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The Rules of Reading in Russian

How often have you come across words that are written one way but pronounced another? Thought, Wednesday, receipt… Spell them out. Do you pronounce all the letters? No, you don’t. The same occurs in Russian—people omit letters and pronounce one sound instead of another. However, understanding basic Russian reading rules will help with your Russian reading and pronunciation. To speed up your learning, practice reading and speaking Russian with a teacher.

How to Read Russian Consonants

There are two types of consonants in Russian: voiced and devoiced consonants. Together they form pairs; each voiced consonant has its counterpart, a devoiced consonant. Common consonant pairs include “б” and “п,” “в” and “ф,” and “г” and “к.”

Whether a consonant is voiced or devoiced depends on its placement in the word. Thus, the voiced letter “б” can be pronounced as “п,” as in “сугроб” (sugrop – snowbank).

When to Devoice Russian Consonants

At the ends of words, voiced consonants always lose their “voice” and turn into devoiced consonants.

  • обувь (obuf’– shoes)

  • утюг (utiuk – iron)

  • нож (nosh’ – knife)

  • год (got – year)

Voiced consonants also become devoiced when followed by another devoiced consonant.

  • встреча (fstrecha – meeting)

  • ложка (loshka – spoon)

  • Вашингтон (Vashinkton – Washington)

  • узкий (uskii – narrow)

When to Voice Russian Consonants

Devoiced consonants become voiced when they are followed by voiced consonants.

  • анекдот (anegdot – joke)

  • рюкзак (riugzak – backpack)

  • футбол (futbol – football)

The exception to this rule is that devoiced consonants remain devoiced when they’re followed by the letter “в.”

  • квартира (kvartira – apartment)

  • ответ (otvet – answer)

  • твой (tvoi – your)

The Secrets of Russian Vowels

All Russian vowels undergo the same process – they’re pronounced differently depending on the position of the stress. When the vowel is stressed, it’s pronounced as it would be when reciting the alphabet, but when it’s unstressed, the sound is different. This is called “vowel reduction.”

A and O

In “окно” (akno – window), the first “o” is unstressed and pronounced like “а,” while the second “o” is stressed and pronounced the proper way – “o.” Here’s the rule: always pronounce the unstressed “o” like “a.”

  • молоко (malako – milk)

  • москва (maskva – moscow)

  • холодно (kholadno – cold)

The unstressed “о” is shorter, and the sound is not as clear as it is when the letter is stressed.

E and Я

“Я” and “e” both consist of two sounds, “йа” and “йэ.” That’s the way they sound in a stressed position.

  • мяч (мйач – myach – ball)

  • горячий (горйачий – goryachii – hot)

  • лес (лйэс – les – forest)

  • Елена (Йэлена – Elena – Helen)

The unstressed “я” and “е” are pronounced like “йи.”

  • мячи (мичи – michi – balls)

  • мясной (мисной – misnoi – with meat)

  • летать (литать – litat’ – fly)

  • весна (висна – visna – spring)

However, “я” and “е” are not pronounced as “йи” at the end of words. The sound is just less clear than when they’re stressed.

5 More Useful Russian Reading Rules

1. “Чт” and “чн” are sometimes pronounced as “шт” and “шн.”

  • что (што – shto – what)

  • конечно (канешна– kaneshna – of course)

  • скучно (скушна – skushna – boring)

  • нарочно (нарошна – naroshna – on purpose)

2. “Сч” is pronounced as “щ.”

  • счет (щёт – schyot – bill)

  • счастье (щаст’е – schast’e – happiness)

3. “Ться” and “тся” should be pronounced “ца” in most cases.

  • встретиться (фстретица – fstretitsa – to meet)

  • учиться (учица – uchitsa – to study)

4. Consonants can be omitted. If you feel that it’s hard to pronounce three consonants at once, you can remove one of them.

  • солнце (сонцэ – sontse – sun)

  • сердце (серцэ – sertse – heart)

5. “Г” between two “о’s” or “е” and “о” is often pronounced as “в.”

  • сегодня (сиводня – sivodnya – today)

  • кого (каво – kavo – who)

  • третьего (трет’ева – tret’eva – third)

Improve Your Russian Reading and Pronunciation

While these rules are a good start, language rules always have exceptions. It can be hard to remember everything at once, so take your time and learn step by step. Read as much as you can, and order a Russian lesson to work with a teacher who can correct your pronunciation and explain the peculiarities of Russian while you practice and learn.

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