Russian Pronunciation for Beginners

russian pronunciationHas the time come for you to finally sit down and learn Russian pronunciation? Whether you are an exchange student planning to spend a year in Russia or a tourist who always wanted to see the Kremlin, knowing how to say each word will help you get around easier. Compared to the pronunciation of English words, Russian Pronunciation often has more exceptions than rules. The good news is that rules of Russian pronunciation are fairly consistent and clear. Here is a course on becoming fluent in Russian using natural topics of conversation.

If you are wondering where to begin, the alphabet is a good place to start. Practice pronouncing each letter until it comes naturally:

Pronouncing the Alphabet Letters

  • A as in car: a
  • B as in bar: 6
  • V as in Very: B
  • G as in girl: r
  • D as in doll: д
  • Ye as in yes: e
  • Yo as in yolk: ё
  • S as in mesh: ж
  • Z as in zebra: з
  • Ee as in seem: и
  • Y as in coy: й
  • K as in kite: K
  • L as in less: л
  • M as in milk: M
  • N as in never: H
  • O as in yolk:o
  • P as in pet: n
  • R as in rumba (trilled): p
  • S as in see: C
  • T as in tell: T
  • Oo as in boot: y
  • F as in fur: ф
  • Ch as in loch of Scotland: x
  • Ts as in bets: ц
  • Ch as in cheese: ч
  • Sh as in sheep: ш
  • Sh as in shut: щ
  • Used for separating 2 word parts : ь
  • E as in bet: э
  • U as in tube: ю
  • Ya as in yarn : я

One is to One

Being a phonetic language, this means that mostly, you make 1 sound for 1 letter in Russian. In other words, the letter M is always pronounced like m and the letter K is pronounced like k.  This is not the same pattern as English, where you pronounce letters in different ways depending on where in the word it shows up.  For example, the word “circle” contains the letter C twice, with each one pronounced differently.  In the Russian language, this almost never happens.  Here is a course that can help you pronounce Russian words even better called “Russian for Beginners.”

Clustered Consonants

The speech of Russian sometimes sounds like it is a never-ending flow of clustered consonants.  Indeed, it is quite common to see 2, 3 and 4 consonants. For instance, take the word in Russian for “Hello” which is “zdravstvujtye,” pronounced “zdrahh-stvuy-teeh” which as 2 combined consonants that are clustered: “vstv” and “zdr.”  Another word that contains 4 consonants that follow each other is “vzglyad.”

I can hear you saying: How on earth can you pronounce that without biting your tongue? Well, practice makes perfect. Repeating the words over and over again until you absolutely get it is the way to go in this case. Here are a few words you might want to repeat when you have free time just to practice pronouncing “clustered consonants.” To speed up the process, here is an article that helps you learn any language you want in 10 days.

  • To look or glance: vzglyanut, pronounced “vzglee-nooot.”
  • Nonsense: vzdor, pronounced “vzdohr.”
  • Christmas: Rozhdyestvo, pronounced “rush-deest-voh.”
  • Crime: prestuplyeniye, pronounced: “pree-stoop-lyen-eee-ye.”
  • Congratulate: pozdravlyat, pronounced: “puh-zdruhv-lyaht.”
  • Circumstance: Obstoyatyel’stvo, pronounced: “up-stah-yuh-teel’-stvuh.”

Cat Got Your Tongue? It’s Okay

Some consonants including z, zh, d, g, v and b in the Russian alphabet are categorized as “voiced” since these use your voice to be pronounced. You will see that this is true when you practice sounding out these letters loudly. Here is a course on Russian for complete beginners that will get u speaking Russian in no time.

On the other hand, when one of these “voiced” letters appear at a word’s end, an odd thing happens: They actually become “devoiced” or somewhat “softer.” Devoicing is the term used to describe this process. The spelling is still the same but to pronounce them, they become transformed into the “devoiced” versions.

  • Z is pronounced like S
  • Zh is pronounced like Sh
  • D is pronounced like T
  • G is pronounced like K
  • V is pronounced like F
  • B is pronounced like P

Some examples include the words Garazh (garage) and Smirnov (a name). Garazh is not pronounced as “garage” the way it is in English, but rather like “guh-rash” because the zh is devoiced and pronounced like “shh.” In the same way, Smirnov is pronounced like “smeer-nof” since you pronounce the last v-letter like an “f.”

Say It, Don’t Spray It

English speakers are used to straining their lips and tongue when pronouncing the letters K, T or P. The resulting strain is what vocal coaches call ‘aspiration.’ In other words, when you strain, you spray it rather than say it. As you make the sounds for K, T or P, it is like a burst that comes from your lips. Don’t believe me?  Say the word top while putting your hand to your lips and see if you don’t feel that burst of air.

Aspiration is something that must not happen in the Russian language since consonants are pronounced without it. Relaxing your lips and tongue before you say the letters K, T or P will help. You know how you talk just before you go to sleep at night or first thing in the morning? It’s funny but this is sort of how you are supposed to pronounce Russian consonants.  As much as possible, you need to relax the organs of your speech. This is the only way you are going to say the Russian words right. To practice, put your hand in front of your mouth and say”

  • Tank (Pronounced: Tahnk)
  • Lampa (Lahm-puh)
  • Park (Pahhhrk)

Keep practicing until you stop feeling that puff of air!

Vowels Are a Must

For every word in the Russian language, vowels are the musical building blocks. If you mispronounce a couple of consonants, no one will probably take note. However, when you mispronounce a vowel, chances are you won’t be understood.

You know how English speakers tend to shorten vowels? To sound more Russian, you have to do the opposite. For instance, you are in the attic and your mom is in the basement, you lengthen the letter O in her name as you call out “Mo-o-m!” Except for the shouting part, this is the way Russians pronounce their words.

Sibilants

The letters “sh’, sh, ch, ts and zh are called sibilants since these emit a sound of ‘hissing. When you position a vowel in front of a sibilant, the vowels become pronounced differently than normal. For instance:

  • Yo is pronounced like “oh” after a sibilant (pronounced ‘aw’)
  • Ye is pronounced like “eh” after a sibilant. (pronounced ‘end’)

Other examples include the words:

  • Shyoi (went by foot)
  • Tsyentr  (center)

After these sibilants, the sound “ee” always becomes “ih” without regard for whether the “ee” comes from an unstressed ‘ye’ or from the letter. For instance, in the sounds  for:

  • Bol’shye (bigger)
  • Machina (car)

Vowel Reduction

Some letters in the Russian language change the way they behave depending on whether they are in the syllable which is unstressed or in the one which is stressed.  The vowels ya, ye, o and a frequently do this. When emphasized, these normally behave and are normally pronounced. When they are in the position of being unstressed, however, they go through the reduction process. This vowel behavior deviation is quite a linguistic phenomenon that is important and deserves special mention.

Putting the Right Accents

In pronouncing Russian words correctly, you will need to put stress in the correct places. In other words, if you put an emphasis in the wrong place, this could actually change the entire meaning of the word.  For instance in the word ‘zamok,’ stress on the first syllable will make it mean ‘castle’ while stress on the second syllable will make it mean ‘rock.’

The thing is, there are no rigid rules about word stressing. In the language of Russia, vowel stress  is erratic and unpredictable. Of course, if you start recognizing a few patterns, you will probably become more and more skilled at it. However, the harsh truth is that every word has its own pattern of stress.  Of course, nothing terrible will happen if you stress the word in the wrong place. However, the person you are trying to have a chat with may stop being able to grasp what you mean or have a hard time understanding you. Before you learn a word in Russian, it is a good idea to find out where the vowel stress needs to be.

Letter Combinations

Here are a few letter combinations you might want to practice with:

  • Юй, pronounced ‘yooy’
  • Уй, pronounced ‘ooy’
  • Ей, pronounced ‘yay’
  • Ой, pronounced ‘oy’
  • Яй, pronounced ‘yigh’
  • Ай, pronounced ‘igh’ as in ‘sigh’

Starting slowly but surely really is the key to finally speaking the Russian language. Here is a course that could get you started on the road to Russian fluency, no matter what level you happen to be in right now.