʃ] in English. This letter is similar to the English small h upside down.
человЕк [чилав’Эк] [tʃilavek] – human
Ш – [ш] – has absolutely new writing, but the sound [ш] is like English [ʃ] only a little harder.
шоколАд [шакалАт] [ʃaka’lat] – chocolate
Щ – [щ] – is alike the previous letter Ш with a little element added that is called “a tail” in Russia. The sound [щ] is something between [ʃ] and [tʃ], so in English transcription, it would be [ʃtʃ]. Try to pronounce this sound omitting [t], like [ʃ] and then the softer [ʃ]. That’ll sound most naturally.
щЁтка [щ’Отка] [‘ʃtʃotka] – brush
Э – [э] – to compare it with the English sounds, we can say that it is similar to [æ] with your mouth less open or [e] with some hardness in your voice.
эгоИст [эгаИст] [ega’ist] – egoist
This sound is also used to represent the letter Е.
Ю – [у] – gives the sound similar to [u] or [u:] in English (again, there are no such thing as long or short sounds in Russian). At the beginning of the word we pronounce this letter as [йу] or [ju] (just like the word you):
Юность [йУнаст’] [‘junastj] – youth
The first letter in the Russian word above has the same sound as three first letters in the English one. The same rule applies when Ю is preceded by another vowel:
каЮта [кайУта] [ka’juta] – a room on the ship
If the letter Ю is located in the middle of the word, it is pronounced as [у] or [u] while softening the consonant sound before it:
брЮки [бр’Уки] [‘brjuki] – trousers/pants
Я – [а] – is very similar in writing to the mirrored English R. Just like the previous letter it has two cases of pronunciation depending on its location in the word. The sound, in general, is [a] or [a:] in English, just like the letter A has. At the beginning of the word or after another vowel, the sound is preceded by [й] or [j]:
Яд [йад] [jad] – poison
япОния [йапОнийа] [ja’ponija] – Japan
In the middle of the word the letter Я softens the consonant before it and gives the sound [а]:
прЯник [пр’Аник] [‘prjanik] – gingerbread
Letters that are not similar to English in any way
Three letters are absolutely new for a Russian learner:
Ы – [y] – is derived from Old Bulgarian language and is new for English speakers in writing and pronunciation. To compare the soft И and hard Ы, we can say Ы sounds like [i] in ill while И sounds more like [ee] in eel.
тЫква [тЫква] [‘tykva] – pumpkin
мЫло [мЫло] [‘mylo] – soap
Commonly, the letter Ы is never used as the first letter in the word, therefore it is never capitalized. However, there are some words representing the geographic areas in Siberia, starting with Ы.
Ь – is called a “soft sign” and has no sound, but is used in writing to soften the consonants.
плАтье [плАт’йэ] [‘platje] – dress
Some words in Russian have a totally different meaning depending on the presence of the soft sign Ь.
Угол [Угал] [‘ugal] – angle
Уголь [Угал’] [‘ugalj] – coal
пОлка [пОлка] [polka] – shelf
пОлька [пОл’ка] [poljka] – polka (a dance)
Ъ – is called a “hard sign” and just the soft sign, it has no sound, but is used differently. We need the hard sign to separate the consonants from the soft vowels. It is usually put between the prefix and the vowel after it:
подъЁм [падйом] [padjom] – uprising
объЯтие [абйАт’ийэ] [ab’jatjije] – hug (noun)
In summation, we’d like to mention, that the Russian alphabet is not as hard as it can seem firstly. There are a lot of sounds that correspond to the English alphabet, the shapes have some resembling, too, and the reading rules are a lot easier in the Russian language.
To consolidate your knowledge of the lesson, try doing a couple of exercises below.
1. Put the words below in alphabetic order. Spell and read the words below. Try to guess what they mean.
Which words are pronounced differently from their English versions?
Answer: salad, coffee, burger, football, park, passport, taxi, pianist, radio, champion, film, video
2. Find the cities and countries’ names in English corresponding to the Russian words below.
Which words are stressed differently, and which have different sounds from their English versions?
Answer: America, Brazil, Ukraine, France, Australia, Germany, Canada, Argentina, New-York, Berlin, Tokyo, London, Kiev, Madrid, Paris, Chicago
3. Match the Russian words to their transcription and translation. Use the dictionary to find the matching Russian and English words.
глазА - [глазА] [gla’za] - eyes
вЕчер - [в’эч’ир] [‘vjetʃir] - evening
дорОга - [дарОга] [‘daroga] - road
квартИра - [квартИра] [kvar’tira] - apartment
любОвь - [л’убОв’] [lju’bovj] - love
мАльчик - [мал’чик] [‘maljtʃik] - boy
привЕт - [прив’Эт][pri’vjet] - hi
спасИбо - [спасИба] [spa’siba] - thanks
хорошО - [харашО][hara’ʃo] - good/well
шкОла - [шкОла] [‘ʃkola] - school
That wasn't so bad, was it? Check back here on this website for more lessons on the Russian language!