Russian letters – A guide to the Russian alphabet

Many Russian learners that are not familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet spend a lot of time on just getting used to it. It’s not surprising. While some Russian letters look and sound the same, others are completely different, and third ones look the same but sound completely different.

We decided to write this article to help you to memorize the Russian alphabet faster and easier. It breaks the Russian letters into 5 groups, includes a few mnemonic techniques, as well as reading and listening exercises.

Short historical reference

Russian letters

The history of the Russian alphabet in not very clear and composed out of rare evidence that reached our days. It’s said that in the year 863, a missionary enlightener Cyrill and his brother Methodius created the first Russian alphabet called “глаголица” (glagoleetsa) based on the Greek alphabet.

The Cyrillic alphabet (from the name Cyrill) was the second version of the Russian alphabet and, it’s believed, was created by the followers of Cyrill and Methodius in the beginning of the X century. We don’t have much information about it but it’s known that it included 43 letters.

Russian letters

Modern Russian alphabet includes 33 letters: 10 vowels, 21 consonants and two signs that have no sound but change the sound of the preceding consonants. The demonstration includes the printed version of the letters, the coursive, and the hand-written version.

Same look, same sound

Some of the Russian letters won’t cause any difficulties for you, they look and sound practically the same as in English (and many other languages based on the Latin alphabet). These letters are (play the audio and repeat the letters after it):

А а
А а
as a in ask
К к
К к
as k in key
М м
М м
as m in my
О о
О о
as o in more
С с
С с
as C in celebrate or S in so
In Russian, the letter C always has sound S and never K
Т т
Т т
as t in take
Pay attention: the letter T in hand-written Russian and coursive looks like English M.

Here are your first Russian words that you can easily read right away. Listen to the audio to hear the words and master the pronunciation:

мост – bridge
ток – current
сто – hundred
так – so
сок – juice
там – there

Pretty easy, isn’t it?

New look, familiar sound

The next group of Russian letters is a bit trickier: they look differently, but have an equivalent in English. These letters are:

Б б
Б б
as b in book
Russian Б/б should be easy to remember: it looks very similar to the small Engish b.
Г г
Г г
as g in gate
Д д
Д д
as d in date
Pay attention: the letter Д in hand-written Russian looks like English G.
З з
З з
as z in zoo
Mnemonic technique: The letter З looks like number 3. You must have heard some Russians that have an accent in English pronounce “three” as “zree”. З = three = zree = Z.
И и
И и
as i in bit or ee in week
Pay attention: hand-written and coursive И looks like English U.
Mnemonic technique: И in Russian means “and”. И looks like flipped N. “And” in English is sometimes shortened to “n”. И = N = and.
Й й
Й й
very short И, as y in boy
Л л
Л л
as l in lot
П п
П п
as p in plant
Mnemonic technique: the letter П looks like a gate, passage. Passage = P = П.
Ф ф
Ф ф
as f in half or ph in phrase
Mnemonic technique: Ф looks like it has small wings which can flap. Flapping wings = F = Ф.
Э э
Э э
as e in end

Let’s practice what’s we’ve learned just now. Listen to the audio and repeat these Russian words after it:

паб [pab]pub
лист [leest]leaf, sheet
мой [moy]mine
гол [gol]goal
дом [dom]house
зака́т [zakát]sunset
такси́ [taksée]taxi
миф [meef]myph
э́то [eto]this, it

A note on Russian accents

You might have noticed that we added stress marks above some of the Russian vowels. Stress (accent) marks indicate on which syllable you should make an accent when pronouncing the word. Putting the stress mark in the wrong place can change the meaning of the word. If there is only one syllable in the word, it’s the one that’s accentuated.

There is no way to figure out where to put an accent if you don’t know the word. So when you learn Russian words, you should memorize them with the accents. There is a good article about the accents here: Accent marks in Russian words.

Same look, different sound

The next group of Russian letters is even more trickier. They look the same as in English, but sound a bit or completely differently. These letters are:

В в
В в
as v in vote
E e
E e
as ye in yes
In the words that came to the Russian letters from other languages, E rather sounds like Э.
Н н
Н н
as n in no
Р р
Р р
as Spanish r in burrito
У у
У у
as oo in boom
Х х
Х х
similar to h in hello, more like kh

Read these Russian words to memorize the letters and practice the pronunciation:

ви́део [veedyeo]video
банк [bank]bank
мир [meer]peace, world
спорт [sport]sport
приве́т [pree-vyét]hi
ура́ [u-rá]hooray
ра́дио [rá-deeo]radio
но́та [nó-ta](musical) note
ха-ха-ха [ha-ha-ha]ha-ha-ha
интерне́т [een-ter-nét]internet
ло́гика [ló-gee-ka]logic

New look, new sound

In the fourth group we have the Russian letters that look very new to an English speaker and don’t have a direct equivalent in the English alphabet:

Ё ё
Ё ё
as yo in yogi
Ж ж
Ж ж
usually is denoted as zh and sounds like s in pleasure or g in giraffe
Mnemonic technique: Ж looks like an insect, maybe a fly (a bit far-fetched, but let’s just assume it :)). Fly makes sound “zhhhh”.
Ц ц
Ц ц
usually is denoted as ts and sounds like z in pizza
Ч ч
Ч ч
as ch in cheese
Mnemonic technique: Ч looks like number 4. Remember about “four cheese pizza”.
Ш ш
Ш ш
as sh in shade
Mnemonic technique: Ш looks like a brush. Imagine slight “shhh” it produces every time you pass it on your hair.
Щ щ
Щ щ
soft version of Ш, like in sheep but softer
Ю ю
Ю ю
as you in you
Я я
Я я
as ya in yahoo
Я looks like flipped R and mean “I” in Russian.
ы
ы
something between i and u
This sound has no equivalent in English and causes the most trouble to Russian learners, so let’s give it a bit more attention. Prepare your lips like for i in bit. Now imagine that you have hit your little toe against a table or sofa. Howl, but keep your lips in the same position for i. If the sound you make is close to what you will hear in the audio below, well done! If not, don’t worry, it will come with practice.

Let’s practice now. Listen to the audio and repeat after it.

ты [tы]you (singular, informal)
вы [vы]you (plural or formal)
мы [mы]we
ёлка [yól-ka]firtree, Christmas tree
жук [zhuk]beetle
цвет [tsvyet]color
люк [lyuk]hatch
час [chas]hour
шум [shum]noise
борщ [borsch]borsch (Russian soup)
язы́к [ya-zы́k]tongue, language
жира́ф [zhee-ráf]giraffe

New look, no sound

The last two letters, as we said earlier, have no sound but change the sound of the preceding consonant. These letter are:

ь
ь
called “soft sign”, makes the preceding consonant softer
Don’t confuse ь with ы!
ъ
ъ
called “hard sign”, makes the preceding consonant harder

Let’s see how it works. Below you’ll see the pairs of words, with and without soft and hard signs. Listen to the audio and pay attention to the difference in the sound:

мат [mat](floor)-mat
мать [mat’]mother

угол [ú-gol]corner
уголь [ú-gol’]coal

сесть [syest’]to sat down
съесть [s-yest’]to eat something

Russian pronunciation

After you memorized all the Russian letters, it’s time to learn some pronunciation rules.

Some Russian letters change their sound depending on the position in a word and the letters that surround it. We won’t cover the pronuncation rules here but refer you to a couple of good articles where they are well explained:

Russian pronunciation rules (vowels)
Russian pronunciation rules (consonants)

Practice, practice, practice

To help you to memorize the Russian letters faster, we offer you to try this method: take the lyrics of your favorite song and replace some letters or the whole words there with the respective Russian letters.

For example, here is an excerpt from “Yesterday”, the famous song of “Beatles”. The Russian letters are in blue.

Yesterдэй all my тrouбles seemeд so far awaй.
Now ит лукс as though they’re here ту staй.
Oh, I бeлieve ин есterдэй.

Suddeнли, I’m нот halф the man I used ту би.
There’s a шadow хanгing oвer ми.
Oh, yesterday came suddeнли.

Why ши хэд ту go?
Ай don’t know, ши wouldn’t saй.
Ай said something wrong.
Нау I long фоr есterдэй.

Yesterday лoвe was сач an eaзи гame ту плэй.
Now I нид a пlace to хide awaй.
Oh, I бeлieвe ин yesterday.


Now, when you learned the Russian letters, find out a way to teach yourself Russian with free online learning resources. We wish you good luck and good motivation in learning the Russian language! 🙂

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