In a comment on a recent post, someone pointed out that he was learning Czech and that my Russian posts are helpful even though he can't understand any of the Russian words that I write. Today, I'd like to show everyone how easy it is to learn the Russian alphabet and start understanding those things I write.
It's not hard
The first thing to remember is that, just like anything else, it's really not hard. As I am fond of reminding people, millions of five year olds are learning this stuff right now, so there's no reason you can't do it.
But there's another reason that learning the Russian alphabet isn't hard: each letter only makes one sound. Unlike English, where sometimes a c makes an /s/ sound and sometimes a /k/ sound, each letter of the Russian alphabet makes the same sound every time. Even Spanish, which is perfectly phonetic, has letters which make more than one sound!
[Okay, so this isn't 100% literally true, when you consider palatization and vowel reduction, but it's true enough to make learning the Russian phonetics 1000x easier than English.]
Yes, there are 33 letters in the Russian alphabet. But actually, that's 10 vowels which are basically duplicates of the standard five, and the hard sign and soft sign, leaving only 21 consonants. It's a piece of cake. I learned it in about an hour.
There are 10 vowels: 5 regular vowels, and 5 "soft" vowels. The word "soft" doesn't mean that the vowel itself is soft, but rather that it has a softening effect on the preceding consonant. For getting started, though, there's no need to worry about hard and soft. We'll figure that out later.
So for now, the five regular vowels are:
а : like the a in "aah"
э : like the e in "bed"
ы : similar to the i in "quick"
This vowel causes non-natives some trouble but i is close enough for now.
о : like the o in "no"
у : like the u in "due"
And then the five "soft" vowels are:
я : like the ya in "yanni"
е : like the ye in "yell"
и : like the yea in "yeast"
ë : like the yo in "yodel"
ю : like the you in "youth"
So as I said — basically duplicates. Thinking of them this way leaves out part of the story, but it's not wrong. And we'll get into the missing detail (palatization) another day.
б : b, as in "boy"
в : v, as in "voice"
г : g, as in "gone"
д : d, as in "day"
з : z, as in "zero"
ж : a sort of zh sound like the si in "asia"
й : similar to y, a glide over the long u ("oo") sound
к : k, as in "key"
л : l, as in "love"
м : m, as in "man"
н : n, as in "noon"
п : p, as in "penny"
р : a rolled r, like in Spanish, Italian, etc.
с : s, as in "style"
т : t, as in "time"
ф : f, as in "fine"
х : the throat-clearing kh sound at the end of the name "Bach" or "Münich"
ц : a ts sound, like the zz in pizza
ч : ch, as in "check"
ш : sh, as in "shoe"
щ : sch, like the sh in "shame"
The difference between the ш and щ character is subtle, but if you say the words "shoe" and "shame" out loud, you can feel your tongue move to different places in your mouth on the sh. (This is an effect of opening your mouth for the vowel.) The ш is a fuller sound formed inside the mouth, and the щ is an airier sound formed closer to the teeth.
I've skipped the hard sign (ъ) and the soft sign (ь) because they don't actually produce a sound. Instead, they modify the preceding letter by palatization. But as I've already said, we're saving that for another day.
Learning an alphabet is always easier with examples. So lets look at some words you already know, so you can feel comfortable with them in Russian.
на здоровье : "na zdorov'ye", the standard Russian toast
до свидание : "do svidaniye", the classic Russian goodbye
Нью-Йорк : New York
пицца : pizza
радио : radio
компьютер : computer
Моцарт : Mozart
Шекспир : Shakespeare
Владимир Путин : Vladimir Putin
See? I told you it wasn't hard. If you don't see it right away, look back at the letters and remind yourself of the sounds. Once you get them into your head, you'll have them forever. It's so easy that you can't forget.
Congratulations, you now read Russian! This polyglot stuff is pretty easy, isn't it?