russian language

The Russian Alphabet

russian alphabet

Did you know that there are thirty-three wonderful, tricky little letters in the Russian alphabet?

There are letters that are the same in Cyrillic as the Latin alphabet: а, е, and о. There are letters that look the same as their Latin counterparts, but have different meanings in Russian: р (r) and н (n). There are the ones that are pretty much indistinguishable to the non-Russian ear: ш (sh) and щ (sch). There are those that are super tricky for the unfortunate foreigner to pronounce: ю (a soft yu) and ы (an “ee” sound somewhere around the back of your throat). There are even those ones that don’t have their own sound: ь (soft sign) and ъ (hard sign). Don’t even get me started on written Russian, where the favored cursive script totally changes the game.

Despite all of this madness, I really do like the Russian language. Russian is such a far departure from the Latin-based languages that it’s really a challenge to even come close to being passable in it, but that’s half the fun. I guess that makes me a linguistic masochist. I’d feel bad but I know there are lots of others like me. Right? Right?

I’m going to go with yes. In celebration of the torturous Russian alphabet and language masochists everywhere, here’s a little test. Can you decipher any parts of these Russian signs? I’ll even start you off with an easy one:

OK, how about this? Not too hard, right?

Come on, you guys are basically fluent in Russian now:

Even if you puzzle it out, this isn’t an English analogue. Any guesses as to what it means?

Can anyone read these words? RUSSIANS AND RUSSIAN SPEAKERS, SHHH! Instead, share an interesting Russian word that everyone should know. I’ll start: достопримечательность (dostoprimechatelnost): attraction, place of interest. Ugh, Russian… you’re killing me.

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  • Kiki September 14, 2013 at 6:49 am

    This is something that always attracted me to the Russian language!! I loved the alphabet!! And I appreciate and LOVE how Russia mandates that companies and signage be in Cyrillic – no matter the origin of the company. Keeps the language alive. Wish they’d do that here in Serbia.

    I can read the signs though. :)

    1. Subway 2. Kazan Cathedral, Nevski Avenue, Kazan Street 3. Toilets… the rest.. not attempting. Haven’t had coffee yet.


    • Polly September 14, 2013 at 12:44 pm

      Excellent work! I’ve heard that law about the Cyrillic but I swear it’s not always followed, though I do agree that it’s great that most things are in Russian as — duh — it’s Russia and things should stay Russian.

      • Anna September 14, 2013 at 12:48 pm

        Oh this is interesting – I havent heard about this law. I have noticed many pub/restaurant names transliterated into Russian (losing all meaning), but then again, there’s the Bid Diner for example, which is all in English…

        • Kiki September 15, 2013 at 12:04 pm

          Transliterated Russian confuses the crap out of me! Serbian actually has 2 alphabets – ћирилица и латиница. But Russian doesn’t technically.. and the transliterated Russian makes my head go stupid. LOL

      • Kiki September 15, 2013 at 12:02 pm

        I agree! I mean… when I go to a country, I want to see things in their language. It’s part of their culture!!! I truly wish it was like that in Serbia. Ugh…

  • Anna September 14, 2013 at 7:03 am

    >.< I wanna play!

    • ladyofthecakes September 14, 2013 at 7:40 am

      Me too!! But I had two years of Russian in school, so I guess that disqualifies me :(

      • Polly September 14, 2013 at 12:33 pm

        Sorry, you’re just too advanced for this game. I’d have to search pretty hard for a language you don’t know a little bit, I’d think ;)

        • ladyofthecakes September 14, 2013 at 12:38 pm

          French! Welsh! I could go on…

          • Polly September 14, 2013 at 1:02 pm

            Such modesty! ;) Should have just nodded your head and kept a pretense of language omnipotence!

    • Polly September 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm

      Sorry, darling. I think you’ve got a bit of an unfair advantage :)

      • Anna September 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm

        I dunno, I am drinking vodka with honey and lemon (I’ve had The Plague for a week), so even my English will start failing me soon :)

        • Polly September 14, 2013 at 12:54 pm

          Agh! I think everyone in the whole city got sick this week. I’ve had a nasty sore throat/cough. I’m off to soothe it with some mulled wine. Not much of a fan, really, but I guess I’ll deal with it so I don’t have to venture outside.

  • Expat Eye September 14, 2013 at 8:52 am

    I was going to say Kazakhstan and toilets ;)

    • Polly September 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      Well, one of those is correct. I’ll leave you to decide which strikes your fancy.

      • Expat Eye September 14, 2013 at 12:36 pm

        Kiki’s guess sounds more on the money to me!

        • Polly September 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm

          Yup, but I’ll give you props for getting one (and arguably the most important) correct!

  • ryeakye September 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    The [practically impossible to say] name of the street where my school is located: Кржижановская улица

    Name of a metro station I passed through everyday during my commute to school last year: Улица 1905 (said as: Улица тысяча девятьсот пятого года)

    Currently one of my favorite words: перепутать

    Something I miss having around: кошки

    The instrument I play: скрипка

    Some of the things in my bag: ручка, карандаш, ластик, зонт, ключ, телефон, денги, тетрадь

    Something that defines my happiness: приключение

    A word to describe Polly: красивая

    • Polly September 16, 2013 at 2:30 pm

      Haha I see someone is being a good student ;)

  • Rhea September 14, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    Is the Ukrainian just to see if we’re paying attention???
    Word I use every day: подгузник
    Favored name for the baby: слонёнок
    Most-used word overall: сволочь
    Polly: хитрая

    • Rhea September 14, 2013 at 7:51 pm

      or Belorussian?

    • Polly September 15, 2013 at 5:08 am

      Yeah, I’m not sure what that is. Don’t think Ukrainian because there’s no i. The first line works, though, and I couldn’t find one with just “туалет”

      Also, with that baby you definitely need some elephant euphemisms. Damn!

  • ArturN September 14, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    саб вей – написано по русски-английское слово.По закону (не помню уже какого года) вывески если они на английском должны быть дублированы на русском
    К примеру в метро сейчас висит реклама какой то модели телевизора в которой указано что он воспроизводит изображение в 3д формате
    рядом с английским 3D есть значок * по сноске видим
    Поэтому русские что бы не заморачиваться с выполнением этого закона просто пишут английские и другие иностранные слова в названиях (вывесках магазинов кафе и пр) по-русски кириллицей
    Отсюда и получается “саб вей”

  • ArturN September 14, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    предложу свои слова
    “uslovnost” “vivoloch” адъюнктство вредительство бодрствование

  • gkm2011 September 14, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    The only one I could guess was the first – Subway. Others – no dice. I suppose I could post Chinese characters, but I don’t see the fun in that!

    • Polly September 16, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      Unfortunately I don’t think we’d have much of a chance deciphering Chinese characters. I’ll stick to Cyrillic, thanks!

  • Every Day Adventures in Asia September 16, 2013 at 4:47 am

    I’m with Greta but could post devanagri characters (Hindi). The cool thing about the script is what you read is exactly what you say. There may be 4+ Ds, Ts & Rs but you’ll get the right one if you can pronounce it!

    Pssst I know you’ve got oodles of awards already but just wanted to share again how much I enjoy your blog. :-) So ‘tag!’ You’ve got a “SHINE ON” award!

    • Polly September 16, 2013 at 2:33 pm

      Wow, a language that’s phonetically accurate is AWESOME. Teaching English and learning Russian has made me realise it’s a rarity.

      Also, THANK YOU!

      • Every Day Adventures in Asia September 16, 2013 at 6:05 pm

        You’re welcome! :-)

        And yes! Its incredibly logical… and a delight to actually pronounce correctly (more or less) exactly what you read!

  • everywherebuthome September 16, 2013 at 7:09 am

    Am I disqualified? I don’t speak Russian…

    • Polly September 16, 2013 at 2:34 pm

      I think you’re hovering on the line over there in Mongolia… Along with the Ukrainians and a few others.

  • Dmitriy Zembatov September 16, 2013 at 7:49 am


    >> Don’t even get me started on written Russian, where the favored cursive script totally changes the game.


    • Polly September 16, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      ужас! просто ужас!

  • Kate September 16, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Woah… I just can not even begin to understand any of those signs.
    Their alphabet sounds so difficult! I take my hat off to you for learning the language :)

    • Polly September 16, 2013 at 2:35 pm

      It’s amazing what even the slowest of us can pick up after a while ;)

  • Sarah September 16, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    That last sign is in Ukrainian!

    • Polly September 17, 2013 at 3:54 pm

      Good to know! “Toilets” was Russian enough — a bit iffy on the bottom bit!

    • Gloriia September 29, 2013 at 11:09 am

      That last sign is in Belarusian!!!

      • Polly September 29, 2013 at 11:17 am

        Ok, good that someone knows! And now I know that I know how to say toilet in Belorussian.

  • Alexej Dischenko September 17, 2013 at 5:50 am

    Here is another gem. Maybe the only word with the triple “e”: длинношеее :)

    • Polly September 17, 2013 at 3:55 pm

      !!! Wow. Never heard that before, but must try to use it at some point :)

  • Mongolian Language Maze: Consonants We Don’t Have | Everywhere But Home November 30, 2013 at 4:47 am

    […] actually written about the Cyrillic alphabet yet. If you’re unfamiliar with it, check out Polly’s post on the Russian alphabet over at A Girl and Her Travels – that should tide you over until I can write something about […]