Learn to Read Cyrillic with Prof. Jules Levin

Jules Levin was born in Chicago, IL, a 3rd generation Chicagoan.He is currently Professor Emeritus in the Indo-European Program at UCLA. He spent most of his working career teaching Russian and Linguistics at the Riverside campus of the University of California.  He is also the co-author of Reading Modern Russian,where many of his ideas on how to teach the alphabet were first presented.

Levin’s On-Line Guide to the Russian Alphabet

Purpose: The purpose is to help people learn the Cyrillic Alphabet/Russian Version as painlessly as possible. I was motivated to present my system1 for those who are trying to decipher official documents, many handwritten, without knowing the Russian language. Most people doing their genealogies are interested in the names, dates, and places mentioned in the documents. Much of this information can be gleaned without knowing the Russian language, provided one can decipher the handwriting. Eventually this Guide will develop into a handwriting decipherment guide. It is also experimental, since I have no idea whether or not it really is practical to learn this skill without too much effort. For this reason feedback is welcome. Email me at:  ameliede@earthlink.com

Note: If you can't read the Cyrillic characters below, then download or open the  PDF version of the document HERE

Section I. The letters of the alphabet are presented here out of alphabetical order. (The correct order is given at the end of this section.) The order is designed for ease of learning, going from more familiar to less in a logical pattern. After each letter I give the Russian name of the letter, followed by its approximate sound value. The word examples are either familiar proper nouns, or words borrowed from well-known international vocabulary. For example, the first practice word given is а́том, which is the Russian word for the English word atom. Comments in blue provide additional explanations or background info, not necessary for the main task.

1. These letters are pronounced like similar English words: А Е О К М С Т

А а ‘ah’: a as in papa

К к ‘kah’: k as in kick

О о ‘awe’: pronounced like the vowels in ‘coffee talk’—as spoken in New York or Chicago, not Los Angeles! (The British RP pronunciation of awe is a good approximation.

С с ‘ess’: always pronounced like the c in city or nice.

Е е ‘yeh’ as in yet. pronounced with an ‘eh’ only under stress. Otherwise tends towards ‘ee’ as in beet. [Phonetic note: after a consonant the ‘y’ palatalizes or softens the consonant, and is absorbed by it. The consonants affected sound like, e.g., the Spanish ñ or the British t in tune, d in dune, except in Russian there are 12 palatalized consonants, and they can occur anywhere in the word.]

М м ‘emm’: m as in mama

Т т ‘teh’: t as in tote

Try reading these Russian words. The capitalized words are Place Names: Омск, Томск, а́том, ма́ма, такт, коме́та, акт, текст, ма́сса, сексте́т, кот, маска

[A note about practice words: in all cases the words are built from the letters already given. Proper names are given first. The accent mark shows the stressed syllable and is almost never used in normal Russian writing.]

2. Тhese letters look like English letters but have different sounds: Р Н В У Х

Р р ‘ehr': A trilled r as in Italian or Spanish. Арара́т, мото́р, теа́тр, орке́стр, секре́т, термо́метр

Н н ‘enn’: n as in nanny моме́нт, тон, танк, конта́кт, норма, сена́тор

В в ‘veh’: v as in velvet Варвара, Вера, Ева, Москва́, ветера́н, самова́р, ве́ктор

У у ‘oo’: oo as in toot Сатурн, курс, структу́ра, ва́куум, су́мма

Х х ‘kha’: ch as in Chanukah ха́ос, хара́ктер, хромосо́ма, схе́ма

3. Letters that still resemble their Greek letter original models.

Г г ‘geh’: g as in go-getter агре́ссор, грамм, конгресс, орган, грек

Д д ‘deh’: d as in dodo Новгород, Одесса, драма, а́дрес, секу́нда, до́ктор, ме́тод

Л л ‘ell’: Hard and soft Л [see above under E] are strikingly different. The hard л is like the l in call; the soft л is like the l in leek. Олег, Александр, солдат, класс, моле́кула, тала́нт, туале́т, слова́к

П п ‘peh’: p as in papoose папа, группа, о́пера, тра́нспорт, пакт, спортсме́н

Ф ф ‘eff’: f as in fanfare факт, ко́фе, атмосфе́ра, рефо́рма, пара́граф, платфо́рма

4. Letters borrowed from the Hebrew alphabet. Ш Ц

Ш ш ‘shah’: sh as in shush [Cf. Heb ש ] Наташа, гало́ша, шокола́д, шахмат, душ

Ц ц ‘tseh’: ts as in bits, tsetse [Cf. Heb צ] концерт, процент, центр

5. Letters unique to Russian. Ч Щ Б Ж З И Й Э Ю Я Ы Ё Ь Ъ

Ч ч ‘cheh’: ch as in church, chachke Чехов, матч,

Щ щ ‘shcha’: shch as in fresh cheese, Khrushchev Хрущёв

Б б ‘beh’: b as in booboo, Babel борщ, бале́т, а́лгебра, пробле́ма, банк, баскетбо́л

Ж ж ‘zheh’: zh as in leisure, pleasure, Jacques журнал, Жуков, жест

З з ‘zeh’: z as in zigzag зоопа́рк, зона

И и ‘ee’: ee as in teepee, Mimi Минск, Пинск, Америка, Иван, Борис, литература, идеа́л, гимнастика, радио, социализм, капитализм, журналист, партизан, зиппо, магазин, спутник, чемпион

Й й ‘ee krahtkoye’: y as in buy, buoy, toy [The name meansshort ee’.] Байкал, Толстой, Достоевский, Чайковский, русский, комба́йн, волейбо́л, лейтена́нт

Э э ‘eh oborotnoye’: e as in Esther, empty [The name means ‘backwards eh’.] аэродром, эрос, эпоха, эффект

Ю ю ‘yoo’: yoo as in you, use, few [See Phonetic note above.] Юпитер, меню́, ю́мор, бюро́, плюс

Я я ‘yah’: yah as in Yankel, yacht [See Phonetic note above.] Ялта, Maрия, яхт, армия, поляк

Ы ы ‘ih’: i as in ilk, kill Румыния, Громыко, цыга́н, му́зыка

Ё ё ‘yaw’: yaw as in yawn [The two dots are hardly ever used in writing, so for reading purposes this letter is indistinguishable from E. Naturally native speakers know when it is pronounced yaw and when yeh.] Кишинёв, актёр, шофёр [Normally written Кишинев, актер, шофер]

Ь ь ‘myakhkiy znak’ The name means ‘soft sign’ and at the end of words shows that the preceding consonant is soft (palatalized). It is also used to show a soft consonant followed by another consonant or by an unabsorbed y in E, Я, Ю, И.

апрель, царь, медаль, полька, польский, календарь, большеви́к, пьедестал, Нью-Йорк

Ъ ъ ‘tvyordyy znak’ The name means ‘hard sign’, and before it was dropped in the spelling reform of 1917 it was added after any final consonant that did not merit a soft sign, i.e., it was ubiquitous. Now it survives only to separate a prefix from a root when the prefix ends in a consonant and the root begins with E, Я, Ю. субъект, адъютант

6. The alphabet in its dictionary order:

А Б В Г Д Е* Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф X Ц Ч Ш Щ Ъ Ы Ь Э Ю Я

*ё is interalphabetized with e.

Section II. Italics

Here are the groups of letters given above аs they appear in italics. This can serve as an introduction to handwriting, since when the italic differs greatly from the standard form, the former is the basis of the script shape.

  1. А Е О К М С Т а е о к м с т

  2. Р Н В У Х р н в у х

  3. Г Д Л П Ф г д л п ф

  4. Ш Ц ш ц

  5. Ч Щ Б Ж З И Й Э Ю Я Ы Ё Ь Ъ ч щ б ж з и й э ю я ы ё ь ъ

Note carefully the difference between small м and т, д and б, л and п, и and ц

Here are practice words already given, but in italics: медаль, полька, польский, календарь, большеви́к, актёр, шофёр,
Достоевский, су́мма, ха́ос, хара́ктер, хромосо́ма, Иван, Борис, литература, идеа́л, гимнастика, радио, социализм, капитализм, журналист, партизан, мото́р, теа́тр, орке́стр, секре́т, термо́метр, борщ, бале́т, а́лгебра, пробле́ма, Чайковский, русский, комба́йн, волейбо́л, лейтена́нт, Москва́, ветера́н, самова́р, ве́ктор, Сатурн, курс, структу́ра, ва́куум, банк.

Section III. Practice. Read the following names of the guberniyas of Congress Poland. I switched to Times-Roman font, since it is closer to what you can expect to see in official printed documents. Note: The word guberniya is Fem. in Russian, so the Adjective forms of the names, e.g., Варшавская = Warsaw as an Adj, agree with the noun, using the ending –ая.

Губернии Царства Польского

Варшавская губерния

Калишская губерния

Келецкая губерния

Ломжинская губерния

Люблинская губерния

Петроковская губерния

Плоцкая губерния

Радомская губерния

Седлецкая губерния

Сувалкская губерния

1 An earlier version of my system was published in Levin/Haikalis/Forostenko, Reading Modern Russian.