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Algorithm for reading Russian


In early pictorial writing systems the pronunciation and its graphical representation were not related. In the alphabet system the letters (symbols) represent phonemes (sounds). In the ideal alphabet one letter corresponds to one phoneme and one phoneme is represented by one letter. Russian alphabet is very closed to this ideal. The Russian (as many European) alphabet is derived from Greek, which has only 24 letters. Therefore additional letters were introduced (modified Greek, borrowed from the native Slavic alphabet Glagolitsa and Hebrew).

Preliminary remarks

In Russian there are no combinations of letters, like sh in 'show' or oo in 'book'. Double letters represent two sounds, unlike rr in 'narrow'. The algorithm is based on syllables. A syllable contains exactly one vowel (А, Е, Ё, И, О, У, Ы, Э, Ю, Я) and 0 to 4 consonants.

The soft and hard signs (ь, ъ) are usually in the end of a syllable. This helps to split a word into syllables. The special case is a one-letter prefixes (в-, с-) with the hard sign ъ : въ-, съ- (e.g. въезд - entrance, съезд - exit). Formally they do not qualify for a syllable because they do not contain a vowel, but for the purpose of our algorithm they should be considered as syllables (actually there was a short vowel in the past, which disappeared).


Table similar to the Table Pronunciation below can be found everywhere. The only differences are in the rows 6, 7, 32 and 33. See also the Discussion section below.

Table Pronunciation

  #  Letter  Pronunciation  Remark
 1  А, а  like ar in far or a in German Mann    
 2  Б, б   as b in bit  
 3  В, в   as v in vine  
 4  Г, г  as g in go  
 5  Д, д   as d in do  
 6  Е, е  two variants: as ye in yet or as e in send  see Table Special Pronunciation  
 7  Ё, ё  two variants: as yo in your or like German ö  see Table Special Pronunciation  
 8  Ж, ж  as s in measure  
 9  З, з  as z in zoo  
10  И, и  as ee in meet or greed  
12  Й, й  as y in boy or German j  
12  К, к  as k in kitten  
13  Л, л  as l in lamp  
14  М, м  as m in my  
15  Н, н  as n in not  
16  О, о  as o in pot  
17  П, п  as p in pot  
18  Р, р  like an English r but rolled, closer to Spanish r   any r is OK (from German to Spanish)
19  С, с  as s in see  
20  Т, т  as t in tip  
21  У, у  as oo in boot  
22  Ф, ф  as f in face  
23  Х, х  like ch in Scottish loch  h as in home is also OK
24  Ц, ц  like ts in nuts  
25  Ч, ч   as ch in church  
26  Ш, ш  as sh in shop  
27  Щ, щ  like sh_ch in fresh_cheese or soft (palatalized) sh  
28  Ъ, ъ  The "hard sign": no sound, marks the and of a syllable  
29  Ы, ы  like i in ill or gri  
30  Ь, ь  The "soft sign": no sound, the preceding consonant palatalized    see the example below
31  Э, э  as e in there  
32  Ю, ю  two variants: as u in use or like German ü  see Table Special Pronunciation  
33  Я, я  two variants: as ya in yard or like open а  see Table Special Pronunciation  

Soft sign example: Russian нь sounds as Spanish ñ. Ignoring the soft sign does not change the meaning of words, just adds some (English) accent.

The Algorithm

The algorithm for reading Russian words is pretty simple:

  1. Split a word into syllables and process each syllable (from left to the right)
  2. Does the current syllable contain Е, Ё, Ю, Я?
    • 2.1. If not, then combine sounds corresponding to each letter (one letter - one sound!)
    • 2.2. Otherwise: Is the letter from the list (Е, Ё, Ю, Я) the first letter in the syllable?
      • 2.2.1. If yes, then use the first variant of pronunciation (see the table Special Pronunciation). Only in this case е = ye, ё = yo, ю = yu, я = ya !
      • 2.2.2. If not, then use the second variant of pronunciation (see the table Special Pronunciation). No y !

Table Special Pronunciation

  #  Letter 


    Beginning of a syllable Middle, end of a syllable
 6  Е, е  as ye in yet  as e in send
 7  Ё, ё  as yo in your  like German ö
32  Ю, ю  as u in use  like German ü
33  Я, я  as ya in yard  like open а

In the second variant of pronunciation the sound y (German j) almost disappeared. In particular, the Russian word нет (no) sounds exactly like the English word net (and not like nyet).


Example 1

0. The word: Длинношеее (long-necked)
1. Split it into syllables: длин-но-ше-е-е
2.1. длин - dleen
2.1. но - noh
2.2.1. ше - sheh
2.2.2. е - ye
2.2.2. е - ye

Example 2

0. The word: Бояться (fear)
1. Split it into syllables: бо-ять-ся
2.1. бо - boh
2.2.2. ять - yat
2.2.1. ся - sah


Russian is forgiving

Do not worry much about the exact pronunciation. Russian words are usually long and if some syllables are mispronounced, this does not change the meaning of a word. Short words with close pronunciation are rare. The soft sign, ь, can be ignored for the first time: this also does not change the meaning except for few rare cases. Similarly the letters ё (#7) and ю (#32) in the second variant of pronunciation can be substituted with о (#16) and у (#21).

Stress is important

I think that the stress to a correct syllable is more important. Unfortunately there is no algorithm for this and one have to check with a dictionary. Namely the stressed syllable should be pronounced more correctly. In some local dialects the correct vowels in non-stressed syllables are replaced with some other sounds. For example, молоко (milk) sounds малако in Moscow (stressed in bold). The name Шарапова (Sharapova) is pronounced Шарапова in US, which sounds weird.

Terminal devoicing

Unlike English and similar to e.g. German, in the end of words the voiced consonants become voiceless. For example, {хлeб (bread), труд (labor), гараж (garage), мороз (frost)} can sound like {хлeп, трут, гараш, морос}. The good news is that devoicing can be also ignored.


I found this post quite helpful How do the russian letters ь and ъ change the sound of words?


© Nikolai Shokhirev, 2012-2017

email: nikolai(dot)shokhirev(at)gmail(dot)com