Russian Language Blog

Conquer the Backwards R — Learn to Read Russian (Part II) Posted by on Nov 28, 2016 in language

Last time, we looked at some letters of the Russian alphabet that either look and sound or just sound like their Latin counterparts. This time, we will look at letters that have similar sounds to other languages and, finally, some unique letters.

Letters That Sound But Don’t Look Like Latin Letters

A lot of these letters are closer to their Greek counterparts in form.

  • ›Бб – “b”; брат (brother), авто́бус (bus)
  • ›Гг – “g”; гита́ра (guitar), бумера́нг
  • ›Дд – “d”; до́ктор (doctor), демокра́т (democrat)
  • ›Зз – “z”; ви́за (visa), ро́за (rose)
  • ›Лл – “l”; интелле́кт (intellect), киломе́тр (kilometer)
  • ›Пп – “p”; па́спорт (passport), депо́ (depot)
  • ›Фф – “f”; телефо́н (phone), фото́граф (photographer)
  • ›Ээ – “eh” (a brief an incomplete explanation of the difference between э and е is that initial э is read “eh” and initial е is read “yeh”); эконо́мика (economics/economy), экза́мен (exam)

Unique Letters

  • ›Ëё — “yaw”; historically, a combination of и and о; read a “yaw” after vowels and at the beginning of the word; read as an о after consonants, in which case the consonant becomes “soft“; always stressed; ёж (hedgehog), актёр (actor)
  • ›Юю — “yoo”; и + у; read as “yoo” after vowels/initially; as “oo” after consonants, the latter becoming “soft”; бюро́ (bureau); ю́мор (humor)
  • ›Яя — “yah”; и + а; “yah” after vowels/initially; as “ah” after consonants, the latter becoming “soft”; я (I), Англия (England)
  • ››Йй — “y” sound in “yesterday”; йо́га (yoga), Нью-Йорк (New York)
  • ›Ь — “soft sign”; has no sound of its own, makes the preceding consonant “soft”
  • Ъ — “hard sign; has no sound of its own; separates word prefixes from roots
  • ›Жж — “zh”, the “s” in “treasure”; журна́л (magazine), экипа́ж (crew)
  • ›Шш — harsher-sounding “sh”; клише́ (cliche), шарм (charm)
  • Щщ — closer to the English “sh”; historically с + ч; борщ (borsch); и́щет (is looking for)
  • ›Цц — “ts”; центр (center), царь (czar)
  • ›Чч — “ch”; ›чек (receipt), матч (sports match)
  • ›ы — halfway between “ee” and “oo” (which was never useful to me in understanding it); listen here; ты (you), музыка (music)

Now, for beginners just learning to read, try reading some words on Russian websites — Yandex or RBC are a good place to start. Do you recognize any of them?

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About the Author: Maria

Maria is a Russian-born translator from Western New York. She is excited to share her fascination with all things Russian on this blog. Maria's professional updates are available in English on her website and Twitter and in Russian on Telegram.


  1. Moonyeen Albrecht:

    First of all, I LOVE your blogs. Thank you for writing about the language, grammar and common usage. Very helpful. As a native American I want to assure my fellow Americans who do not yet read in Russian that the alphabet is NOT really a problem. It is quite easy to get used to. In fact, after studying Russian for some years I found it hard to handwrite in English. For a while when writing English words starting with “pro” I would handwrite the Russian “про.” Don’t let this wonderful alphabet intimidate you. It’s really fun!

    I hope you won’t mind if I add another way to categorize the letters. This is according to “The Russia House Way.” Your readers may find this interesting, too.

    The 5 English letters: K M T A O (Look and sound more or less like English letters)

    The 7 “false friends”: B H P C X E Y (Look like English but have different sound. e and ё are considered the same as far as placement in the Russian dictionary although the ё is not shown in this list. That’s another story.

    The 9 derived from Greek Orthodox: Б Г Д З Л П Ф И Й

    The 5 believed to be derived from Hebrew: Ж Ч Ш Щ Ц

    The 6 “Russian Stragglers”: Э Ю Я Ы Ь Ъ

    I LOVE this alphabet!

    • Maria:

      @Moonyeen Albrecht Thank you, Moonyeen. I appreciate you adding this categorization — anything that helps learners make sense of Russian letters is great. I agree that the alphabet is by far not the hardest part of Russian!