Conquering the Cyrillic Alphabet

Perhaps you’re interested in learning a language that uses Cyrillic, like Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian - or perhaps you just want to pronounce Putin’s name like a true Russian (Владимир Путин anyone?) - regardless, learning a new alphabet is much easier than it may seem at first. In fact, as an English speaker, you already know a lot of the letters!

To get you hooked onto learning Cyrillic, here are some letters you already know: а, с, е, к, о, т, and м. Each is pronounced very close to their English pronunciation, with the only difference of е making more of a ye sound, as in yet. Go ahead and read these words to practice:

  • сок (sounds like soke)
  • атом (hey, a cognate!)
  • текст
  • так (meaning so…)

That wasn’t hard, was it? Here is one more to throw into the mix: р. Don’t jump ahead though! This letter makes an arr sound rather than a puh sound. This is your first letter to learn - but don’t overthink it. Whenever you see the letter while reading a word, just rewrite it to “r” mentally - your brain will catch on fast enough! Here are some more words:

  • секрет
  • камера
  • карта (meaning map)

It isn’t so hard, is it? Here is a curveball: б and в. You might recognize the latter, but в makes a vvv sound, like in vodka. The first, б, is used to make the buh sound, like in ball. Try it:

  • краб (yum)
  • тебе
  • век
  • собака
  • рот (careful! it looks similar but sounds different!)

You’ve already learned 10 letters of Cyrillic! You’re now 1/3 of the way. Here are some more: н, п, ф, э and з. The first looks familiar, again, but н makes an enn sound, like nibble and stone. п makes the puh sound you always wanted - this letter comes from the Greek letter π, or “pi”. ф makes the eff sound, like fun, and з makes the zzz sound, like zebra and fuzz. э - not to be confused with з - almost sounds like the Canadian “eh”. Here are some more fun words:

  • верно
  • кофе
  • фон
  • эта
  • пот
  • без

Here are four more: ы, и, ь, ъ. The ы (which looks like two letters, prepare yourself!) sounds like an ihh sound, like macaroni. The other two letters: ь and ъ are respectively called the soft sign and the hard sign. You don’t need to bother learning these - they don’t make sounds on their own. Just ignore them for now. The fourth, и, also makes an ihh sound - just like ы. Here are some more words:

  • сыр
  • знать
  • ты
  • спать
  • вино
  • рис
  • писать
  • макароны
  • разраватывать

You’re doing great! Let’s tack on some more: ю, ж, щ, and ш. ю - which you might see as “ooh, an I and an O stuck together!” - sounds just like that, sort of a yiu sound. The ж sounds like a soft jzuh sound (like in version). ш makes the shh sound, and щ makes an shhchh sound. Here are some more words:

  • бещь
  • женщина
  • кошка
  • меню
  • юбка
  • вашим
  • наша

You’re almost done! Here are five more: я, у, ё, х, and ц. я makes a ya sound, у makes an ooh sound (similar to our “u”), ё makes a yo sound, х makes a kh sound (like in khaki), and ц makes a ts sound (like in tsar). Let’s get some practice in!

  • мужчина
  • цвет
  • пьёт
  • урок
  • царь
  • потому
  • её (yeyo)

Now for the last set: д, г, ч, й, л. д sounds like d in dog, г sounds like the g in blog, and л sounds like our l, like tool. The letter й makes a sound similar to the y in toy. The ч makes a ch sound, like in Chechen. Here is a final set of practice words:

  • мной
  • эта
  • или
  • если
  • собою
  • нашими
  • своём
  • серый
  • хотеть
  • молоко
  • сакар
  • когда
  • книга
  • газета
  • перевод
  • лошадь
  • рубашка
  • готовить
  • проветить
  • поддерживать
  • вегетарианец
  • Владимир Владимирович Путин (huzzah!)

Congratulations! If you could work your way through those last words, you can now pretty much read any Russian you want; this article taught you the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, since various languages use various types of the original alphabet. At this stage, you’re probably working your way through the words as a kindergartner might - one sound at a time. But that’s okay!

The only way to improve this is practice - my suggestion would be to try and attack a single article on the Russian Wikipedia - this one is a start. Even if it takes you a week to read through the entire page, it will severely improve your reading skill. Practice makes perfect!