The 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 one? Anything readable to you?
And how about this? (Just the first line — the rest is not Russian and a bit tricky!)

I’ll offer up some small prize (a postcard? Russian candy bar? my undying love?) to anyone who can decipher these signs first. RUSSIANS AND RUSSIAN SPEAKERS, SHHH! Instead, share an interesting Russian word that everyone should know. I’ll start: достопримечательность (dostoprimechatelnost): attraction, place of interest.

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42 Responses

  1. Kiki says:

    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 says:

      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 says:

        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 says:

          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 says:

        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…

  2. Anna says:

    >.< I wanna play!

  3. Expat Eye says:

    I was going to say Kazakhstan and toilets ;)

  4. ryeakye says:

    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

  5. Rhea says:

    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

  6. ArturN says:

    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”

  7. ArturN says:

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

  8. gkm2011 says:

    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!

  9. 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!

  10. Am I disqualified? I don’t speak Russian…

  11. Thanks!

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


  12. Kate says:

    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 :)

  13. Sarah says:

    That last sign is in Ukrainian!

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

  1. November 30, 2013

    […] 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 […]