It used to be that when I saw Russian words like this– компьютер, студент, пасспорт — my eyes skipped over them like yours probably just did. But the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Slavic languages like Russian as well as non-Slavic languages like Kazakh and Mongolian, is easy to learn.
Given the number of English cognates in Russian (the language we’ll focus on here), learning the Cyrillic alphabet allows you to read and understand dozens of words in Russian, including the three above (computer, student, and passport, respectively).
Here’s a short five-minute lesson on how to read Russian’s Cyrillic alphabet…
1. Some letters are virtually the same as in English. The Cyrillic letters A, K, M, O, and T are close relatives of their English counterparts. The Cyrillic letter Б (which looks like a lowercase “b”) also makes a “b” sound. The letter “C” always makes the “s” sound, like in the English word “cite.”
2. Others are closely related to Greek. Frat guys and sorority girls already know the letters Г (gamma), P (rho), П (pi), and Ф (phi), which are the English equivalents of “G”, “R”, “P”, and “F”, respectively.
Easy so far, right? Check out a few examples:
a. кафе = ?
b. бар = ?
c. опера = ?
d. робот = ?
Look below the fold for the answers…
a. кафе́ = cafе́
b. бар = bar
c. о́пера = opera
d. ро́бот = robot
See? Easy. On to the next lesson…
3. Some letters are imposters. They look familiar but don’t sound like their English counterparts. The Russian letter “H” makes the “N” sound, “y” makes the English “oo” sound, and “B” sounds like the English “V.” This letter, И, which looks like a backwards “N”, makes the “short i” sound, as in the English word “pin.” The Russian letter “Я” sounds nothing like it’s mirror image in English. Instead, it makes a “ya” sound, as in “yacht.”
Wth me so far? Here are a few more Russian words you already know.
a. Интерне́т = internet
b. CпyTHИK = Sputnik
c. POCCИЯ = Russia
d. PECTOPAH = restauran(t)
4. The rest of the letters, well, they’re just jerks. You’ve never seen ‘em, and you just have to memorize how they sound. Here’s a quick run-down.
Ц = “ts” as in “pizza”
Ш = “sh” as in “shoe”
Л = “l” as in “lamb”
ж = “zh” as in “measure”
Д = “d” as in “door”
З = “z” as in “zebra”
Ю = “oo” or “yu”
Ч = “ch” Since the letter looks like a “4” and makes the “ch” sound, think of the word “fortune.” Four-chun. Get it?
There are a few more subtleties and even a couple more letters in the alphabet, but we’ve only got five minutes here, and I think you’ve got the gist of it.
Time for your final exam. Candy will be e-mailed to the top scorers.
a. You’re in St. Petersburg and you see a restaurant with this written on it: MAKДOHAЛД’C. Where are you?
b. You’re in a Moscow bar and would like to drink something authentically Russian. Someone suggests Bо́ДKA. What are you having?
c. You’re applying for your Russian visa and a form asks whether you’ve ever criticized the Russian президе́нт. What’s it asking?
Hope you’ve enjoyed the lesson… Leave your “final exam” answers in the comments…
For a helpful, longer-than-five-minute primer on the Russian alphabet, go here (pdf).