Pronunciation / Spelling / Reading rules

The rules of Russian pronunciation are quite clear. You need to keep in mind just one thing: one sound corresponds to one letter, and something like kite and knowledge will almost never happen in Russian.

Letters (we see and read them)Sounds (we hear and pronounce them)
Кот - cat
Мороз - frost
Сказка - fairy tale
Дым - smoke

In Russian, two letters do no designate the sound. They are ь (мягкий знак or soft sign) and ъ (твердый знак or hard sign).

Vowel sounds and letters

[а], [о], [и], [э], [у], [ы] а, о, и, у, е, ё, э, ы, у, ю, я

The vowel sounds - а, о, у, э, ы - are pronounced after hard consonants.

The vowel sounds - я, ё, ю, е, и - are pronounced after soft consonants.

Based on this, you can define whether the preceding consonant is hard or soft (the consonant is also soft after the letter ь). See the examples below:

клон [klon] (a clone) - клён [kl’on] (a maple)

угол [ugol] (corner) - уголь [ugol’] (coal)

The stressed vowels are clearly pronounced. If you don’t know where to put the accent, consult a dictionary or you risk changing the meaning of the word:

e.g. просЫпаться ([pras`ipatsa] - get spilled) and просыпАться ([prasip`atsa] - wake up).

Tip: the word endings -ый and -ий are never stressed.

Some vowels in the Russian language are reduced in an unstressed position:

Vowels (we write them)Reduction (we pronounce them)
Preceding the stress syllable:
е, я - далеко (far away)
запятая (comma)
и - [далик`о]
After the stress & >1 syllable before it:
е, я - учитель (teacher)
прямоугольник (rectangle)
Ə - [уч`ит’Əл’]

Consonant sounds and letters

Sounds (hard and soft)Letters
[б] - [б’]
[п] - [п’]
[в] - [в’]
[ф] - [ф’]
[г] - [г’]
[к] - [к’]
[д] - [д’] etc.
б, в, г, д, ж, з, й, к, л, м, н, п, р, с, т, ф, х, ц, ч, ш, щ

Russian consonants can either be voiced (в, г, з, б, ж, д) or voiceless (к, п, с, т, ф, х, ц, ч, ш, щ), and you never need to aspirate (pronounce with an exhalation of breath) them like in English.

Along with the vowel reduction, Russian has consonant assimilation. For instance, a voiced consonant sound at the end of the word becomes voiceless as in:

луг - [лук] - meadow

The voiceless к follows the voiced ж as in:

кружка - [крушка] - mug

As far as the Russian language has some letters and sounds that simply do not exist in English, here’s a brief chart of the most important spelling rules:

Never write these letters......after these lettersWrite instead
юг, ж, к, х, ц, ч, ш, щу
яг, ж, к, х, ц, ч, ш, ща
ож, ц, ч, ш, ще
ыг, ж, к, х, ч, ш, щи

Some exceptions to remember are: шов (stitch), шорох (rustle), изжога (heartburn), крыжовник (gooseberry), обжора (heavy eater), чокаться (clang glasses), трущоба (slam) and others.

Pronunciation of the Russian -тся, -ться, г and ч

You have probably heard that in most cases the Russian letter г sounds like the English g in “got” (бумага [bum`aga], книга [kn`iga], гол [gol], гора [gar`a]).

In some words, the letter г is pronounced like the English v or Russian в. This happens if the word is an adjective or pronoun in an accusative or genitive singular and related forms, and it ends with -ого, -его:

  1. Read никого - nobody, pronounce [nikav`o];
  2. Read черного - black, pronounce [ch`iornava];
  3. Read сегодня - today, pronounce [siv`odnia]

Depending on the position of the stress in the endings, the vowel о can be pronounced like either [o] or [a].

Here are four most common words where the consonant letter ч is pronounced as [ш] ([sh] like in [shell]) that you must remember:

конечно - [kan`ieshna] - of course
скучный - [sk`ushny] - boring
чтобы - [sht`oby] - in order to
что - [shto] - what

As for the combinations -тся and -ться which are, in fact, the endings of some of the verbs, you should pronounce them like [ца] ([tsa]):

учиться (to study) - он учится (he studies)
улыбаться (to smile) - она улыбается (she smiles)

P.S. Remember to pay attention to rolling your R’s!