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Russian Vowels - Do We Really Know Them?

Do you want to speak Russian correctly and easily? Then free yourself from prejudices!

Each letter in Russian should be learnt by heart and spelled exactly as it is needs to be pronounced. For example, both French and German have a letter 'r', but it denotes two different sounds!

So you have to literally forget what 'x' letter sounds in your own language and use it instead in the context of the language you are learning now. In other words you have to "unlearn to relearn".

To understand and speak Russian, you have to have a strong knowledge about each letter of the alphabet and its sound. You will see that some of the sounds even don't exist in English! So you have to generate these sounds on your own with your vocal cords and add them to your overall "vocal library". Yes, this is imperative to do, otherwise, you will have an accent or will always mispronounce words.

So let's start our journey to the deep jungles of phonetics of Russian language!


Russian has 33 letters, but 42 sounds. To compare, English has 27 letters and 44 sounds. Both languages have discrepancy in number of their letters with the number of actual sounds. Now, this information is vital for us, as we dive more and more into the true meaning of speaking a new language. In English t in time (soft T) is not the same as t in trump (hard T). If you say time with the same t as in trump it would just sound awful or rather funny, wouldn't it?

A letter can represent more than one sound. Below is the list of letters, as well as how many sounds each one of them represents.

A total of 33 letters:

• 10 vowels: а, у, о, ы, и, э, я, ю, ё, е;
• 21 consonant letters: б, в, г, д, ж, з, й, к, л, м, н, п, р, с, т, ф, х, ц, ч, ш, щ;
• signs ь and ъ are signs that do not indicate individual sounds, but make previous consonant sound softer.

Sounds - 42:

• 6 vowel sounds: [а], [о], [у], [и], [ы], [э];
• 36 consonant sounds: [б], [б '], [в], [в'], [г], [г '], [д], [д'], [ж], [з], [ з '], [й'], [к], [к '], [л], [л'], [м], [м '], [н], [н'], [п], [ п '], [р], [р'], [с], [с '], [т], [т'], [ф], [ф '], [х], [х'], [ ц], [ч '], [ш], [щ']

In addition, some letters can be pronounced as totally another letter! Just like cat and city have different 'c' sounds in Enlgish, in Russian we shall expect the same.

But don't worry, there are guidelines and rules that will help you to master Russian pronunciation in no time.

1. а - [а]

Sounds like the u in the word under

Аспект - [аспект] – Aspect
Артист - [арт'ист] - Artist/Actor
Анаконда - [aнаконда] - Anaconda
Айсберг -[айсб'ерк] - Iceberg

2. о - [о], [а]

Sounds like the o in the word order
In Russian, the letter o is not that easy as it might look at the first sight. Sometimes it can be pronounced as [а]. (Surprise!) So the most important question to ask here is when it is pronounced like that? If the syllable of the word is not emphasized, o is read as [а]. The word окно (window) is pronounced as [акно]. Because the first syllable is not emphasized, о becomes [а], and because the second syllable is emphasized, it stays as it is.

Открытка - [аткрытка]- Postcard
Отстой - [атстой] - Lame
От - [ат] - From
Осторожно! - [астарожна] - Caution!

3. у - [у]

Sounds like double o the word root.
This letter is the simplest, it has one unchangeable sound.

Утка - [утка] - A duck
Утро - [утро] - Morning
Успех - [усп'ех] - Success
Уход - [ухот] - Care

4. э - [э], [и]

Sounds like English letter a. This letter will appear only as the first letter of the word. You will never see it in middle of the word. Easy!

это - [это] - This, This is
эти - [эт'и] - These
электро - [илектро] - Electro
эстетика -[истет'ика]- Aestetics

dog head

5. ы - [ы]

This letter doesn't have its equivalent in English, but its sound that you produce when stratching your teeth like a growling dog. Opposite to the letter э, it never appears in the beginning of the word, but appears in the middle or end. Hint: It added to the end of the words to denote plural, the same as s would denote in English.

Мы - [мы] - We
Ты - [ты] - You
Вы - [вы] - You (Plural, respectful)
Машины - [машыны] - Cars

russian vowels

6. и - [и], [ы]

In Russian this letter will always sound like i in India. But again, it comes with a suprise, it can be pronounced as [ы] sometimes.
When it comes after letters such as ш, and ц it sounds like [ы].

Машина - [машына] - A car
Шина - [шына] - A tyre
Цикл - [цыкл] - A cycle
Пироги - [пираги] - Pies

Next, there are so called "derivative vowels", also known as soft vowels.
They derived by combining the abovementioned vowels.

7. я - [й'а] - combination of y and ah like first two letter in Yamaha

Якобы - [й'акабы] -Supposedly
Ядерное вооружение - [йадирнойе вааружение] -Nuclear Weaponry
Я - [й'а] - I
Меня - [мин'йа] - Me

8. ё - [й'о] - combination of y and o, like in York

Ёлка - [й'олка] – A Christmas Tree
Ещё - [ишй'о] – Also
Берёшь -[бир'й'ош'] – You are taking
Врёшь - [вр'й'ош'] – You are lying

9. ю - [й'у] - combination of y and u, like in University

Юрист - [й'ур'ист] - An attorney
Юг - [й'ук] - South
Бюст - [бй'уст] - A bust
Любовь - [л'й'убов'] – Love

russian letter

10. е - [й'э], [и], [э] - combination of y and a like in Yes

This is probably the trickiest vowel in Russian. It has different sounds if it is located at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the word.
If it is at the beginning and sometimes at the end of the word, it sounds the same as ye in the word yell[й'э]
If it is in the middle or end of the word it sounds like e in the word bed [э]
If it is not stressed, it will sound like i in India [и]

Eсли - [й'эсл'и] - If
Введение - [вв'ид'эний'э] - Introduction
Перемена - [пирим'эна] - Change
По мере - [па м'э'р'э] - As

So this is it! We almost covered every aspect of Russian vowels. The only thing left is how to define whether a vowel is stressed or not. As an exercise just like I did above you can phonetically interpret the following words:

Метод - [?] - A method
Яхта - [?] - A yacht
Звонок - [?] - A call
Место - [?] - A place

Let me know in the comments if you could do it or not. Or you can use this resource to learn the correct answer for each word.

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