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Why Reading Russian is Better Than Relying on English Transcriptions Posted by on Nov 21, 2019 in Russian for beginners

For speakers of languages that use Latin letters, the Cyrillic alphabet is often the first obstacle for learning Russian. There are some crutches beginners can, such as relying on recordings or Latin transliterations, but these workarounds have some significant drawbacks. I’d like to share why actually learning to read Russian will help you in the long run, even if you never reach fluency in Russian.

flower shop

Photo by Timur M on Unsplash

Cyrillic letter reflect Russian pronunciation better than Latin letters

While Latin characters may be more familiar in the short term, they do not always give you an accurate idea of what a word sounds like. To give you an example, several years ago, I accompanied a group of American students on their visit to Russia. One of the stops on their itinerary was the village of Gorki (Го́рки), which was once home to Maxim Gorky (Го́рький). Looking at the English transliteration, you might think the writer’s name is pronounced the same as the town, but that’s not the case in Russian.

  • Горки, “little hills or slides,” the name of the town — [ˈɡorkʲɪ] (listen here)
  • Горький, “bitter,” the writer’s pen name — [ˈɡorʲkʲɪj] (listen here)

“But I can barely hear the difference, anyway!” you might say. That’s OK—as a learner, you may not always pick up on it. But the non-identical spellings in Russian can at least hint at this difference in pronunciation.

To complicate things further, sometimes there is more than one way of transliterating Russian words. For example, the last name Евсе́ев may be written as Yevseev, Yevseyev, Evseev, etc. If you spell Пермь (a Russian city) as Perm, you might also be tempted to pronounce it like the 80s hairstyle. Hint: it actually sounds like this. Cyrillic letters will give you a better idea of how to sound out the Russian word, even though they may not help with with word stress.

building

Photo by Sasha Volga on Unsplash

Transliteration in Latin letters is not always available

If you are planning to actually travel to a place where Russian is spoken, you might find that not every sign or menu is available in Latin letters. Even if you’re not fluent in Russian, being able to read the name of the street or restaurant gives you a huge advantage.

Forget travel, how about listening to your favorite Russophone band in your favo(u)rite streaming service only to discover you cannot read or look up the name of one of their tracks because it’s written in Russian letters!

metal sign

Photo by Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash

Reading other languages that use the Cyrillic script will be easier

There are, of course, considerable differences between Russian and other Slavic languages. Relying on your knowledge of Russian to decipher Belarusian or Ukrainian will often fail you. That being said, learning the Cyrillic alphabet (кири́ллица) used for Russian is a good starting point for taking a stab at other languages that use a version of that alphabet, for example, Bulgarian, Serbian, or Macedonian among the Slavic languages, and Mongolian, Tatar, Kyrgyz, or Tajik among other language groups.

Even though you may not know these languages, being able to read signs and recognize international words may make a difference if you visit a place that uses the Cyrillic script.

Have I convinced you to learn to read Russian yet? Transparent Language alphabet courses may be a good place to start. In addition, check out this post about Russian letters.

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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 on her translation site and on Twitter at @intorussian.


Comments:

  1. Elise:

    Great article on why we need to learn and use the Cyrillic alphabet and learn Russian pronunciation. One thing : none of the links worked and so I was not able to actually hear the word and thus the points this author was trying to make. Can you fix those links please?

  2. Mark S:

    Actually I use Russian/Cyrillic as a shortcut for pronouncing foreign last names too, and occasional English words borrowed from other languages — this as a native speaker of English!

    I’ll look it up on Wikipedia and flip over to Russian — the Cyrillic transliterations are phonetic, whereas in the original Latin alphabet it depends on the source language. Two random examples: “Goethe”, “Noblesse oblige”. I can sorta work out the IPA phonetics, but the Cyrillic is quicker and in any case lets me “check my work”…

    • Maria:

      @Mark S I do that, too! For instance, with Swedish names I’m not sure how to sound out from the spelling. Although I’m sure sometimes it’s just an approximation.


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