How To Read And Pronounce The Russian Alphabet (Cyrillic)

How To Read And Pronounce The Russian Alphabet (Cyrillic)

Cyrillic is used in several Slavic languages: Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian and Belarusian most notably.

It’s also used in some former Soviet, non-Slavic countries as well.

The alphabets of these languages differ from each other, though most of the letters are the same. With more than 250 millions of speakers worldwide, Russian is the most spoken language that uses the Cyrillic script.

If you want to get a general understanding at the beginning, it’s possible to say that some Russian letters will be new, but all the Russian sounds will be more or less known or clear to you as an English speaker, with the exception of one tricky sound.

Yes, it’s a simple way to look at it.

It’ll take time for you to understand the proper articulation of some Russian sounds like “Р” or “Х”, you’ll spend hours trying to understand the difference between “Ш” and “Щ”, and your brain might be fried after attempts to learn how to pronounce soft consonants. 😄

But the basic sounds won’t be absolutely new to you.

The Russian alphabet

Here’s the Russian alphabet in case you just need a quick reference:

LetterName and Pronunciation
А аа [ɑ]
Б ббэ [bɛ]
В ввэ [vɛ]
Г ггэ [gɛ]
Д ддэ [dɛ]
Е ее [jɛ]
Ё ёё [jo]
Ж жжэ [ʒɛ]
З ззэ [zɛ]
И ии [ɪ]
Й йи краткое [ɪ kratkoje]
К кка [kɑ]
Л лэль [ɛl’]
М мэм [ɛm]
Н нэн [ɛn]
О оо [o]
П ппэ [pɛ]
Р рэр [ɛr]
С сэс [ɛs]
Т ттэ [tɛ]
У уу [u]
Ф фэф [ɛf]
Х хха [khɛ]
Ц ццэ [tsɛ]
Ч ччэ [tʃɛ]
Ш шша [ʃa]
Щ щща [ʃtʃa]
ътвёрдый знак [tv’ordɪj znɑk]
ыы [yi]
ьмягкий знак [m’ɑgk’ɪj znɑk]
Э ээ [ɛ]
Ю юю [ju]
Я яя [jɑ]

Throughout this guide, the apostrophe (’) indicates the softness of the preceding consonant in Russian transcription and its approximate English equivalent.

The colon (:) sign within the transcriptions indicates the increased duration of a consonant sound.

There are 33 letters in the modern Russian alphabet.

10 letters are vowels and 21 letters are consonants.

2 letters are hard and soft signs.

Too much?

The old Russian alphabet before the Cyrillic script had even more > 49 letters. Be brave! 😄

Vowels

10 Russian vowel letters indicate just 6 vowel sounds.

Why is this happening?

Russian vowel letters are often presented in pairs.

Two different letters in each pair have one common vowel sound: one letter indicates a solo vowel, another letter indicates the consonant sound [й] / [“j”] + the same vowel sound.

The only exception from this table is a pair of “И” and “Ы” because sound [ы] includes neither vowel sound [и] / [ɪ] nor consonant sound [й] / [j].

It’s our troublemaker - a difficult Russian sound that we mentioned at the very beginning.

LetterMain soundLetterMain sound
А[а] / [ɑ]Я[йа] / [jɑ]
Э[э] / [ɛ]Е[йэ] / [jɛ]
О[о] / [о]Ё[йо] / [jо]
У[у] / [u]Ю[йу] / [ju]
И[и] / [ɪ]Ы[ы] / [yɪ]

So, each of the four pairs has the same vowel sound (4) and the last pair has two different vowel sounds (2).

In total: 6 vowel sounds.

Easy!

The most challenging part is that one letter which can be pronounced in several ways depending on its position, stress, dialect and other reasons… But first things first.

А а

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
А а[а][ɑ]бал, август[бал], [август][bɑl],[ɑvgust]
[а][ʌ]клубника[клубн’ика][klubn’ɪkʌ]
[а][ə]сантиметр[сант’им’этр][sənt’ɪm’ɛtr]
[и][ɪ]часы[ч’исы][ʧ’ɪsyɪ]

Russian “А” looks like the English “A” and is pronounced as [а] (same as the English [ɑ] in father).

It would be enough to stop here and move to the next vowel since [а] is really a main sound for “А”. But there are more shades - “reductions” (shorter versions of the main vowel sound).

“A” could be pronounced as [ɑ], [ʌ], [ə] or even [ɪ] depending mostly on stress:

  • If “A” is stressed, it’ll be pronounced as [ɑ]ал - ал] / [vɑl]).
  • If “A” is unstressed in the first pre-stressed syllable, it’ll be pronounced as [ʌ] (глаза - [глаза] / [glʌzɑ]).
  • If “A” is unstressed in any other pre-stressed syllables, it’ll be pronounced as [ə] or [ʌ]ачинать - ач’инат’] / [nəʧ’ɪnɑt’]).
  • After the hard sibilant consonants in the first pre-stressed syllable, the sound will be [ɑ]алун - алун] / [ʃɑlun]), but after the hard sibilant consonants in the first pre-stressed syllable and before the soft consonant, the sound will be [ə].
  • After the soft consonants “Ч” and “Щ” in the first pre-stressed syllable, the sound will be [и] / [ɪ] (щавель - [ш’ив’эл’] / [ʃ’ɪv’ɛl’]).

Е е

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Е е[йэ][jɛ]ель, досье[йэл’], [дос’йэ][jɛl’], [dos’jɛ]
[э][ɛ]белый, мел[б’элый], [м’эл][b’ɛlyɪj], [m’ɛl]
[и][ɪ]весна[в’исна][v’ɪsnʌ]

Russian “Е” can be pronounced as two sounds [йэ] / [jɛ] (like in English “yellow”) in the following cases:

  • at the beginning of the word (если - [йэсл’и] / [jɛslɪ])
  • after a soft sign “ь” or a hard sign “ъ” (пьеса - [пйэса] / [p’jɛsʌ])
  • after the vowels (двое - [двойэ] / [dvojɛ]).

“Е” can also be pronounced as one sound [э] / [ɛ] with the simultaneous softening of a preceding consonant sound:

  • after the consonants (вера - [в’эра] / [v’ɛrʌ])

Also, “Е” can be pronounced as one sound [э] / [ɛ] without softening of a preceding consonant sound:

  • in some borrowed non-Russian words (желе - [жэл’э] / [ʒɛl’ɛ]).

In some unstressed syllables, “Е” can be pronounced as [и] / [ɪ] or [е] / [ɛ]:

  • весна - [в’исна] / [v’ɪsnʌ].

Ё ё

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Ё ё[йо][jо]ёжик, ёлка[йожык], [йолка][jоʒyɪk], [jоlka]
[о][о]жёлудь, мёд[жолуд’], [м’од][ʒolud’], [m’od]

The most ignoring letter of Russian alphabet is “Ё”.

It’ll be enough to say that PC users can find a keyboard key “Ё” aside from the rest of letters (under “Esc”). Russian speaking users of the first Macs had even more challenges trying to get under “Ё” on Russian keyboard layout, today it is near “Enter” key.

Although, alphabetical designation of “Ё” appeared in the middle of 18 century, the letter itself was officially included in Russian alphabet only in the 20 century.

In 1956, “The Code of Rules of Russian Spelling and Punctuation” declared about the optional use of the letter “Ё” instead of “Е”. According to the current rules “Ё” still could be used optionally and it is required to write the letter “Ё” only in cases where it is possible to misread the word. Though, MS Word and some other soft with Russian spelling underline “елки” without “Ё” as a word with a mistake.

At the end of 20 century, some Russian journalists ran a campaign in support of “Ё”. Since that time most of medias use “Ё” on a regular basic.

Though, the usage of “Ё” depends on you, in the email correspondence “Ё” will characterize you as a very detail-oriented person.

What you should know about “Ё” is that it’s always stressed.

Even Russian language has not stressed marks, “Ё” is the only letter that indicates the stress by default. It’s rather helpful.

Letter “Ё” could be pronounced in two ways:

[йо] / [jо] at the beginning of the words (ёж - [йош] / [jоʃ]), after the vowels (её - [йэйо] / [jоʃ]) and after “ъ” and “ь” (объём - [аб’йом] / [ab’jоm], бельё - [б’эл’йо] / [b’ɛl’jо])

[о] / [о] after any consonant with simultaneous indication of the softness of this consonant (пёс - [п’ос] / [p’оs]), after some hard and soft hissing consonants (шёлк - олк ] /[ʃ’оlk]).

И и

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
И и[и][ɪ]мир, жми, физика[м’ир], [жм’и], [ф’из’ика][m’ɪr], [ʒm’ɪ], [f’ɪz’ɪka]
[ы][yɪ]жир, жизнь[жыр], [жызн’][ʒyɪr], [ʒyɪzn’]

“И” is pronounced as [и] / [ɪ] in English “keep”.

“И” usually softens the preceding consonant:

вид - [в’ид] / [v’ɪd].

“И” can be pronounced as [ы] / [yɪ]_ (*see below) _after “ж”, “ц”, “ш”:

машина - [машына] / [maʃyɪna].

О о

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
О о[о][о]нос, ось[нос], [ос’][nos], [os’]
[а][ʌ]оса, корабль, молоко[аса], [карабл’], [малако][ʌsa], [kʌrɑbl’], [məlʌko]

The letter “О” is pronounced as [о] / [о] if it is stressed (пол - [пол] / [pol]).

Unstressed “О” is pronounced as [о] / [о] if it’s a foreign word or a name (радио - [радио] / [rɑdɪo]).

In all other cases, unstressed “О” is usually pronounced as [а] / [ʌ] (орех - [ар’эх] / [ʌr’ɛkh]) and rarely [о] / [о] (орех - [ор’эх] / [or’ɛkh]) depending on the dialect of speakers.

Moscow dialect, that is used not only in the capital of Russia but also in the Central regions of the country, forms the main Russian standard: unstressed “О” is pronounced as [а] / [ʌ].

News anchor, TV-presenters, politics, bloggers, actors and people from the most part of the country use this standard.

Then, who does pronounce unstressed “О” as [о]?

People from the Northern and some North-Eastern regions of Russia still pronounce unstressed “О” as [о].

Also, if you learn Russian language by watching old Soviet films or cartoons, you can hear this [о] rather often because pronunciation of unstressed “О” as [о] has more deep roots in Russian history.

But if you have no aim to use the Northern dialect, just pronounce the stressed “О” as [о] (слон - [слон] / [slon]) and unstressed “О” as [а]ова - ава] / [sʌva]).

How to understand when “О” will be stressed or unstressed if Russian language has no accent marks? Just learn and remember.

У у

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
У у[у][u]утка, щука, азу[утка], [щ’ука], [азу][utka], [ʃtʃ’uka], [azu]

Russian “У” looks like English “Y” but it is pronounced as English [u] in “book”:

  • мусс - ус] / [mus], утро - [утрʌ] / [utrʌ], улов - [улов] / [ulof].

Ы ы

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Ы ы[ы][yɪ]сыр, ты, выход[сыр], [ты], [выхат][syɪr], [tyɪ], [vyɪkhat]

“Ы” is pronounced [ы] / [yɪ].

The English language has no equivalent. The English [ɪ] sound could be considered the closest but not quite. Moreover, incorrect usage of [ɪ] instead of [yɪ] can totally change the meaning of a word: e.g. [byɪt’] vs. [bɪt’] (“to be” vs. “to beat”).

How do you pronounce “Ы” properly?

The lips are loosely parted in accordance with the opening of the mouth. The distance between the incisors is slightly greater than at the sound of [ɪ].

The tip of the tongue is significantly pulled back, and the entire tongue, especially its back part, is raised to the palate but does not touch it(!). 😄

Сыр ыр] / [syɪr], усы [усы] / [usyɪ].

Э э

LetterSoundTranscription
Э э[э][ɛ]это, алоэ, дуэт[эта], [алоэ], [дуэт][ɛta], [aloɛ], [duɛt]
[и][ɪ]этажи[итажы][ɪtaʒɪ]

“Э” is pronounced like [э] / [ɛ] in the English word “dress”.

In stressed syllables, “Э” can be pronounced as [э] / [ɛ]:

  • эра - [эра] / [ɛra].

“Э” can be pronounced as [и] / [ɪ] in unstressed syllables:

  • этажи - [итажы] / [ɪtaʒɪ].

Ю ю

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Ю ю[йу] [ju]юла, вьюга[йула], [в’йуга][julɑ], [v’juga]
[у] [u]люди, пюре[л’уд’и], [п’урэ][l’ud’ɪ], [p’urɛ]

“Ю” can be pronounced as two sounds [йу] / [ju] (like in English “you”) in the following cases:

  • in the beginning of the word (юла - [йула] / [jula])
  • after a soft sign “ь” and a hard sign “ъ” (вьюнок - ’унок] / [v’junok])
  • after the vowels (каюта - айута] / [kʌjutʌ]).

Also, “Ю” can be pronounced as one sound [у] / [u] with the simultaneous softening of a preceding consonant sound:

  • after the consonants (люстра - [л’устра] / [l’ustrʌ]).

“Ю” can be pronounced as one sound [у] / [u] without any softening of a preceding consonant sound:

  • after the consonants in some exceptions words (брошюра** - [брашу**ра] / [brʌʃurʌ])

Я я

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Я я[йа][ja]ясень, баян, фея[йас’ен’], [байан], [ф’эйа][jɑs’ɛn’], [bʌjɑn], [f’ɛjʌ]
[а][a]багрянец, буря[багр’ан’эц], [бур’а][bʌgr’ɑn’ɛts], [bur’ʌ]
[и][ɪ]лягушка[л’игушка][l’aguʃk’ʌ]

The last letter of the Russian alphabet, “Я”, can be pronounced as two sounds [йа] / [ja] (like in English “yacht”) in the following cases:

  • in the beginning of the word (ястреб - [йастрэб] / [jastr’ɛb]),
  • after a soft sign “ь” and a hard sign “ъ” (семья - ’эм’йа] / [s’ɛmja]),
  • after the vowels (красивая - [крас’ивайа] / [krʌs’ɪvʌja]).

Also, “Я” can be pronounced as one sound [а] / [a] with the simultaneous softening of a preceding consonant sound (if it’s possible):

  • after the consonants (мясо - [м’аса] / [m’ɑsʌ]).

In some unstressed syllables, “Я” can be pronounced as [и] / [ɪ] or [е] / [ɛ]:

  • лягушка - [л’игушка] / [l’ɪguʃk’ʌ].

In colloquial language and in some Russian dialects, unstressed vowels can be reduced or almost removed.

No need to repeat it, but don’t be surprised if you hear it.

Consonants in the Russian alphabet

There’s one important note before we start with Russian consonants.

While learning Russian consonants, we should divide consonant letters into groups based on two principles:

Paired/Unpaired Voiced and Voiceless consonants

UNPAIRED VOICED CONSONANTSPAIRED VOICED CONSONANTSUNPAIRED VOICELESS CONSONANTS
VOICEDЛМНРБВГДЖЗ
VOICELESSПФКТШСХЦЧЩ

Why is this important to learn?

In some cases, paired voiced and voiceless consonants replace each other in oral speech.

The proper pronunciation - with voiced or voiceless consonants - depends on several rules.

Soft and Hard consonants

Could be only hardCould be hard and softCould be only soft
HardЖШЦБВГДЗКЛМНПРСТФХ
SoftЧЩЙ

If you’ve ever heard Russian speech or the Russian accent in English and you found it pretty nice, it’s because of soft consonants.

Also, softness of consonants plays an important role and can change the meaning of a word: [luk] vs. [l’uk] (onion vs. hatchway), [ugʌl] vs. [ugʌl’] (corner vs. coal).

In the Russian alphabet, 3 consonants are always soft, 15 consonants can be soft depending on the following letter (vowels “я”, “е”, “ё”, “и”,“ю” or soft sign “ь”).

The last 3 consonants are always hard.

Б б

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Б б[б][b]выбор, база, добро[выбар], [база], [дабро][vyɪbʌr], [bɑzʌ], [dʌbro]
[б’][b’]дебют, белый[д’еб’ут], [б’элый][d’ɛb’ut], [b’ɛlyɪj]
[п][p]губка, зуб[гупка], [зуп][gupkʌ], [zup]

“Б” is pronounced the same as the English letter “B” - [б] / [b] (брат** - [б**рат] / [brɑt]).

Also, it can be pronounced as a soft voiced sound [б’] / [b’]. When uttering a soft consonant [б’] / [b’], the tongue moves forward, and the front and middle part of its back is raised to the hard palate.

“Б” is pronounced as a soft voiced sound [б’] / [b’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (белка - [б’элка] / [b’ɛlkʌ]),
  • before soft sign “ь” (воробьи - [вараб’и] / [vʌrʌb’jɪ]).

Also, “Б” can be pronounced as a hard voiceless sound [п] / [p] in the following cases:

  • before voiceless consonants (рыбка - [рыпка] / [ryɪpkʌ]),
  • at the end of the word (лоб - [лоп] / [lop]).

В в

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
В в[в][v]волос, вы[волас], [вы][volʌs], [vyɪ]
[в’][v’]ответ, визит[атв’эт], [в’изит][ʌtv’ɛt], [v’ɪzɪt]
[ф][f]лавка, кров[лафка], [кроф][lɑfkʌ], [krof]
- -здравствуйте[здраствуйт’э][zdrastvujt’ɛ]

Both uppercase and lowercase Russian “В” look like uppercase English “B”.

But don’t be fooled, they’re not the same. 😄

The main hard voiced sound of Russian “В” is similar to English “V” - [в] / [v] (водка - [вотка] / [votkʌ]). When uttering a soft consonant [в‘] / [v’], the lower lip is less tensed.

“В” is pronounced as a soft voiced sound [в‘] / [v’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (вена - [в’эна] / [v’ɛnʌ]),
  • before soft sign “ь” (вьюнок - [в’унок] / [v’junok]).

“В” is pronounced as a hard voiceless sound [ф] / [f] in the following cases:

  • at the end of the word (зов - [зоф] / [zof]).

“В” can be pronounced as a soft voiceless sound [ф’] / [f’] in the following cases:

  • at the end of the word before “ь” (кровь - [кроф’] / [krof’]).

In some cases “В” goes without any sound in the middle of the word:

  • in such combinations of letters as “вств” (самочувствие - [самачуствийе] / [samʌʧ’ustvэɪjɛ]).

Г г

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Г г[г][g]голос, гнев[голас], [гн’эф][golʌs], [gn’ɛф]
[г’][g’]шаги, гелий[шаг’и], [г’эл’ий][ʃʌg’ɪ], [g’ɛl’ɪj]
[к][k]снег, шаг[сн’эк], [шак][sn’ɛk], [ʃɑk]
[х][kh]лёгкие[л’охк’ийэ][l’okhk’ɪjɛ]
[в][v]ничего[ничево][nɪʧ’’ɛvo]

“Г” is pronounced as an English “G” (in “game”) - [г] / [g] (гул - [гул] / [gul]).

When uttering a soft consonant [г’] / [g’], the tongue moves forward and makes a bow with the palate. The middle part of the back of the tongue approaches the hard palate. The front part of the tongue is moved down. The tip of the tongue is slightly closer to the lower teeth, but does not touch them. The lips are somewhat stretched and open the teeth.

“Г” is pronounced as a soft voiced sound [г’] / [g’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (герб - [г’эрб] / [g’ɛrb]).

“Г” is pronounced as a hard voiceless sound [х] / [kh] in the following cases:

  • in such combinations of letters as “гк” (легко - [л’эхко] / [l’ɛkhko]).

“Г” is pronounced as a hard voiceless sound [к] / [k] in the following cases:

  • at the end of the word (шаг - [шак] / [ʃak]).

“Г” is pronounced as a hard voiced sound [в] / [v] in the following cases:

  • in adjectives and pronouns in such combinations of letters as “-его”/”-ого” (нашего - [нашева] / [naʃɛvʌ]).

Д д

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Д д[д][d]дом, дно[дом], [дно][dom], [dno]
[д’][d’]диск, дьякон[д’иск], [д’йакан][d’ɪsk], [d’jɑkʌn]
[т][t]лодка, яд[лотка], [йат][lotkʌ], [jɑt]
[т’][t’]прядь[пр’ат’][prjɑt’]
--сердце[с’эрцэ][s’ɛrtsɛ]

“Д” is pronounced as an English “D” - [д] / [d] (добро - [дабро] / [dʌbro]).

When uttering a soft consonant [д’] / [d’], the tip of the tongue is lowered behind the lower teeth.

“Д” is pronounced as a soft voiced sound [д’] / [d’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (день - [д’эн] / [d’ɛn’]).

“Д” is pronounced as a hard voiceless sound [т] / [t] in the following cases:

  • at the end of the word (вид - [вит] / [v’ɪt]),
  • before hard voiceless sounds (будка - [бутка ] / [butkʌ]).

“Д” is pronounced as a soft voiceless sound [т’] / [t’] in the following cases:

  • at the end of the word before soft sign “ь” (гвоздь - [гвозт’] / [gvozt’]).

In some cases “Д” goes without any sound in the middle of the word:

  • сердце - [с’эрцэ] / [s’ɛrtsɛ]).

Ж ж

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Ж ж[ж][ʒ]железо, биржа[жэл’эза], [б’иржа][ʒɛl’ɛzɑ], [b’ɪrʒʌ]
[ш][ʃ]ложка, муж[лошка], [муш][loʃkʌ], [muʃ]

“Ж” is pronounced as the English [ʒ] in “usual” (s).

Primarily, “Ж” indicates a hard voiced sound [ж] / [ʒ] (жена - [ж’эна] / [ʒ’ɛna]). //Exceptions: some borrowed non-Russian words (жюри - [ж’юри] / [ʒ’urɪ]).

Also, “Ж” can be pronounced as a hard voiceless sound [ш] / [ʃ] in the following cases:

  • at the end of the word (ложь - [лош] / [loʃ]),
  • before hard voiceless sounds (ножка - [ношка] / [noʃkʌ]).

З з

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
З з[з][z]залп, азот[залп], [азот][zɑlp], [ʌzot]
[з’][z’]зефир, зять[з’эф’ир], [з’ат’][z’ɛf’ɪr], [z’ɑt’]
[с][с]сказка, указ[скаска], [укас][skɑska], [ukɑs]
[с’][с’]князь[кн’ас’][kn’ɑs’]
[ш’][с’]грузчик[грушш’ик][gruʃtʃ’ɪk]

Russian “З” almost looks like number “3” (although, in its cursive version the lowercase “з” has a loop).

It can be pronounced as English “Z” or “S”. With this, “Z” can be hard [з] / [z] or soft [з’] / [z’], and “S” can be hard [с] / [s] or soft [с’] / [s’]. In combination with a few letters, it can be also pronounced as [ш] / [ʃ], [ш’] / [ʃ’].

“З” is pronounced as a hard voiced sound [з] / [z] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “а”, “о“, “у“, “ы”, “э” (зал - [зал] / [zɑl])
  • before voiced consonants (знамя - [знамя] / [znɑm’a])

“З” is pronounced as a soft voiced sound [з’] / [z’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (мёд - [м’от] / [m’ot])
  • before soft sign “ь” (семь - [с’эм’] / [sem’])
  • before soft consonants (здесь - [з’д’эс’] / [z’d’ɛs’])

“З” is pronounced as a hard voiceless sound [с] / [s] in the following cases:

  • before voiceless consonants (близкий - [бл’иск’ий] / [bl’ɪskɪj])
  • at the end of the word (глаз - [глас] / [glɑs])

“З” is pronounced as a soft voiceless sound [с’] / [s’] in the following cases:

  • at the end of the word and before soft sign “ь” (мазь - [мас’] / [mɑs’])

Й й

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Й й[й][j]мойка, йод[мойка], [йот][mojkʌ], [jot]

“Й” is pronounced as English [j] in “yogurt” (y):

мой - [мой] / [moj], сайт - [сайт] / [sajt].

К к

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
К к[к][k]арка, какао[арка], [какао][ɑrkʌ], [kʌkɑo]
[к’][k’]кювет, кедр, веки[к’увет], [к’эдр], [в’эк’и][k’uvɛt], [k’ɛdr], [v’ɛk’ɪ]

Russian “К” looks almost like the Latin “K”.

The hardly noticeable difference is an absence of hook in a lowercase letter - “к” vs “k”.

“К” is pronounced as English “K” - [к] / [k] (колос - [колас] / [kolʌs]).

When uttering a soft consonant [k’] / [k’], the tongue moves forward and makes a bow with the palate. The middle part of the back of the tongue approaches the hard palate. The front part of the tongue is moved down. The tip of the tongue is slightly closer to the lower teeth, but does not touch them. The lips are somewhat stretched and open the teeth.

“К” is pronounced as soft [к’] / [k’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (кит - [к’ит] / [kɪt]),
  • before soft sign “ь” (кьянти - [к’йант’и] / [k’jant’ɪ]).

Л л

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Л л[л][l]блок, ласты[блок], [ласты][blok], [lɑstyɪ]
[л’][l’]желе, лиса[жэл’э], [л’иса][ʒɛl’ɛ], [l’ɪsɑ]

“Л” is pronounced as English “L” - [л] / [l] (клок - [клок] / [klok]).

When uttering a soft consonant [л’] / [l’], lips are relaxed, teeth are slightly parted, the back of the tongue is raised, the tip of the tongue merges with the gums, the lateral edge of the tongue is lowered, air flows out around the edges of the tongue.

“Л” is pronounced as soft voiced sound [л’] / [l’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (лёд - [л’от] / [l’ot]),
  • before soft sign “ь” (хмель - [хм’эл’] / [kmɛl’]).

In some cases “Л” goes without any sound in the middle of the word:

  • солнце - [сонцэ] / [sontsɛ]).

М м

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
М м[м][m]мачта, яма[мачта], [йама][mɑʧ’tʌ], [jɑmʌ]
[м’][m’]мечта, знамя[м’эчта], [знам’а][m’ɛʧta], [znɑm’ʌ]

There’s a small catch with the Russian “M”.

Both uppercase and lowercase letters in Russian look like uppercase English “M” (just big and small one). You may ask about lowercase English “m”? Don’t be confused because it’s actually a lowercase “Т” in Russian cursive.

Fortunately, Russian sound “М” is pronounced as English “M”: [м] / [m] (мост - [мост] / [most]).

When uttering a soft consonant [м’] / [m’], the lips are much more tensed, the tongue is arched, and its tip leans on the lower incisors.

“М” is pronounced as soft [м’] / [m’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (мёд - [м’от] / [m’ot])

  • before soft sign “ь” (семь - [с’эм’] / [sɛm’])

  • before soft “м” (в гамме - [вгам’:э] / [vgɑm’:ɛ])

Н н

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Н н[н][n]нора, стена[нара], [ст’эна][nʌrɑ], [st’ɛna]
[н’][n’]нюх, няня, кончик[н’ух], [н’ан’а], [кон’ч’ик][n’ukh], [n’ɑn’ʌ], [kon’tʃ’’ɪk]

Russian “Н” just looks like English “H” but it a completely different sound.

In its hard version Russian “Н” is pronounced as English “N”: [н] / [n] (нос - [нос] / [nos]). When uttering a soft consonant [н’] / [n’], the tip of the tongue is lowered behind the lower incisors.

“Н” is pronounced as a soft sound [н’] / [n’] in the following cases:

  • before the vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (нюх - [н’ух] / [n’ukh]) //Exceptions: some borrowed non-Russian words (интернет - [интэрнэт ] / [ɪntɛrnɛt])
  • before the soft sign “ь” (осень - [ос’эн’] / [os’ɛn’])
  • before the soft consonants (зонтик - [зон‘т’ик] / [zon’t’ɪk], стипендия - [ст’ип’эн’д’ийа] / [st’ɪp’ɛn’d’ɪjʌ] - Why are the consonants here that follow “н” considered soft? They’re followed by the next vowel “и” that makes it also soft.)

П п

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
П п[п][p]пост, шапка, скрип[пост], [шапка], [скр’ип][post], [ʃɑpkʌ], [skr’ɪp]
[п’][p’]пёс, ампир[п’ос], [амп’ир][p’os], [amp’ɪr]

Russian “П” looks new for English speakers (but the cursive form of lowercase “п” looks like English lowercase “n”).

“П” is pronounced almost like English “P”: [п] / [p] (пол - [пол] / [pol]). When uttering a soft consonant [п’] / [p’], the middle part of the back of the tongue is raised to the hard palate, the lips are more pressed against the teeth, the edges of lips are slightly parted to the sides.

“П” is pronounced as a soft sound [п’] / [p’] in the following cases:

  • before the vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (пёс - [п’ос] / [n’ukh]),
  • before the soft sign “ь” (степь - [ст’эп’] / [st’ɛp’]).

Р р

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Р р[р][r]рыбак, мотор[рыбак], [матор][ryɪbɑk], [mʌtor]
[р’][r’]рисунок, море[р’исунак], [мор’э][r’ɪsunak], [mor’ɛ]

Don’t be confused with the letter “Р”.

It’s not an English “P”. “Р” is in fact an English “R” - [р] / [r] (ротор - [ротар] / [rotʌr]).

Usually, “Р” is the best sound for the fast identification of a non-native speaker. How to pronounce “Р” properly? For its hard version, the tip of the tongue is raised to the alveoles and trembles, a strong stream of air that makes it tremble. The middle part of the tongue – its back – is lowered. The side edges of the tongue are pressed against the upper teeth. The vocal cords vibrate. The neck trembles if you touch it.

When uttering a soft consonant [р’] / [r’], the lips are in a smile or in the position of the subsequent vowel. The tip of the tongue is raised to the alveoles and trembles under the pressure of a strong air jet. The back of the tongue is raised. The lateral edges of the tongue are pressed against the upper teeth.

“Р” is pronounced as a soft voiced sound [р’] / [r’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (река - [р’эка] / [r’ɛkʌ]) //Exceptions: some borrowed non-Russian words (бренди - рэнд’и] / [brɛdɪ])
  • before the soft sign “ь” (егерь - [йэг’эр’] / [st’ɛp’]).

С с

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
С с[с][s]сазан, коса[сазан], [каса][sʌzɑn], [kʌsɑ]
[с’][s’]сила[с’ила][s’ɪlʌ]
[з][z]сдать[здат’][zdɑt’]
[з’][z’]просьба[проз’ба][proz’bʌ]
[ш’][ʃtʃ’]счётчик[ш’очик][ʃtʃ’oʧ’ɪk]

Russian “С” is pronounced as English “S” (mainly) or “Z” (rarely) - voiceless [с] / [s] or voiced [з] / [z]. With this, it could be hard [с] / [s], [з] / [z] or soft [с’] / [s’], [з’] / [z’].

When uttering a soft consonant [с’] / [s’], the lip is stretched more than when pronouncing a hard sound [с] / [s], the front part of the tongue’s back rises higher to the upper tubercles and moves slightly closer to the tubercles.

“С” is pronounced as a soft voiceless sound [с’] / [s’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (село - [с’эло] / [s’ɛlo]) //Exceptions: some borrowed non-Russian words (сессия - [сессия] / [sɛsɪja])
  • before the soft sign “ь” (ересь - [йэр’эс’] / [jɛrɛs’]).

“С” is pronounced as a hard voiced sound [з] / [z] in the following cases:

  • before the voiced consonants (сдача - [здача] / [zdɑʧ’ʌ]).

“С” is pronounced as a soft voiced sound [з’] / [z’] in the following cases:

  • before the soft sign and the following voiced consonants (просьба - [проз’ба] / [proz’bʌ]).

“С” is pronounced as a soft voiceless sound [ш’] / [g’] in the following cases:

  • in such combinations of letters as “сч” and “стч” (счастье - [ш’ас’т’йэ] / [ʃtʃ’ɑst’jɛ]).

Т т

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Т т[т][t]тост, мост[тост], [мост][tost], [most]
[т’][t’]тесть, тир[т’эст’], [т’ир][t’ɛst’], [t’ɪr]
[ц:][ts]взяться[вз’ац:а][vz’jats:ʌ]
- -грустный[грусный][grusnyɪ]
[д][d]отборный[адборный][ʌdbornyɪj]
[ч:][ʧ’:]отчество[оч:ества][oʧ’:ɛstvʌ]

Russian “Т” looks like English “T”, and it is mainly pronounced like English “T” - [т] / [t] (плата - [плата ] / [plɑtʌ]).

When uttering a soft consonant [т’] / [t’], the tip of the tongue rests against the lower teeth, while the back of your tongue is curved in a hill and pressed with its front part to the tubercles behind the upper teeth. Under the pressure of exhaled air, the front part of the tongue breaks away from the tubercles.

“Т” is pronounced as soft [т’] / [t’] in the following cases:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (тень - [тэн’] / [tɛn’]). Exceptions: some borrowed non-Russian words (интернет - [интэрнэт ] / [ɪntɛrnɛt]),
  • before a soft sign “ь” (быть - [быт’] / [byɪt’]).

Also, “Т” could be pronounced as a long [ц:] / [ts:] in the reflexive verbs:

  • in such combinations of letters as “тс”, “тьс” (казаться - [казац:а] / [kʌzɑtsʌ]).

One more sound is [д]:

  • A voiceless consonant [т] can be converted into a voiced consonant [д] before another voiced consonant (отбеливатель - дб’эл’иватэл’] / [ʌdbɛl’ɪvatɛl’]).

In some cases “Т” goes without any sound in the middle of the word:

  • in such combinations of letters as “стн”, “стц”, “стск” (грустный - [грусный] / [grusnyɪ]).

Also, “Т” can be pronounced as a part of a long sound [ʧ’:] in the following cases:

  • in such combinations of letters as “тч” (отчизна - ч:изна] / [ʌʧ’:ɪznʌ]).

Ф ф

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Ф ф[ф][f]фанат, шлейф[фанат], [шл'эйф][fʌnɑt], [ʃl'ɛjf]
[ф’][f’]физик, фен[ф’из’ик], [ф’эн][f’ɪz’ɪk], [f’ɛn]

“Ф” looks unusual for English speakers but this letter is included in all Slavic alphabets (and Greek).

Russian “Ф” is pronounced like English “F” - [ф] / [f] (флот - [флот] / [flot]). When uttering a soft consonant [ф’] / [f’], the lower lip is less tensed.

“Ф” is pronounced as soft [ф’] / [f’]:

  • before vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (филин - [фил’ин] / [f’ɪl’ɪn])
  • before the soft sign “ь” (верфь - [в’эрф’] / [v’ɛrf’])

In some cases “Ф” goes without any sound in the middle of the word:

  • шефствовать - [шэствават’] / [ʃɛstvʌvʌt’]).

Х х

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Х х[х][kh]хохот, халва[хохот], [халва][khokhot], [khʌlvɑ]
[х’][kh’]хит, схема[х’ит], [сх’эма][kh’ɪt], [skh’ɛmʌ]

Russian “Х” is similar to English “H”, but not the same.

How do you pronounce “Х” ([х] / [kh]) properly?

The teeth are open. The lips are neutral or take the position of the next vowel. The soft palate is raised and adjoins the back wall of the pharynx. The vocal cords are open. The tip of the tongue is lowered and moved away from the lower incisors. The back of the tongue forms a slit with a soft palate.

When uttering a soft consonant [х’] / [kh’], the tongue moves forward and makes a bow with the slit. The middle part of the back of the tongue approaches the hard palate. The front part of the tongue is moved down. The tip of the tongue is slightly closer to the lower teeth, but does not touch them. The lips are somewhat stretched and open the teeth.

“Х” is pronounced as a soft sound [х’] / [kh’] in the following cases:

  • before the vowels “и”, “е“, “ё“, “ю”, “я” (химик** - [х’и**м’ик] / [kh’ɪmɪk]),
  • before the soft sign “ь” (Хьюстон - [х’йустан] / [kh’justʌn]) .

Ц ц

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Ц ц[ц][ts]цилиндр, цыплёнок[цилиндр], [цыпл’онак][tsɪlɪndr], [tsyɪpl’onʌk]

“Ц” is similar to English [ts] in “pizza”.

Actually, “Ц” indicates one sound [ц], not two sounds in quick succession [t+s].

How do you pronounce “Ц” ([ц] / [ts]) properly?

The lips are in a smile. The teeth are visible, close together, but not closed. At the first moment, the tip of the tongue rests on the lower incisors, as at the sound of [т]. The back of the tongue is steeply concave and its front part forms a bow at the necks of the upper incisors. At the second moment, the tip of the tongue remains in the same position, and the front part of the back bounces to the position [с] after breaking the bow. In the middle of the tongue, there is a strong short air stream, which is felt by the back of the hand. The soft palate is raised, covering the passage into the nasal cavity. The vocal cords are open.

“Ц” is always pronounced as a hard voiceless sound [г’] / [g’] (цирк - [цирк] / [ts’ɪrk]).

Ч ч

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Ч ч[ч’][ʧ’]час, свечи[ч’ас], [св’эч’и][ʧ’ɑs], [sv’ɛʧ’ɪ]
[ш][ʃ]конечно[кан’эшна][kʌn’ɛʃnʌ]

The letter “Ч” looks somewhat like the number “4”. Don’t be confused. 😄

In most of cases, “Ч” is always pronounced as a soft voiceless sound [ч’] / [ʧ’] like English [ʧ] in “children” (чайка - [ч’айка] / [ʧ’ɑjkʌ]).

Also, “Ч” is pronounced as a hard sound [ш’] / [ʃ] in the following cases:

  • in such combinations of letters as “чн”, “чт” (Ильинична- [ил’ин’ишна] / [ɪl’ɪn’ɪʃnɑ]).

Ш ш

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Ш ш[ш][ʃ]шея, ишак, шанс, брошюра[шэйа], [ишак], [шанс], [брашура][ʃɛja], [ɪʃɑk], [ʃɑns], [brʌʃurʌ]

“Ш” is pronounced almost like English [ʃ] in “shine”.

It is always a hard voiceless sound (шум - [шум] / [ʃum], парашют - [парашут] / [paraʃut], мышь - [мыш] / [myɪʃ]).

Щ щ

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
Щ щ[ш’][ʃtʃ’]роща, щи, щавель[рощ’а], [щ’и], [щ’ав’эл’][roʃtʃ’ʌ], [ʃtʃ’ɪ], [ʃtʃ’ɑv’ɛl’]

“Щ” is pronounced as one sound similar to English “sh+ch” - [ш’] / [ʃ’] or [ʃtʃ’], a bit longer and softer than [ш] / [ʃ].

How do you pronounce “Щ” ([ш’] / [ʃ’]) properly?

The teeth are closed, the lips are slightly pushed forward and rounded. The tip of the tongue is slightly curved, raised up and directed towards the front of the upper palate. The lateral edges of the tongue rest against the upper molar teeth. The back of the tongue is slightly arched, forming together with the front part of the tongue a “slot”, along which there is a stream of air.

“Щ” is always a soft voiceless sound (щупальца - [ш’упал’ца] / [ʃtʃ’upʌl’tsʌ], вещь - [веш’] / [v’ɛʃ’]).

Hard sign and soft sign

Two letters of Russian alphabet - “ъ” and “ь” - stand aside from vowels and consonants.

They do not have sounds of their own. Then why are they needed?

ъ

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
ъ--трёхъярусный[тр’охъйарусный][tr’оkhjɑrusnyɪj]

The hard sign “ъ” has a separation function.

It prevents the merging of adjacent sounds (consonant and vowel) and keeps the hardness of the preceding consonant: двухъярусная [двухъйаруснайа] / [dvukhjɑrusnʌjʌ].

No Russian word starts with “ъ”. So, upper case for this letter is not used even though the Russian keyboard allows us to type it - “Ъ”.

Also, there are no words in the modern Russian language that end with “ъ”.

But more than a century ago a half or even more of words ended with “ъ”. In 1917, when the hard sign was removed from the Russian alphabet, it helped to save paper and ink when printing by 5 percent.

Despite this fact, soon it was decided to return “ъ” back to Russian alphabet but use it only in the middle of the words.

The letter “ъ” is used only before the following vowels “е”, “ё”, “ю”, “я”:

  • in complex words made up of two or more morphemes where the first morpheme is numeral (двух-, трёх-, четырёх-): четырёхъядерный [ч’этыр’охйад’эрный] / [ʧ’ɛtyɪr’okhjɑd’ɛrnyɪj]
  • when prefix ends with a consonant: подъезд, сверхъестественный, etc.
  • in non-Russian words after foreign-language prefixes: адъютант [адъютант] / [ʌdjutɑnt], инъекция [инйэкцыйа] / [ɪnjɛktsɪja], субъект [субъект] / [subjɛkt], etc.

ь

LetterSoundExampleTranscription
ь--вьюга, колье, соль[в’уга], [кал’йэ], [сол’][v’jugʌ], [kʌl’jɛ], [sol’]

The soft sign “ь” has a separation function.

It prevents the merging of adjacent sounds (consonant and vowel) and keeps the softness of the preceding consonant before the following vowels “е”, “ё”, “ю”, “я”, “и”:

карьера [кар’эра] / [kʌr’jɛrʌ]

семья [с’эм’йа] / [s’ɛm’jɑ]

печенье [п’ич’эн’йэ] / [p’ɪʧ’’ɛn’jɛ]

Also, it has_ a function of _softening:

льдина [л’дина] / [l’d’ɪnʌ]

конь [кон’] / [kon’]

When the soft sign follows “ж”, “ц”, “ч”, “ш”, “щ” at the end of a noun, it indicates the feminine gender: рожь, помощь, ложь.

Actually, “ь” is often used in many nouns, verbs, adverbs and numbers. And its softening function helps to keep the integrity and melody of Russian language.

Diacritical marks in the Russian alphabet

Only two letters of Russian alphabet have the official diacritical marks:

“Ё” and “Й”.

But what if you see letters from the Russian alphabet with unknown diacritical marks?

There could be three explanations:

1. It probably isn’t Russian but instead another Slavic language. For example, Ukrainian and Belarusian alphabets have their own letters with diacritical marks. Also, there are some ex-Soviet, non-Slavic countries that still use their own alphabets which are based on Cyrillic, e.g. the Tajik alphabet has its own diacritical marks.

2. The Russian language itself doesn’t have any accent marks. But you can find a stress mark (´) above the stressed vowels in the phonetic transcriptions for learners. Also, online and offline encyclopedias use stress marks (´) for the same learning purposes.

3. You can see some informal diacritical marks in hand-written texts. It’s already became a joke that “Russian cursive makes me cry sometimes” but it’s a real fact that some hand-written texts are impossible to identify at first look without informal diacritical marks. The reason is that several letters could look the same if they are used one after another written by hand. For example: лишишь, шишки, лилии, дымишь, дышишь, лишишься, шиншилла, ушли, ушили, пиши, etc. In order to identify these words, some people use the underscore symbol (horizontal dash) under “ш” and “и” and the diacritical mark (horizontal dash) over “т” and “п”.

Hand-written (cursive) and printed Cyrillic alphabet difference

Any foreign language becomes more interesting if you have a specific goal.

Business needs, new tourism opportunities, etc. Some people decide to learn language in order to work with overseas archives looking for their family roots.

Now we’re living in the digital world and some of us have already forgotten how to use a pen. But all available archives with family histories are usually hand-written. Attempting to read a 19th-century record of marriage in hand-written Russian is courageous by itself.

Actually, the Russian cursive alphabet is not so difficult, but some letters could confuse you.

Here are some tips:

  • Lowercase “д” in cursive looks similar to English lowercase “g”.
  • Lowercase “т” in cursive can be used in two variants even in one word: like Russian “т” and like English “m”.
  • Lowercase “г” in cursive looks similar (without a wave) to English lowercase “r” in cursive.
  • “Ч” in cursive looks like the English lowercase “r” in cursive.
  • Lowercase “з” is no more number “3” since in cursive it has a lower tail (similar to the lower tail in English lowercase “g”).
  • “Ц” and “Щ” have their own small lower tails but sometimes it could be written as high as the main elements of these letters.

The Russian/Cyrillic alphabet is easy

So there you have it.

That’s a lot of dense information there (a lot more than you’ll actually need to the Russian alphabet).

There are also some great Russian courses and resources that cover the alphabet, writing and even cursive which are worth taking the time to check out.

For other Russian content on this site, see the learn Russian section.

Support me by sharing:

Here's what you should read next:

How To Start Learning Russian

How To Learn Amharic (Ethiopian) + Best Courses And Books

How To Say Hello In Arabic And Respond (Formal + Informal)

Love languages?
JOIN THE GUILD:

Language you're learning...
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic

COMMENTS

Comment Policy: I love comments and feedback (positive and negative) but I have my limits. You're in my home here so act accordingly.
NO ADVERTISING. Links will be automatically flagged for moderation.
"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein