Learn the Russian Alphabet

By OptiLingo

Learn the Russian alphabet and perfect your Russian accent with the right Russian pronunciation.

The first step to learning Russian is to study its alphabet. For many English speakers, the Russian alphabet can prove somewhat intimidating. In this section, we’re going to break down the Russian alphabet and make it much simpler and easier to learn.

Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which was created in 863 by a Macedonian monk who spoke a Slavic language closely related to Russian and also knew Greek. He was later canonized as Saint Cyril, which is where the Cyrillic alphabet gets its name. (This is also why there are several letters that are common to both Greek and Russian.)

The Russian alphabet is comprised of 33 letters, and they look like this:

Russian alphabet

While the Russian alphabet may look a bit overwhelming, in this section, we’re going to break the letters down into four groups that are specifically designed to help English speakers more quickly and easily learn the Russian alphabet. These groups include the following:

Group 1) Looks like English, sounds like English

Group 2) Looks like English, sounds like a different letter in English

Group 3) Looks different, but sounds like English

Group 4) Looks different, sounds different

Let’s start with the first group, since it’s the easiest.

Group 1) Looks like English, sounds like English

This group is comprised of five letters, as illustrated below. (In every case where letters of the Russian alphabet are provided, I’ll provide the upper case version followed by the lowercase version. For example, if the letter “Q” existed in Russian, it would appear like this: Qq. Notice how the lowercase differs from the uppercase? This is not the case for all English letters, nor is it the case for all Russian letters, but it’s worth noting.)

Russian                                  Sounds like

Аа                                            (a) as in apple

Кк                                            (k) as in king

Мм                                          (m) as in mother

Оо                                           (o) half way between “no” and “on”

Тт                                            (t) as in top

With these five letters, you can now read simple, common Russian words like these:

Russian                                  English

тот                                           that

кот                                           cat

так                                           so

там                                          there

кто                                           who

Group 2) Looks like English, sounds like a different letter in English

This group is comprised of seven letters that look like English letters, but convey different sounds in the Russian alphabet.

Russian                                  Sounds like

Вв                                            (v) as in van

Ее                                            (ye) as in yes

Нн                                           (n) as in not

Рр                                            (r) as in right (with a rolling R sound)

Сс                                           (s) as in sight

Уу                                            (oo) as in boot

Хх                                            (ch) the way “Mexico” is pronounced in Russian,

or “Bach” is pronounced in German

With these additional letters, you can now read the following words:

Russian                                  English

нет                                          no

Москва́                                   Moscow

метро́                                      metro

он                                            he

она́                                          she

сестра́                                                sister

рестора́н                                restaurant

Group 3) Looks different, but sounds like English

This group is comprised of thirteen letters. Some look similar to English letters, but all of these letters make sounds that are found in the English language.

Russian                                  Sounds like

Бб                                           (b) as in boy

Гг                                             (g) as in gum

Дд                                           (d) as in dark

Ёё                                            (yo) as in yolk (Note: this letter is often written / typed simply as Ее.)

Зз                                            (z) as in zero

Ии                                           (ee) as in zebra

Йй                                           (y) as in boy

Лл                                           (l) as in light

Пп                                           (p) as in park

Фф                                          (f) as in far

Ээ                                           (e) as in bet

Юю                                          (yoo) as in universe

Яя                                           (ya) as in yak

Here are a few words to practice these new letters and sounds:

Russian                                  English

мир                                          earth or peace

да                                            yes

зима́                                        Winter

парк                                        park

самолёт                                  air plane

кио́ск                                       kiosk

телефо́н                                 telephone

пра́вда                                    truth

Group 4) Looks different, sounds different

This group only contains six letters; their appearances are not common in English, and their sounds require more than one English letter to produce.

Russian                                  English

Жж                                          (zh) as in treasure

Цц                                           (ts) as in bats

Чч                                            (ch) as in chat

Шш                                          (sh) as in sham

Щщ                                          (sch) as in sheep

Ыы                                          (i) as in bit

Additionally, the Russian alphabet includes two more symbols that never appear on their own. They always appear next to another letter, whose sounds they modify:

Russian                                  English

Ьь                                            makes a consonant softer

Ъъ                                           makes a consonant harder

And this is the Russian alphabet all together:

Letter

Name

Prounced as

Name of letter

Cursive form

А а

ah

(a) as in apple

ah

А а

Б б

beh

(b) as in boy

beh

Б б

В в

veh

(v) as in van

veh

В в

Г г

geh

(g) as in gum

geh

Г г

Д д

deh

(d) as in dark

deh

Д д

Е е

yeh

(ye) as in yes

yeh

Е е

Ё ё

yaw

(yo) as in yolk

yaw

Ё ё

Ж ж

zheh

(zh) as in treasure

zheh

Ж ж

З з

zeh

(z) as in zero

zeh

З з

И и

i

(ee) as in zebra

i

И и

Й й

short i

(y) as in boy

short i

Й й

К к

ka

(k) as in king

ka

К к

Л л

el

(l) as in light

el

Лл

М м

em

(m) as in mother

em

М м

Н н

en

(n) as in not

en

Н н

О о

aw

(o) similar to “no” or “on”

aw

О о

П п

peh

(p) as in park

peh

П п

Р р

air

(r) rolling sound

air

Р р

С с

es

(s) as in sight

es

С с

Т т

teh

(t) as in top

teh

Т т

У у

oo

(oo) as in boot

oo

У у

Ф ф

ef

(f) as in far

ef

Ф ф

Х х

kha

(ch) like x in “Mexico”

kha

Х х

Ц ц

tsen

(ts) as in bats

tsen

Ц ц

Ч ч

cheh

(ch) as in chat

cheh

Ч ч

Ш ш

sha

(sh) as in sham

sha

Ш ш

Щ щ

sheha

(sch) as in sheep

sheha

Щ щ

ы

ee

(i) as in bit

ee

Ыы

Э э

eh

(e) as in bet

eh

Э э

Ю ю

yoo

(yoo) as in universe

yoo

Ю ю

Я я

ya

(ya) as in yak

ya

Я я

ъ

softener

makes a consonant harder

hard sign

ъ

ь

hardener makes a consonant softer

soft sign

ь

Here are a few more words you can use to practice what you’ve just learned:

Russian                                  English

журна́л                                   magazine (journal)

гости́ница                               hotel

чай                                          tea

дру́жбу                                   friendship

счи                                          schi (soup)

борщ                                       borsh (soup)

объе́кт                                                object

сын                                         son

крым                                       Crimea

ко́фе                                       coffee

большо́й                                 big

кремль                                    Kremlin

царь                                        tsar

Voiced and Unvoiced Consonants

It’s important to find the best way to speak Russian.Within the Russian language, consonants may be voiced or unvoiced. The difference here is also simple: voiced consonants are made by vibrating your vocal chords, while unvoiced consonants do not require any such vibration.

The voiced consonants include the letters б, в, г, д, ж and з. The unvoiced consonants are п, ф, к, т, ш and с. These two groups of consonants from pairs because you pronounce them with the same position of the mouth and tongue as each other; the only difference is whether they are voiced or unvoiced.

Voiced

б[b]

в[v]

г[g]

д[d]

ж[zh]

з[z]

Unvoiced

п[p]

ф[f]

к[k]

т[t]

ш[sh]

с[s]

Voiced consonants become unvoiced before another unvoiced consonant or when they are final.

For example:

Кавкáз   (Caucasus)

вóдка     (vodka)
зуб         (tooth)

без         (without)
сапóг      (boot)

муж        (husband)

The following consonants are always voiced: л, м, н, and р. These consonants are always unvoiced: х, ц, ч and щ.

Soft and Hard Consonants

In addition to being voiced or unvoiced, consonants may be hard or soft. Hard consonants are pronounced normally, while soft consonants are “softened” when the tipe of the tongue touches the hard palate in your mouth.

This might sound confusing, but it’s not. An example of hard and soft consonants can be found in English. Say the following words out loud: thumb; them.

Did you just notice that the “th” in “thumb” is a bit harder than the “th” in the word “them”? The consonant sound in “thumb” is hard, and it is pronounced normally. The consonant sound in “them” is softened because your tongue is touching the hard palate inside your mouth when this word is pronounced.

Now that you understand the concept, let’s see how it’s applied to the Russian alphabet.

In the Russian alphabet, consonants are softened when they follow a vowel or when they are followed by the letter ь, which indicates a softening. All Russian consonants may be softened with the following exceptions:

Жж      (zh)

Шш      (sh)

Цц       (ts)

Чч        (ch)

These Russian letters are always hard; they are never softened by a vowel, and they are never followed by the letter ь to indicate that they may be softened. Generally speaking, the letter ъ only following prefixes and before vowels. Use of this letter shows that the consonant is not being softened by the vowel it follows.

Vowels and Stress

Understanding how and where to stress a certain syllable in a Russian word can be very confusing. There are few patterns or rules that govern word stress in the Russian language.

To make matters more complicated, even when you learn the proper stress for a certain word, that stress can change based on its grammatical declination. (We’ll cover grammatical declination in later sections.)

Long story short, like when you learn any foreign language, you’re going to have to practice, learn and memorize stress on a case-by-case basis. To make things simpler, in this book, we’re using stress marks to help you better understand how to pronounce various words. Note that in written Russian, these stress marks are never used, and appear here purely for the purposes of instruction.

All that said, there is one simple tip we can provide. Whenever you see a word with the letter ё, stress falls on that syllable. (For that reason, you won’t see any stress marks above this letter.)