Learning that Russian alphabet can be really hard….
When I studied Russian in university the first week was dedicated to learning the Russian alphabet.
An ENTIRE WEEK.
You read that correctly. No instructions. No memory techniques. Nothing. It took me hours and hours and lots of frustration.
But it really doesn’t have to be this way. As long as you use the full potential of your brain.
But how can you learn the Russian alphabet in less than 30 minutes and remember it forever? By doing the following:
- Change every letter into an easy-to-remember cartoon that is connected to the Russian sound. The weirder the cartoon the longer you will remember it.
- Apply what you have just learned on Russian words that you already know (but might not be aware of).
This blog post will provide you with all these cartoons and Russian words for the entire Russian alphabet. You don’t even have to come up with them yourself. 30 minutes from now you will be able to read Russian.
- Russian alphabet overview and pronunciation
- Russian alphabet
Russian alphabet overview and pronunciation
Let’s start of with the good news: the Russian alphabet has 5 letters in common with us! These letters are the t, m, o, a and k.
You can remember them by this short sentence:
the man orders a kiwi.
It’s that simple. The man orders a kiwi. Have you ever ordered a kiwi? I haven’t.
Look at the guy, he is really craving for a kiwi, a typically Russian fruit 😉 . Ridiculous huh? But I bet you remember these 5 letters next year if someone asks you about it. The man orders a kiwi.
With this exact same technique (i.e. using cartoons) you can easily learn the rest of the Russian alphabet in under 30 minutes. But before we really start it is good to have an overview so that we know what to expect.
Russian alphabet overview
More officially the Russian alphabet is called the Cyrillic alphabet. It contains 33 letters in total, of which
- 5 letters are the same as in English.
- 6 letters are similar in the Greek alphabet.
- 6 letters are also used in English, written exactly the same, but pronounced in an entirely different way. These are the so-called “false friends”.
- 16 letters are really Russian. 2 of these letters don’t produce a sound of their own.
Russian alphabet pronunciation
Before we go on, a word of caution.
Unlike in English, all Russian letters (except for the a and o) are pronounced in only one way.
When you think of it this is actually good news. You don’t have to guess how a word is pronounced!
You have already seen the 5 letters that we have in common. Remember this about the Russian a and o:
- The Russian a is pronounced like the a as in arm, not as in agent
- The Russian o is pronounced as in offer, not as in owner. When it is not stressed it sounds like a weak a, as in medal
Be aware of this and you will be fine.
Now it’s time to start learning the rest of the Russian alphabet!
You already know 5 letters, let’s learn some new ones. We will start with some of those false friends and some frequently used vowels.
For you convenience the letters will be presented in small chunks, with some practice right after the chunk. At the end of the block we will have a quick recap before we go on to the next block of letters.
Russian alphabet block 1: the first 12 Russian letters
This first block will contain mostly false friends. You already know the letters, but they are pronounced entirely different than in English.
Russian letter р r as in racket
This is the first false friend that we will see. It looks like our p, but it is pronounced as an r, but then more “rolling” than in English.
Whenever you see the р, think of a (tennis) racket. It is not that hard to see the shape of a tennis racket in this letter. Russian women are world-class level in tennis.
Also note that when a Russian word ends with this rolling r, then it is also really pronounced!
Russian letter е ye as in yell
The Russian е is not pronounced like our e, but it is quite close.
Whenever you see the letter е, think of a Russian man that is yelling like crazy. The man in the picture looks like Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian president (right before Putin).
Russian letter д d as in design
This letter looks like the Greek letter d (delta), but is not exactly the same. With some imagination you can transform the shape of this letter into a designer lamp.
I admit, the asymmetric design is a bit odd, but that is what it makes a designer lamp.
Russian letter и ee as in eel
This is the first truly Russian letter that you encounter. It looks like a reversed capital letter N.
Whenever you see the и think of an eel (sort of fish) that is swirled around the letter. Don’t know what an eel is? Then imagine some fish that screams “ee!”.
Enough for now, it is time to apply this knowledge! With this small amount of letters you can already read some words that are actually used in Russian (English translation below within brackets, try not to cheat 😉 ):
(1. method, 2. doktor, 3. drama, 4. radar, 5. meteorite, 6. radio)
Pretty cool huh? 3 more letters (all false friends) to end this block with before we do a quick recap.
Russian letter с s as in snake
Whenever you see the c think of a snake, with his tongue coming out of the letter.
Do you remember the letters CCCP that the Soviet Union put on the side of their space ships and on all the outfits of their sports teams? You can now impress your friends by saying that this should be pronounced sssr.
Russian letter н n as in network
Whenever you see the н, think of a network of computers, tablets and smartphones that are connected to each other via the letter.
If you don’t like computers then replace them with humans or whatever you are into 🙂
Russian letter в v as in vase
By now it may seem that the Russian alphabet almost entirely consists of false friends, but after this one there is only one more.
Whenever you see the в, think of a vase in the shape of the letter, with some beautiful flowers inside the vase.
You already know 12 out of 33 letters. By now you can read all these words:
(1. taxi, 2. disk, 3. anekdote, 4. ananas (pineapple), 5. restaurant, 6. vodka, 7. veterinary)
Recap of the first 12 Russian letters
A quick recap of the first 12 Russian letters that you have learnt so far:
- the man orders a kiwi
- р r as in racket
- е ye as in yell
- д d as in design
- и ee as in eel
- с s as in snake
- н n as in network
- в v as in vase
Feel free to have another look at them, we will need them for the rest of the alphabet. Ready? Let’s continue.
Russian alphabet block 2: 11 more Russian letters
This block contains one more false friend and some letters that you also see in Greek alphabet.
Russian letter п p as in pants
For anyone who can read Greek, or that paid attention in math classes, you recognise the letter п as pi.
If you’re not already familiar with this letter then you can think of pants that nicely fit the letter whenever you see this letter.
Russian letter у oo as in moose or booze
Think of a moose that is very drunk because he drank way too much booze. His tongue is out and he can’t even look straight anymore.
In case you wonder, yes, I had trouble coming up with a word that starts with oo and that can be connected to some cartoon….
Russian letter б b as in beard
The shape of this letter already looks like a b, but let’s use a cartoon anyway.
Most Russian men are not known to be very vain, but for this letter we forget about that. Think of a very vain Russian guy with a nicely trimmed beard. He spends at least an hour each day on it.
Some more Russian words to practice with:
(1. Europe, 2. sport, 3. optimist, 4. student, 5. virus, 6. bank, 7. bar, 8. snob, 9. acrobat)
Russian letter л l as in left or leg
This letter looks a lot like the letter п that we have just seen (remember pants?), but the left part is different.
Think of a wooden (or whatever material) table of which the left leg is a human leg. I bet you have never seen that before. Bit freaky…
Russian letter ф f as in flower
The shape of this letter looks like a flower, doesn’t it? No need to overcomplicate things.
You also see this letter in the Greek alphabet.
Now try to read these Russian words:
(1. toilet, 2. ballet, 3. dollar, 4. fact, 5. defect, 6. telephone)
Did you know?
The Cyrillic alphabet is not only used in the Russian language, but in multiple languages across Europe and Asia. Serbian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian are among the more widely spoken languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet, or a slightly modified version of it.
Ready for some more good news? You’re more than halfway already. That wasn’t too hard so far, right?
Russian letter г g as in gallows
Another letter that you also see in the Greek alphabet, they call it gamma.
The shape of the letter looks like a gallows. Not the most fun picture, but you will definitely remember it this way. In order to make you sleep at night I haven’t added a guy to it 😉
Russian letter я ya as in yacht
This letter looks like a reversed R.
Whenever you see this letter imagine two sails inside the letter on top of a luxurious yacht. Many Russian oligarchs (the new rich) love these yachts and they all want to have the biggest one.
Fun fact: я also means “I” in Russian.
Some Russian words:
(1. blog, 2. signal, 3. generator, 4. Germany, 5. army, 6. Wikipedia)
By now you can read Russia in Russian: Россия. The capital city Moscow in Russian: Москва.
Russian letter ё yo as in yolk
This is the letter е, but then with a diaeresis (two dots) on top.
Image an omelette with two huge egg yolks on top of the letter е.
Note: Whenever you see the ё, it is always stressed.
That is good news, because you no longer have to guess how to pronounce the word. Out of laziness Russians (unfortunately) often write e instead of ё.
Russian letter з z as in zipper
The з looks like our number three, but it is a Russian letter. Funny enough Russians use the same numbers that we use.
To remember that the letter з means z, imagine an opened zipper in the shape of the letter.
Some more Russian words to practice with:
(1. actor, 2. reporter, 3. business, 4. Asia, 5. president, 6. browser)
Russian letter й y as in yoga
This letter looks like the и that we have seen before, but then with something on top of it.
Imagine a yoga fanatic sitting on the curve on top of the letter.
(Make sure you remember the й is the y, not the yo that we have seen before because of the word yoga)
Russian letter ж zh as in pleasure or the French name Jacques
Both the sound and the shape of this letter are a bit odd for English speakers.
Imagine a French guy that is called Jacques with a strange-looking moustache. He has a lot of pleasure when is trying to get his moustache into this very odd shape. Those French.
Last chunk of Russian words for this block:
(1. yoga, 2.rating, 3. trolleybus, 4. garage, 5. engineer, 6. journalist, 7. jazz)
Now it’s time for another quick recap of the second set of letters that you have learnt so far.
Recap of the next 11 Russian letters
- п p as in pants
- у oo as in moose or booze
- б b as in beard
- л l as in left or leg
- ф f as in flower
- г g as in gallows
- я ya as in yacht
- ё yo as in yolk
- з z as in zipper
- й y as in yoga
- ж zh as in pleasure or the French name Jacques
Do you like the progress so far? You already know more than two third of the Russian alphabet. Would you do me a favour by liking this article at the left (or bottom)?
Let’s continue with the last block of 10 more Russian letters.
Russian alphabet block 3: the last 10 Russian letters
This last block contains one more false friend and two Russian letters that don’t produce a sound of their own. At the end it also contains some letters that are not used too often, but you still need to know them of course.
Russian letter х j as in Spanish name Juan
This is the last false friend that we haven’t seen yet. Pay special attention to the pronunciation of this letter, because in English the sound doesn’t really exist. It is not pronounced as an h like most Americans do when they say Juan. It is more a gh or kh sound.
How to remember this letter? In English texts the x is often used to represent a kiss. Think of a Spanish guy Juan, or Don Juan, who winks at every woman and tries to kiss them.
Russian letter ч ch as on chocolate
With a little imagination the letter ч looks like a (wine) glass. But instead of wine, it is filled with delicious chocolate milk.
Imagine that all Russians that go to a fancy restaurant expect the wine glasses to be filled with chocolate milk.
Some “Russian” words (believe me, these words are really used in Russian):
(1. archive, 2. hot dog, 3. match, 4. champion, 5. cappuccino)
Russian letter ц ts as in tsar
This letter is often used at the beginning of a word, which can be hard for English-speakers to pronounce.
Imagine this letter on the head of the last tsar Nicholas (sort of a king in former Russia).
I know, it is a bit artificial, but there are not that many words in English that start with ts 😉
Russian letter ю yu as in uniform
This letter looks like two letters that are attached to each other, but it is one letter.
Think of a Russian soldier holding a gun. He is wearing the most intimidating uniform you have ever seen.
Try to read these words:
(1. center, 2. medicine, 3. ambition, 4. plus, 5. UNICEF)
Russian letter ш sh as in shashlik
In Russia (especially in the south) you can eat delicious meat on a skewer from the barbecue, called shashlik.
The letter ш looks like a set of three skewers. Imagine the letter ш holds three of these delicious shashliks. You can almost smell them.
Russian letter ь soft sign, makes the letter before it sound softer
This letter is a bit special, since it does not produce a sound itself. What it does is that it makes the letter in front of it sound softer than in case it was not added. It only comes in some combinations, often (but not always) after the л or the ш.
To remember this letter imagine a beautiful Russian lady telling you to talk more softly by putting her index finger in front of her mouth.
Some more words (again some words that Russians have borrowed from other languages):
(1. chance, 2. show business, 3. film, 4. cocktail, 5. automobile, 6. interview)
Now we will see two more letters that have sounds that are close to letters that we have already seen.
Russian letter ы i as in ill
This letter really looks like a combination of two letters, but it is a single letter.
Imagine a guy that has a swollen belly and tells a beautiful Russian nurse that he is terribly ill.
Pay attention to the difference in pronunciation with the и (“ee”) that we have seen before, eel vs. ill.
Russian letter э e as in egg
The shape of this letter looks like a reversed e.
With only a little imagination you see an egg with a crack in it.
Pay attention to the difference in pronunciation with the letter е (“ye”) that we have seen at the beginning of block 1.
Some more Russian words:
(1. music, 2. sites, 3. exam, 4. expert, 5. poet)
Almost there! Only 2 more (rare) letters and we’re done.
Russian letter щ shch as in fresh cheese, or goldfish chimney
Imagine a set of 3 chimneys that all the goldfish want to swim through, they just love it!
It is a bit hard for English-speakers to pronounce, but luckily this letter is not common and you will not see it a lot.
Russian letter ъ hard sign, tells you that a syllable has ended (very rare)
This is the other letter in the Russian alphabet that doesn’t produce a sound of its own, together with the soft sign.
The shape of the letter looks like a hand that is holding a megaphone. Now it is hard to understand what this person is saying when he stands next to you.
It was hard to find Russian words that are slightly familiar with these letters, but here they are:
(1. Borsht (Russian cold soup), 2. object)
It’s time for the final recap.
Recap of the last 10 Russian letters
- х j as in Spanish name Juan
- ч ch as on chocolate
- ц ts as in tsar
- ю yu as in uniform
- ш sh as in shashlik
- ь soft sign, makes the letter before it sound softer
- ы i as in ill
- э e as in egg
- щ shch as in fresh cheese, or goldfish chimney
- ъ hard sign, tells you that a syllable has ended (very rare)
Wow, that was it. Great, from now on you can read Russian! And don’t worry, you will remember the letters. The images are just too powerful to forget.
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