Russian Lesson 1

The Russian alphabet with sounds

 Lesson comments   Alphabet reference guide (PDF file for printing)

Let's start with the very basics--the alphabet. The fact is that you can learn the Russian alphabet and will be able to read Russian words in less than two hours of your study time. If you are already slightly familiar with the Russian alphabet or feel confident about your learning abilities, you may want to go through this lesson in one set. Another strategy is to approach the alphabet study in chunks of letters and dedicate 15-20 minutes of your time a day to each chunk over a course of several days. To help you learn the Russian alphabet as quickly as possible, we will break up the alphabet into four chunks according to how similar (or different) they are to English letters.

Being able to decipher the Russian alphabet will open you the doors to understanding maps, restaurant menus and street signs. You will be able to read words at the hotel and the airport, expand your Russian vocabulary and progress with virtually every aspect of your Russian language study.

The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters, 20 of which are consonants, 11 are vowels and two are signs (the soft sign and the hard sign). The alphabet is adopted from the Cyrillic alphabet which was invented in the 9th century in the First Bulgarian Empire. The Russian alphabet borrows some letters from Greek and Hebrew.

1. The Perfect Matches

These five Russian letters remind the letters of the English alphabet by look and pronunciation. Take a moment to study them and you will be able to read a few simple Russian words.

   A а - pronounced as in "father". It should not be confused with "a" as in "fate" or "map".

   K к - pronounced as in "king".

   M м - pronounced as in "most".

   O о - pronounced as "au" in "aura". When unstressed, this letter makes a sound similar to the Russian "A" that you learned above but more reduced, almost like "u" in "under" or the first "o" in "tomato".

   T т - pronounced as in "time".

   E e - pronounced as "ye" in "yellow".

Words you can read now:

Мама - a mother
Кот - a cat
Там - there
Акт - an act
Том - a volume

2. The False Friends

The next group of letters includes eight false friends, called so because they look like other English letters or even numbers but have different pronunciation.

   В в - pronounced as "v" in "victory"

   З з - pronounced as "z" in "zero". Despite similar form, this letter has nothing to do with the number three.

   Н н - pronounced as "n" in "noon"

   Р р - pronounced as "r" in "bright" (you should roll it like British actors do when reading old poems)

   С с - pronounced as "s" in "soup"

   У у - pronounced as "oo" in "shoot".

   Ч ч - pronounced as "ch" in "chair". This letter is not the number four.

   Х х - pronounced as "h" in "hoopla" or "ch" in the Scottish "loch"

Words you can read now:

Весна - spring (season)
Ус - moustache
Чек - a check, receipt
Метр - meter
Хвост - tail
Верх - top

3. The Secret Agents

The next group includes sixteen letters of the Russian alphabet that we call "secret agents". If you try to guess their pronunciation it won't be an easy task because they all have an unusual look. The good news is that these letters represent sounds that are relatively familiar to you as an English speaker.

   Б б - pronounced as "b" in "boy"

   Г г - pronounced as "g" in "good"

   Д д - pronounced as "d" in "desk"

   Ё ё - pronounced as "yo" in "yonder"

   Ж ж - pronounced as "s" in "pleasure"

   П п - pronounced as "p" in "people"

   Ф ф - pronounced as "f" in "fast"

   И и - pronounced as "ee" in "feet"

   Й й - pronounced as "y" in "boy"

   Л л - pronounced as "l" in "last"

   Ц ц - pronounced as "ts" in "its"

   Ш ш - pronounced as "sh" in "short"

   Щ щ - pronounced as "shch" in "bush chat". This letter reminds a combination of "Ш" (sh) and "Ч" (ch).

   Э э - pronounced as "e" in "echo"

   Ю ю - pronounced as English "you" but shorter

   Я я - pronounced as "ya" in "yard"

Words you can read now:

Дядя - an uncle
Бой - a battle
Юля - Yulia (female name)
Эти - these
Флаги - flags
Рэп - rap (music)
Ёлка - a fir-tree
Сколково - Skolkovo (Russian Silicon Valley project)
Ящик - a box
Ёж - a hedgehog
Шкаф - a cupboard
Цвет - a color

4. The Rare Aves

The last group includes three letters that do not exist in English. You should invest some time in practicing how to pronounce one of them because it represents a new sound that does not exist in English. The other two letters are much easier as they have no sound value on their own. They are only used as signs to modify the pronunciation of other letters in the word.

   Ы ы - pronounced as a combination of two sounds: "i" as in "kit" and "u" as in "sugar"

   Ь ь - not pronounced. It is used to make the preceding consonant sound as if a "y" sound was added to it.

   Ъ ъ - not pronounced. It is used to signal a slight pause between syllables.

Words with the letter "Ы":

Быт - everyday life
Рыба - fish
Мы - we

Reference Guide for the Russian Alphabet

This lesson comes with a reference guide in Adobe PDF format . Print it out and and take it everywhere for review and practice. You will soon know the Russian alphabet like the back of your hand.  Download the free reference guide.

Alphabetical order: А Б В Г Д Е Ё Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш Щ Ъ Ы Ь Э Ю Я

Russian letter English equivalent Sounds like
The Perfect Matches
А а A "a" in "father"
K к K "k" in "king"
M м M "m" in "most"
O о O "au" in "aura" (stressed); the first "o" in "tomato" (unstressed)
T т T "t" in "time"
Е е YE "ye" in "yellow"
The False Friends
В в V "v" in "victory"
З з Z "z" in "zero
Н н N "n" in "noon"
Р р R "r" in "bright" (rolled)
С с S "s" in "soup"
У у OO "oo" in "shoot"
Ч ч CH "ch" in "chair"
Х х KH "h" in "hoopla"
The Secret Agents
Б б B "b" in "boy"
Г г G "g" in "good"
Д д D "d" in "desk"
Ё ё YO "yo" in "yonder"
П п P "p" in "people"
Ж ж ZH "s" in "pleasure"
Ф ф F "f" in "fast"
И и EE "ee" in "feet"
Й й Y "y" in "boy"
Л л L "l" in "last"
Ц ц TS "ts" in "its"
Ш ш SH "sh" in "short"
Щ щ SHCH "shch" in "bush chat"
Э э E "e" in "echo"
Ю ю YU English "you" but shorter
Я я YA "ya" in "yard"
The Rare Aves
Ы ы I combination of "i" as in "kit" and "u" as in "sugar"
Ь ь -- soft sign; no sound
Ъ ъ -- hard sign; no sound

You should now be familiar with the letters of the Russian alphabet and be able to read most Russian words. You can continue your Russian language study with the next lesson Meetings and greetings where you will learn how to greet people and introduce yourself in Russian. If you want to further build your Russian vocabulary, download the Russian words for iPhone / Android app in App Store or on Google play.

More Russian alphabet resources

You may also like the following sites:

Letters of Russian alphabet from MasterRussian
Russian alphabet by Language Daily
Cyrillic alphabet on Wikipedia

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