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

    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

      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

        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

          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

        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

    >.< I wanna play!

    • ladyofthecakes

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

      • Polly

        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

          French! Welsh! I could go on…

          • Polly

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

    • Polly

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

      • Anna

        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

          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

    I was going to say Kazakhstan and toilets 😉

    • Polly

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

      • Expat Eye

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

        • Polly

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

  • ryeakye

    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

      Haha I see someone is being a good student 😉

  • Rhea

    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

      or Belorussian?

    • Polly

      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

    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

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

  • gkm2011

    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

      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

    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

      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

        You’re welcome! :-)

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

  • everywherebuthome

    Am I disqualified? I don’t speak Russian…

    • Polly

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

  • Dmitriy Zembatov


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


    • Polly

      ужас! просто ужас!

  • Kate

    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

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

  • Sarah

    That last sign is in Ukrainian!

    • Polly

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

    • Gloriia

      That last sign is in Belarusian!!!

      • Polly

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

  • Alexej Dischenko

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

    • Polly

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

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