The Most Interesting Facts About the Russian Alphabet

Russian is notorious for not being easy to learn, but if you take a closer look you will see that it’s not as difficult as it may seem. So let’s see if we can get to know the world’s eighth most spoken language a little better with some interesting facts about its core constituent: its alphabet.

1. The Alphabet Once Had 46 Letters

Today, the Russian alphabet has 33 letters including 10 vowels and 21 consonants. But it has taken many centuries and reforms to get there. Before 1918, there were five extra letters:

  •  I – pronounced as a “long e” or ē, as in “leech.”
  • Ѳ – pronounced like an f, as in “farm.”
  • Ѣ – pronounced as a “short e” or ɛ, as in “best.”
  • Ѵ – pronounced also with a “long e” sound.
  •  ‘  represented the word “or” and wasn’t pronounced.

Before 1750, the Russian alphabet included eight more letters. They’re so different from what we recognize in modern Russian, they may look and sound more like they belong in a fictive language from a science-fiction TV show:

  • Ѕ – pronounced dzʲ or zʲ.
  • Ѯ – pronounced ks.
  • Ѱ – pronounced ps.
  • Ѡ – pronounced ɔ
  • Ѧ – pronounced ɛ̃.
  •  Ѩ – pronounced jɛ̃.
  • Ѫ – pronounced ɔ̃.
  • Ѭ – pronounced jɔ̃.

2. Russian Has Two Non-Letters

Ten vowels and 21 consonants — you might be thinking that doesn’t add up, compared to the 20 consonants and only six vowels in English (y is a wild card). And you’d be right! Because Russian has two additions in the form of signs:

  • Ь – the “soft” sign.
  • Ъ – the “hard” sign.

These indicate whether the preceding consonant should be palatalized or intonated in a sharper, harder way. Some consonants, being Ж, Ш, and Ц, are always hard, while Й, Ч, and Щ are always soft.

3. Over 50 Languages Use Russian Letters

With 258 million native speakers, Russian is a true world language. It’s also the official language of Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. But did you know that the Russian writing system, also known as azbuka (Aзбука), is used in a myriad of other languages? Here are some examples:

  • Macedonian
  • Serbian
  • Turkmen
  • Uzbek
  • Tajik, a Persian dialect
  • Carpathian Rusyn
  • Mongolian
  • Bulgarian

4. It’s on the Euro Bills

After Bulgaria’s admission to the EU in 2007, a Cyrillic addition was issued to the design of Euro currency banknotes. In 2013, we saw the first appearance of the transliteration “евро” on the bills next to the Latin and Greek words.

5. Cyrillic Was Invented to Translate the Bible

Cyrillic was invented in Bulgaria around 683 AD by two Byzantine monks: Saint Cyril and his brother Methodius. They were commissioned to transcribe the Bible so that it would fit the Slavic pronunciation.

The letterforms they devised were a mishmash of those found in the archaic Greek uncial script, Hebrew, and ancient Latin. Originally, the language was called “Glagolitic” (Глаголица), but it was Saint Clement of Ohrid who refined it into what is now known as Cyrillic.

The oldest Cyrillic inscriptions ever found were wall inscriptions on the Round Church in Veliki Preslav, Bulgaria. The text read “Church of Saint John, built by chartophylax Paul” and dated from the reign of Tsar Simeon the Great in the 10th century.

6. It Has a National Holiday

The development of their own alphabet was a seminal moment that secured the cultural and political independence of several countries. Saints Cyril and Methodius Day is annually celebrated on May 24, and it involves cultural and educational events, ceremonies, parades, and other activities.

While it’s the same holiday it’s known differently in the various Slavic nations, such as Slavonic Literature and Culture Day in Russia. And the dates vary as well: in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, it falls on July 5.

7. Its Deep Sounds May Help You Stay Warm

While overall Russian is a melodic mix of hard and soft consonants, a plethora of vowels, and some unvoiced letters, a few sounds strike the outsider as particularly guttural.

In Russian, letters such as Ж (“zh”), У (“oo”), and Ы (“euih”) are produced especially deep inside the throat. But also the pronunciation of Г (“g”), П (“p”), B (“v”), and Л (“l”) is markedly deeper, and the O sounds warm and well-rounded. Phonologically, this may remind the unfamiliar listener of Portuguese.

According to legend, a vigorous use of the throat helps staying warm in times of extreme winter. Not a bad idea, given the fact that hypothermia is a deadly threat throughout Russia’s long winters, particularly for homeless “bomzhi” (бомжи).

So when you feel cold, maybe try out words like “Лчжа” (“loozhja,” puddle), “Заглианут” (“zaglianoot,” glimpse), and счастливый (“schastliviy,” happy), and see if they help you warm up.

8. The Position of Ë on Keyboards Leads to Intentional Typos

Instead of the QWERTY layout, Russians stuff their pages using a JCUKEN keyboard. Most of the 33 letters are happily situated in the center of the board, but one of them is a bit of a misfit: the ë (pronounced “yoh”).

It is quarantined all the way on the top-left, the location of the tilde on Western keyboards. And on smartphones and tablets, the poor thing is hidden from view entirely. So it’s no surprise that modern texts contain many mistypes, with people opting for the easy way and using the “e” instead.

9. Ы’s Days May Be Numbered

For English speakers, the vowel “Ы” may seem quite exotic in terms of pronunciation and will likely require a language tutor or vocal coach to completely master. It’s written phonetically as “euih” and sounds a bit like you’ve just been punched in the stomach.

However, it’s good to know when you’re practicing Russian sayings like “Так темно, хоть глаз выколи” (“it’s pitch black”) or “язык хорошо подвешен” (“he has the gift of gab”).

The sound reminds of the Dutch “eu,” as in “jeuk” (itch), or the French vowel in “jeu” (game) but combined with an “ee.” Because of its rarity, there are speculations that Ы will be removed from the alphabet during the next revision, together with the signs Ь and Ъ.

10. The Mystery Of The ‘Backward’ Letters

To most people unfamiliar with the Russian alphabet, it may look highly strange. But a few letters rest even deeper inside the uncanny valley. They look similar to a common one we know — if only viewed in mirror-reverse. However, these “backward” letters typically are pronounced much differently than the “forward” letters many of us are used to.

So let’s clarify:

  • Я = “ya,” as in “yard.”
  • И = “ee” as in “reel.”
  • Г = “g” as in “galaxy.”
  • З = “z” as in “zone.”
  • Э = “eh” as in “get.”

So, the next time you walk past a “Nora” studio, know that you can sign up anytime for a yoga session, that a car junkyard advertising “Cntpoeh” and “Webpone” is probably selling used French and American cars, and that a digital marketing display on the storefront that seems to read “Anteka” is no antique store but a regular pharmacy.