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A quick guide to the Russian alphabet

on March 16, 2017

The first step to learning Russian is to study its alphabet. (At least that’s my opinion. I’ve shared more about my views on how to learn Russian here and here.) For many English speakers, the Russian alphabet can prove somewhat intimidating. In this post, we’re going to break down the Russian alphabet and make it much simpler and easier to learn. By the end of this post, you will have a firm grasp on the Russian alphabet – I promise.

 

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 - Characters 

 

Many of their sounds are unique, and I’ve covered them briefly in my post on how to speak Russian, which you can find here. While that may look a bit overwhelming, in this post, I’m 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 Spanish, 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

 

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

 

That just about wraps things up for this post, and I hope it wasn’t too intimidating. This covers everything you need to know about the Russian alphabet, and it comes in at just around 800 words.

 

You may be interested in these posts too...

  • So You Want To Learn Russian?
  • 6 Tricks To Speed Up Your Learning Process
  • The Ultimate Guide to Russian Grammar
  • A Quick Guide to the Russian Alphabet
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