if you’re heading to anywhere in the old Soviet sphere of influence, it doesn’t hurt to do a little prepwork beforehand to ease your wayfinding in countries from Bulgaria to Mongolia and beyond. when you’re surrounded by Cyrillic you can’t help but pick some of it up because you’re forced to, but the sooner you get familiar, in my experience, the better.
here’s how i mentally group (and thus, helped myself learn) the core Cyrillic letters. some languages use additional letters and may have different sounds for these, but this list should definitely get you on your way. note that if you see what looks to be cursive or italics, good luck, as many letters completely change their shape.
of course i’m a native (American) English speaker, so if you’re a native speaker of a Cyrillic language and have any additions or corrections, let me know!
the ones that look similar
- А а
- sounds like the “a” in father
- Б б
- sounds like the “b” in bus
- Е е
- sounds like the “e” in ten
- К к
- sounds like the “k” in keg
- М м
- sounds like the “m” in mom
- О о
- sounds like the “o” in go if you stop it short and don’t end it with the “uuu” sound (say “go” and draw out the vowel and you’ll see what i mean — cut the sound off before you start to round your lips)
- С с
- sounds like the “c” in cent (so really, an “s” sound)
- Т т
- sounds like the “t” in toy
- В в
- not a “B” — sounds like the “v” in video (i remember it by thinking of the way someone with a Spanish accent might say “video” — it’s a bit convoluted, but it works for me)
- И и
- not an “n” — sounds like the “i” in hit or machine (depending on the language)
- Й й
- also not an “n” (or “ñ” heh) — sounds like the “y” in boy, sort of a “yuh” sound
- З з
- not an “E” — sounds like the “z” zoo (it sort of looks like a lowercase cursive “z” to me?)
- Н н
- not an “H” — sounds like the “n” in no (think of it as an N with the diagonal line flattened out)
- Р р
- not a “P” — sounds like the “r” in girl if you flap or trill your “r” like someone with a Scottish accent might. this could also go in the next section, since it resembles the Greek letter ρ, or rho, which makes a similar sound.
- У у
- not a “y” — sounds like the “oo” in toot. (some European languages have “y”s that sound like “oo”)
- Х х
- not an “x” — sounds like the “h” in have. (a really breathy h)
- Я я
- not an “R” — sounds like the “ya” in yard or the “ia” in Julia if you say it fast as one sound (jool-ya).
- Ь ь
- not a “b” — either has no sound, changes the sound of the letter before it, or sort of sounds like the “y” in yes, especially before a vowel (honestly, i tend to just ignore this little bugger)
- Ш ш
- not an “M” — sounds like the “sh” in should
- Щ щ — either sounds like a really long “sssshhhh” (in Russian) or, in some languages, “sht” or “sh-cha” (and other sounds in others).
the ones that you may remember from math or physics class
these letters look like their Greek counterparts; you may remember using them in equations. (or if you were into the Greek scene in college, you may recognize them from fraternity or sorority names.)
- Г г
- like the Greek letter gamma — sounds like the “g” in go
- Д д
- like the Greek letter delta — sounds like the “d” in do
- Л л
- like the Greek letter lambda — sounds like the “l” in low or smell
- П п
- like the Greek letter pi — sounds like the “p” in pie
- Ф ф
- like the Greek letter phi — sounds like the “f” in fun
the ones you just need to memorize
these, along with Ш, are the ones i find the hardest since they don’t match up with anything i already know.
- Ж ж
- sounds like the “zh” sound in measure
- Ц ц
- sounds like the “ts” sound in pizza
- Ч ч
- sounds like the “ch” sound in charm
- Ю ю
- sounds like you at the beginning of words or just the “oo” sound in the middle of words
try it out
this is on a sign that leads to a Ukrainian town that has a very famous nuclear reactor nearby. note that the vowel you may be used to is different.
it’s Chornobyl, the Ukrainian pronunciation of what we know better as Chernobyl (Russian pronunciation).
it’s restoran — or restaurant.
and what’s that on the jetway? hint: it’s the name of an airport.
it’s Domodedovo in Moscow.
here’s a map of transit at the Sochi Winter Olympics — i know it’s impossible to ignore the Latin letters as you try and decipher the Russian, but hopefully the more you get comfortable with it, the easier it will be.
here’s an ice cream stand in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia:
care to guess what Киви, ваннил, and шоколад are?
a concert poster in Kiev — the singer is fairly famous in Europe (she’s Belgian) and among many of erm, us gays of a certain age over here in the US.
did you guess…this lady [youtube]?
[update] oh, i forgot to include this, my visa for Russia and pass for the Sochi Winter Olympics. you can read not only виза, but see how they transliterated my name. for the record, the visa is right, it’s definitely more кху.
you may be wondering how the letter combination Дж makes a “j” sound — if you think about it, it’s what a J sounds like, a d + zh.
anyways, all i wanted to show was that by learning an alphabet you can open doors to understanding (and getting around town) in many many places. FUN STUFF!