What should you know about learning Russian if you are considering doing a Russian course? How difficult or easy is it to master the Russian Cyrillic alphabet? And why it is much easier to read and write in Russian than in English or French.

Russian alphabet and spelling

This is another article in my series of blogs about the Russian language. This time, let’s talk about the Russian alphabet and spelling.

Don't be daunted by the Cyrillic alphabet

Most English speakers who have never learned Russian before are daunted by the prospect of having to learn the Russian Cyrillic alphabet. I can see why: it looks exotic and completely different, so just the look of it can put you off! But is it difficult to learn for someone doing a beginner Russian course? The answer is a definite No! Let me assure you that of all things that you will have to learn in your Russian course the alphabet will be one of the easiest and the most fun things to learn.

Facts and figures about the Russian alphabet

• The modern Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters. Two of them are silent and serve to modify the sound of the letter before (the soft sign) or after (the hard sign).

• It is called Cyrillic because it was invented (or, rather, compiled from other existing alphabets) and popularized, by St Cyril, and to a lesser degree, by his brother St Methodius. Cyril and Methodius were highly educated Greek monks from Thessaloniki who became Christian missionaries in Eastern Europe in the 9th century AD. The initial purpose of the new alphabet was to translate the Biblical texts into Slavic languages.

• The Cyrillic alphabet is a mixture of several alphabets: some letters are the same as in Greek, some are the same as in Latin, there are even a couple taken from Hebrew, plus a few “original” ones, that might have been “recycled” from an older alphabet. So if you are familiar with the Greek alphabet (even with the symbols from your school lessons of physics!), it means you know half of the Russian alphabet already!

• There are 10 letters representing vowel sounds. The rest of the letters are consonants, and two letters are silent.

The handwritten version of the alphabet

The handwritten version of the alphabet looks different from the printed one at first sight, but if you take a closer look you will see that most letters are exactly the same as the printed ones, they are just “curvier”, so that you can join them up in handwriting. However, about 6 of them do look different.

The question that my students often ask is – do I have to learn the joined up writing? Strictly speaking, no. At this day and age, we type more than we write by hand. And when we do, we often do not stick to the classical version of handwriting, mixing the styles. So printed letters will do, everyone will be able to read them perfectly well. However, this kind of writing will not look very sophisticated!

Russian spelling

Russian spelling is based on the phonetic principle (one letter represents one sound), which makes it reasonably easy. It is in fact a compromise between a phonetic approach and the rules of word-formation and grammar. It has, of course, a number of exceptions and arguable points (it wouldn’t be a living language if it didn’t!)

Reforms of the Russian alphabet

There have been several reforms of Russian spelling and the alphabet. The current spelling is the result of the major reform of 1918, which was carried out by the Bolsheviks after the October revolution of 1917, but was in fact prepared by scholars long before the revolution. Four letters were deemed to be unnecessary and were abolished. To be fair, those letters did make spelling and reading more difficult. So if you take a book published before 1918, the text will look even more exotic than modern Russian writing! All the books printed after 1918 follow the “new” spelling rules, so all old books had to be edited carefully to bring them up to date. What a gigantic task it must have been, in the absence of computers! It is said that Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (a huge book that has about 1500 pages) became 80 pages shorter because of the 1918 spelling reform!

Russian punctuation

Russian punctuation follows strict rules (there is no such thing as the author’s choice of punctuation!) and is similar to French and German punctuation.

Russian word stress (accent)

Russian word stress is unpredictable but we do not use the stress marks while writing. However, you will see accents marked in all materials and textbooks for foreign students of Russian, just to make reading easier.

The curious letter Ё

There is one letter - Ё which may cause difficulties in reading for foreign learners of Russian. The thing is that E without the dots represents a different sound from the one with the dots but in modern spelling the dots are not marked! The exception is made for books for children and foreign students. This is a tendency that has developed in the last 15 years, and I think the reason for omitting the dots over E is fast computer typing: this letter is in the far corner of the keyboard, and most people save time by not using it! So as a speaker of Russian you are supposed to know which words contain which kind of E. I can see that this is frustrating for anyone learning Russian, but if it’s any consolation, Russians struggle with it too: since the use of the dots became optional even in documents, people have been complaining that their surnames have been mispronounced!

Languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet

The Cyrillic alphabet is used to write in about 50 different languages, mainly in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Such languages as Belarusian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Kazakh, Kyrghyz, Mongolian, Serbian use Cyrillic. Most of them use a version of the alphabet which is slightly different from Russian, with additional letters from Greek or Latin alphabets, and variations of standard Cyrillic letters.

How long does it take to master the Cyrillic alphabet

As a teacher who has been running Russian courses for many years, I can tell you that an average learner takes 2-3 lessons to master the Russian alphabet, and a couple of months of practice to be completely confident with reading and writing. That’s if you do a standard extensive course with one lesson a week, where only a part of the lesson is dedicated to practicing the alphabet.

So, good luck with your Russian lessons, and happy reading!