Don't be ashamed to keep quiet when there's nothing to say.
Nye stydna malchat', kagda nechevo skazat'
Translation: There is no shame in being silent when there is nothing to say.
However, there is a lot to say. And that's probably why you arelearn Russian🇧🇷 In addition to what you say, how you say it is of course also important. Instead of being silent, you have to talk a lot to practice!
When learning a new language, pronunciation is often one of the most difficult aspects to master.
Some languages often have sounds that do not exist in others. Sometimes teaching your mouth to move in new ways can be difficult!
Fortunately, Russian pronunciation and spelling are very consistent and logical. Once you learn the sounds and rules, there are no pitfalls to fall into.
You don't have to focus too much on how Russian is transliterated into the Latin alphabet. While transcripts can give you a good idea of what a word sounds like, it doesn't necessarily sound "right" when you read them as they are.
It is important to proceed step by step. And try to listen and talk to native Russian speakers as much as possible.
In this guide, I'll cover everything you need to know about Russian pronunciation, including:
- The Cyrillic alphabet and how to pronounce each letter
- The soft character (ь) and the strong character (ъ) and how to use them
- Stress and how stressed syllables affect the pronunciation of a word
- voiced and unvoiced consonants
So let's start with the alphabet and the letters.
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Russian pronunciation: the Russian alphabet
The first step in learning Russian pronunciation is understanding the Cyrillic alphabet and how each letter sounds. It may seem strange to you now, but not for long!
The Cyrillic alphabet has only 33 characters. And many of them are very similar to Latin letters in appearance, sound, or both.
For example, the letters A, E, K, M, O, and T look and sound (mostly) the same as in English.
Other letters, namely B (Б), V (B), G (Г), D (Д), Z (З), L (Л), N (Н), P (П), R (Р), S (С) and F (Ф) look different but sound much the same as their English counterparts.
That leaves only a few Cyrillic letters that have no English equivalent, including the strong and soft signs that modify the consonants.
See the full alphabet here:
Let's look at each letter individually. I'll show you what each letter is called in Russian, how each is commonly transliterated into English, and how it sounds with examples of English words.
- same as
- Like "a" in bat
- Like "b" in boat
- Like "v" in many
- G g Sometimes (T v)
- Like "g" in gas or "v" in very
- D d
- Wie "d" in do
- And and
- Como "ye" ainda
- me myself
- Como "yo" na gema ou ali
- Like "s" in treasure, "z" in confiscation, or "g" in sabotage
- Z z
- Like "z" not zoo
- EE ee (sometimes i i)
- Like "ea" in Easter or "ee" in fairy
- "ee kratkoyeh" (e kurz)
- me or y y
- Like "y" in soy
- k k
- Like "k" in Karma or "c" in Auto
- "We will"
- As "I" in love
- Like "m" in man
- N n
- Like "n" in No
- the... the
- Like the "o" in snoring
- P p
- Like "p" in the game
- Wie "r" in rot
- Like "s" at the beginning
- T t
- Like "t" don't touch
- Like "oo" in the root
- F f
- Like "f" on the farm
- H h, KH K
- Throated H, like the "ch" in Loch (Scottish) or Bach (German)
- TS ts
- Como "ts" no tsunami
- Like "ch" not chip
- sch sch (hart)
- Like "sch" in shot (behind the mouth)
- SH sch (polite)
- A harder, tighter variation of the ø sound.
- Like the "sh" in the shot, but with the tongue pressed against the palate to tighten the sound
- „tvyordiy znak“ (single forte)
- Strong signal (-)
- Makes the previous more difficult
- yes or me
- Like "i" in dairy and illustrate
- "strong signal" (strong signal)
- Soft character (')
- Makes the front posterior smooth
- And and
- Like "e" ten
- yu yu
- Like "I" in praise or "u" in usage
- And and
- Like "ya" in yak
Strong and soft Russian sounds
In the list above, you may have noticed the weird looking Bs called strong signal and soft signal. These symbols are a key feature of Russian pronunciation.
Here's a reminder of what they look like and what they're called:
- O sinal duro - Ъ ъ - sinal duro (tvyordiy znak)
- The soft sign - b b - soft sign (myakhkeey znak)
(Caution: Do not confuse the soft character with the letter Û û!)
Although both characters are silent, they affect the sound of the letter they are following. I'm sure you're wondering what exactly they do.
When you start saying Russian words, you will notice that the so-called “soft” Russian vowels change the sound of the previous consonants, making them softer.
These vowels are:
- me (yes)
- It's him)
- Yu (yoo)
- E (ee)
So what does a soft consonant sound like?
Let's look at an example in English to help you understand a little better.
Notice how the "n" sounds stronger in the word "now" and softer in the word "new"? The second word is like adding a "y" after the "n".
(The same gentle sound is found in other languages, like the 'n' sound in the wordGnocchiin Italian for example.)
Technically, a soft consonant @ or pronounced with the middle of the tongue raised toward the palate.
The strong sign (or a hard vowel), on the other hand, prevents palatalization. Then pronounce a strong consonant with the tip of your tongue touching the front of your mouth (or lips).
If there is a strong character after a consonant, you should read it as a strong sound. In transcriptions, the strong sign separates hardened consonants from soft vowels followed by a hyphen.
Examples of hard and soft signals
Some examples of words using the strong character are:
- въезд (v-yezd) - entrance or driveway (for cars)
–> the strong character makes the е fully pronounced ("ye" in Yeltsin instead of "e" in mend. Compare this to везде [veh-zdye], which means everywhere)
- oбъект (ob-yekt) - object, subject or installation
-> as above
- podъëm (pad-yom) – to rise, rise or rise
-> the hard character separates the ä from the ё, so the ä stays hard (like the hard “d” in do instead of the softer “d” in dew)
The soft sign, on the other hand, is used to make the preceding consonant sound softer. This usually happens at the end of a word or between two consonants. In transcripts, the soft character is denoted with an apostrophe.
Some words containing the soft sign are:
- is (dyen') - is
-> the í is smooth (like the "n" in new)
- part (chaste') - part or piece
-> the т is soft and therefore palatalized (like the “t” sound in the pipe)
- orange (apel'sin) - orange
-> л is soft (like the "l" sound in fascination)
These are the basics of the Cyrillic alphabet and how to pronounce each letter, keeping in mind the strong and soft character effect.
Let's look at some important exceptions. Specifically, we're going to talk about when vowels can change due to stress.
4 rules for understanding stress in Russian words
The accent indicates which syllable in a word is stressed. Stress plays an important role in Russian. Determines how the letters in a word are pronounced, as well as their meaning and grammatical value.
Unfortunately, stress is not fixed in Russian🇧🇷 It can fall on any syllable of the word and is not given in writing.
Stress can also change places in the word depending on the word form, which can be challenging for beginners. But don't worry too much about it now.
You need to pay attention to where the stress lies when learning new Russian words. In textbooks and other learning resources, stress is often denoted with an accent.
After all, you have to memorize them. But stay positive because I can guarantee that with practice it will happen on its own before you know it.
Now let's look at how stress determines the pronunciation of stressed and unstressed vowels, based on a simple set of rules.
Russian vowel reduction
Stress or accents affect how you pronounce the vowels in a word. The reduction of vowels occurs when they are not part of the stressed syllable of the word. This means that they are pronounced less clearly than the others and their sound changes.
The stress-dependent difference in pronunciation in Russian is comparable to “short vowels” and “long vowels” in English. For example, the first 'a' in "cascade" sounds different than the second.
Similarly, молоко (milk) in Russian is pronounced "Mahlako" instead of "Moloko". This is because an unstressed "o" in unstressed syllables is pronounced more like an "ah".
Fortunately, there are only four main vowel reduction rules to remember, and as you start pronouncing more Russian words they will come naturally to you.
Rule 1: The letter o
In the syllable before the accent, the letter 'о' sounds like 'а' [a] (or the first 'a' in "amazing").
the -> one
- we write: window, moscow
- we say: [window] (akno), [moscow] (maskva)
- Translation: Window, Moscow
Rule 2: The letters о, а
Anywhere after the accent and more than one syllable before the accent, the letters 'о' and 'a' sound like [ə] (or the 'a' in "orca").
or, a -> [to]
- we write: room, lamp, pencil, teacher, good
- we say: [kosməs] (kosmahs), [lampə] (lampuh), [pencil] (kahrandash), [teacher] (pra-fe-sir), [khahrasho] (khahrasho)
- Translation: cosmos, lamp, pencil, teacher, good
Rule 3: The letters е, я
In the syllable before the stress, the letters е, я are pronounced as и [ee] (like the 'ee' in "cheese").
f, i -> i
- we wrote: sister, dream, five-story building
- dizemos: [s'istra] (see-stra), [m'ichta] (meechta), p'itietazhka (peetee-ehtazhka)
- Translation: sister, dream, five-story building
Rule 4: The letters е, я
Anywhere after the accent and more than one syllable before the accent, е and я are pronounced as 'ə [yuh] (or 'ye' in "ye").
f, i -> 'a
- we write: number, teacher, ten, uncle
- e conte: [nom'er] (nomyer), [uchit'al'] (uchityel), [d'es'et'] (desyet'), [d'ad'a] (dyadyuh)
- Translation: number, teacher, ten, uncle
Russian vowels: another perspective
It may seem like a lot at first glance. It might help to see it from a different perspective.
If you think about it, vowels are sounds you make with just your voice and the shape of your open mouth. (Try saying "yeow!" and you're saying all the vowels in a row while changing the shape of your mouth.)
When a vowel is stressed within a word, it becomes the stressed sound. As you say it, your vocal energy flows into that vowel. And often your mouth moves to create the full sound. Most stressed vowels require you to change the shape of your mouth when you pronounce them.
However, unaccented vowels are diminished versions of their accented counterparts. If the stress is elsewhere, use less distinct, almost "mumbled" versions of these vowels that require less effort to pronounce. Also, you move your mouth less. An "o" can become an "uh" or a "ya" can become a "yuh".
In some languages, this difference occurs naturally. There are rules for this in Russian, because the importance of the accent makes the sounds clearer.
But that's about enoughRussian vowels, for a while. Let's get to the consonants.
Voiced and unvoiced Russian consonants
Like vowels, consonants can sound different depending on where they are in the word. Some are pronounced more clearly, while others are pronounced softly. These are called voiced and unvoiced consonants, respectively.
We use our vocal cords when pronouncing voiced consonants, but not when pronouncing unvoiced consonants. In Russian, consonants can be arranged in pairs like:
- Dublado: B (b), B (v), G (g), D (d), Z (zh), Z (z)
- Hier Auto: P (p), F (f), K (k), T (t), W (sh), S (s)
These pairs can change in the way they are pronounced depending on their position in the word. For example, a 't' can sound like a 'd' (similar to US English as in the word "ditto").
Two things can happen:
1. Deafening when the consonant comes at the end of a word
When a voiced consonant comes at the end of a word, it becomes unvoiced or pronounced like its unvoiced counterpart. (If the last consonant is accompanied by a soft sign, include it anyway.)
- Zum Beispiel wird Garage oder Garage Gara[w] (Garasch) ausgesprochen.
- Similarly, marketing or marketing sounds like marketingin[k] (marketeenk).
- Finally, swan or swan is pronounced as swan [t]b (lye-bet')
2. Voiceless-verbal assimilation
When voiced and unvoiced consonants are adjacent or close together in a word, the nature of the second consonant determines the nature of the first:
with voice + without voice -> without voice + without voice
If a voiced consonant is followed by an unvoiced consonant, both are unvoiced.
- For example, words or subtitles are pronounced like words (soopteetrih).
no voice + voice -> voice + voice
When an unvoiced consonant is followed by a voiced consonant, both become voiced.
- For example, basketball or basketball is pronounced baske[db]ol (basketball).
Now it seems like there are many rules to remember. But the truth is, nobody expects you to get it right the first time.
As you begin to hear and speak more Russian, these rules will come naturally to you.🇧🇷 It will take some time and practice, but before you know it, your Russian will sound great.
It's time to practice Russian pronunciation!
That's it - now you know how all Russian letters sound. And the cases when your pronunciation changes.
Now it's up to you to hear these sounds and practice for yourself! Once you understand the above well, your Russian pronunciation will sound authentic and you will have less accent.
Keep in mind that theoretical explanations of pronunciation often sound more complicated than the pronunciation actually is.
The key to developing a good understanding of Russian pronunciation is to listen to native speakers. Likewise, the best way to learn how to say words is to repeat the way Russians say them.
So it's time to go there and delve into Russian. You couldWatch Russian Movies on Netflix.
Or you can use a fun and effective method like StoryLearning® and immerse yourself.Audiobook versions of short stories in Russian🇧🇷 By reading and listening, and even trying to read aloud, you will naturally develop your Russian pronunciation skills.
Much luck! (Vsevo Kharoshova)