Of all the things that feel most daunting to beginner learners, Russian pronunciation looms the largest. What are those strange, inscrutable letters? Why do only some of them sound how you’d expect them to? How do those consonants exist in that combination and sound so effortless rolling off the tongues of native speakers?
First, there’s the matter of familiarizing yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet, which is made up of a combination of Greek, Latin and Old Slavic symbols. Fortunately, 11 out of its 33 letters already match the English alphabet, so you’re already a third of the way there! But learning which ones do and which ones only look like they do is another matter.
Getting a handle on the individual sounds is tricky enough, but then you’ve got to understand how they fit together.
In Russian pronunciation, there are hard consonants and soft consonants. For instance, the letter л (L) is pronounced like a hard л when it falls at the end of a word or it’s followed by у, а, о, э or ы — as is the case with other consonants. When followed by ю, я, ё, е or и, or the soft sign ь, it’s soft. A hard л is one that requires your tongue to make full contact with your teeth; a soft л is one that doesn’t require any contact at all.
And don’t worry — vowels change too depending on the context. They can be stressed (elongated) and they can be unstressed (shortened).
Are you stressed yet? Don’t be! You just have to tackle it piece by piece. Below, each word has its Cyrillic spelling, as well as the Latin alphabet transliteration.
Teachable Moments In Russian Pronunciation
1. достопримечательность (sightseeing)
Here’s our first example of unstressed vowels. The letter “о” shows up three times here, and each of them are unstressed, or “reduced.” Effectively, they’re pronounced almost like an “a.” Another aspect of Russian pronunciation that frequently trips up language learners? The soft sign, or the ь. What this does is indicate that the consonants immediately preceding them — the л and т, in this word — must be pronounced softly.
2. Здравствуйте (hello)
The formal “hello” is, perhaps ironically, not an easy word to get your tongue around, and it just so happens to be one of the first words that Russian learners have to confront. There are actually so many consonants in this word that even native Russian speakers skip the first в (which makes a “v” sound).
3. усовершенствование (improvement, perfection)
Once again, we’re looking at a complicated assortment of letters and sounds. And once again, we’ve got some unstressed “о”s that are pronounced like “a”s. The trickiest part? Pronouncing the “нств” (“nstv”), which features four consonants in a row. It helps if you break it down into two syllables: “shenst” and “vo.” But when you pronounce it all as a word, they tend to create a tiny verbal obstacle course for your tongue.
4. девятнадцать (nineteen)
Russian numbers ranging from 11 to 19 all feature the -надцать ending. The consonant combination дц (dts) is not an easy one — even Russians tend to blur out the “d” sound so that it effectively sounds like a “ts.” In this case, we’ve also got a couple unstressed vowels. The e and the я are pronounced almost like an “i.”
5. сиреневенький (little lilac)
This is the diminutive form of сиреневый, which refers to a lilac shade of purple. Truthfully, you’re unlikely to hear people use the diminutive version of this word in Russia unless they’re trying to figure out how drunk you are. When even tipsy Russians struggle to pronounce this word, you know it’s a challenge.
Let’s break it down, shall we? Because all the consonants are followed by soft vowels like и and е, they must also be pronounced softly. Furthermore, the unstressed “и”s are pronounced with a reduced sound, and the Russian р (r) is rolled.
6. потому что (because)
This is an important word to master. Not only is it an important word that can link two clauses together, but it can also stand alone. “Why did you do that?” “Because!”
You should be familiar with this concept by now, but once again, we have a series of unstressed “о”s. The curveball: the ч (ch) is pronounced like ш (sh) because of the following voiceless consonant т (t).