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Curiosities of the Russian Alphabet: Letters Ь, Ъ, Ы, Щ, and Ц

The Russian alphabet uses letters from the Cyrillic script, and native English speakers usually find it difficult to master reading Russian. However, although the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are different, some letters are written the same way. For example, the English letters “a” and “o” are also “а” and “o” in Russian.

While these letters are easy to learn, the Russian alphabet contains letters and signs that don’t appear in the English alphabet. Today we’ll talk about letters English speakers find difficult to master. To learn how to read Russian like a native, learn Russian online with a teacher.

Letters Ь and Ъ

These letters are very easy to learn and remember. They are neither consonants nor vowels. Instead, they are signs that show whether the preceding letter has a harder or softer sound, and they do not have sounds of their own.

The “ь” sign, which is called “мягкий знак” (myagkii znak) in Russian, makes the preceding consonant softer, as in

  • пальто (pal’to) – coat

  • обогреватель (obogrevatel’) – heater

While the sign is clearly present in the words, it is absent in transcriptions. In fact, the pronunciation of some words differs only because of this particular sign. Compare the examples below:

  • угол – уголь (ugol – ugol’)

  • corner – coal

  • брат – брать (brat – brat’)

  • brother – to take

The “ъ” is called “твёрдый знак” (tvyordyi znak), and it makes the preceding consonant sound harder.

  • подъезд (pod-ezd) – porch

  • объявление (ob-yavlenie) – notice

Letters Щ and Ц

These letters are particularly difficult to learn, as they don’t have English counterparts. The letter “ц” is a consonant with a ts sound. It’s very close to the zz sound in “pizza,” just shorter. Use these examples to practice:

  • курица (kuritsa) – chicken

  • больница (bol’nitsa) – hospital

  • улица (ulitsa) – street

The letter “щ” is also a consonant, and it produces a sch sound. The sound is close to the one you make when you pronounce the word “shrimp.”

  • борщ (borsch) – borsch

  • щука (schuka) – pike

The Letter Ы

The Russian letter “ы” is probably the most difficult letter to pronounce. People say it sounds like the sound someone makes when being winded. This vowel sound should be pronounced like something between “i” and “u.” For the right pronunciation, try to say “u” with your lips open as if you’re saying “i.”

  • мартышка (martyshka) – monkey

  • мышь (mysh’) – mouse

  • мыло (mylo) – soap

The more you practice reading Russian words, phrases, and sentences, the better your pronunciation becomes. To learn how to speak like a Russian native, book a lesson on Russian pronunciation with a native speaker.

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