Learn to Read Cyrillic (Russian) Within the Hour

Pepsi Cola Cyrillic Label. | Photo: russianreport.wordpress.com

 Learning Cyrillic 

July 8, 2013

Allan Stevo

This is one of the articles written on travel to Slovakia as part of the launch of A Visit to Cousin Jano’s, a book on the intricacies of visiting a Slovak family. – Allan

In your travels, reading signs becomes considerably easier when you know how to read the local alphabet.  While the Cyrillic alphabet appears challenging to learn, it can be very simple and quick to learn.  In fact, within the hour, you could have a strong command of printed Cyrillic.

Many associate the Cyrillic alphabet with the Russian language yet the following languages all use Cyrillic 

Slavic languages including

  • Old Church Slavonic
  • Church Slavonic
  • Belarusian
  • Bulgarian
  • Macedonian
  • Montenegrin
  • Russian
  • Rusyn (A language used prominently in Eastern Slovakia, and the surrounding region)
  • Serbian
  • Ukrainian

as well as non-Slavic languages such as

  • Abkhaz
  • Bashkir
  • Chechen
  • Chuvash
  • Kazakh
  • Kyrgyz
  • Mongolian
  • Ossetic
  • Tajik
  • Tatar
  • Uzbek.

Among this list are the Rusyns of Eastern Slovakia. When you travel to the furthest Eastern limits of Slovakia, you will be exposed to Cyrillic script, which suddenly makes you feel like you’ve entered a much more exotic place than a region that is smack dab in the center of Europe.

Before I travel to a country that uses Cyrillic, I read this collection of words copied and pasted below assembled by linguist Robert E. Beard – and by the time I am to the end of the list, my knowledge of Cyrillic is thoroughly refreshed. I then sit down with a piece of Cyrillic script from the country that I am travelling in and read it through aloud for a bit, since from country to country there may be some intricacies in how the alphabet is used. In a very short time I am able to read Cyrillic quickly and with no difficulty. I may not know what I am reading in the text, but I know how to read the words and a great deal of cognates and simple words in that language are automatically open to me by spending a few minutes training myself in the reading of the local alphabet.  After several years of attempting to learn to read Cyrillic on my various travels, it was not til I read this list that I had a eureka moment andthe Cyrillic alphabet made sense.

Below using words that are cognates in English and Russian,the Cyrillic alphabet is cleverly taught one letter at a time. If you are unable to read the word, there is a crossword puzzle-style clue provided. Try to use the clue only if you cannot read the word. Read each letter, use a little creativity in your approach to this exercise and you should be able to pull it off no problem. The first 75% of the list is intuitive to me and may also be intuitive to you. In case it is not, I have included a little more below to help you work with the letters.

Good luck, in ten or fifteen minutes you should be able to read Cyrillic and within the hour you should feel a pretty confident ability to read 90% of Cyrillic words that you encounter.  Read the word on the left, consult the clue on the right only if you need help.  With this exercise, a letter or two at a time, you are able to build your understanding of Cyrillic.  If you’re having trouble reading the Cyrillic script because the script is too small, remember that pressing CTRL and the “+” key simultaneously will magnify the image size on most computers and CTRL and the “-” will usually zoom out.

A Quick Cyrillic Tutorial

мама — granny’s kid
папа — the other granny’s kid
акт — part of a play
парк — a rest area
порт — any is fine in a storm
террор — Stalin’s forte
метеор — falling star
доктор — has infinite patients
трактор — what farmers ride
термометр — it has a lot of degrees
математика — the unnatural science
Америка — Yuwessov, A.
Арктика — go there for goosebumps
радио — it talks and rocks
радиатор — a source of warmth
драма — unfunny stuff
Африка — a major continent
факт — something undeniable
фронт — put up a good one
танк — heavy-duty vehicle
патент — protector of inventions
Антарктика — opposite of Арктика
капитан — the boat’s boss
митинг — let’s all get together
план — a good idea
гранит — a hard stone
грамм — European measure
гол — where you score
металл — heavy stuff
телефон — distant sound machine
телеграф — Western Union
телеграмма — a wire
лампа — it sheds much light
ангел — a feathered friend
Италия — the boot country
Германия — Reunited at last!
Англия — Hail Brittania!
армия — big bunch of fighters
салат — uncooked greens
аспирин — headache med’cine
сигара — product of Cuba
министр — government official
сенат — US deadwood branch
сенатор — US political deadwood
система — organization
сигнал — it let’s you know
авиатор — a flyer
ветеран — s/he’s been around
витамин — health pills
веранда — where Southern belles sit
вампир — suave blood-sucker
Волга — famous Russian river
студент — an easy job
университет — sports-fraternity complex
аудитория — a good place to spectate
литература — like, uh, novels & pomes
август — a summery month
вулкан — a geological zit
табак — avoid this
бар — an urban oasis
банан(а) — fruit with appeal
балет — home of the tu-tu
публика — John Q.’s last name
парламент — British legislature
крокодил — Capt. Hook’s nemesis
президент — US head honcho
физика — a natural science
базар — a bizarre market
кризис — a major problem
виза — you need it to travel
визит — the shorter the better
фантазия — like, unreal!
формула — chemical recipe
апрель — a springy month
культура — I ain’t got none of it
календарь — where you get dates
техника — technical stuff
механик — the car-fixer
характер — personality
хоккей — ice game
медицина — does good; tastes bad
циник — stick-in-the-mud
цемент — heavy stuff
цифр — figures
цивилизация — results of civil engineering?
Вашингтон — Gridlocksville, USA
машина — mechanical device
галоши — rubbers
шарлатан — an insincere guy
Хрущёв — former Party chief
борщ — Russian soup
экспорт — take it away!
эскалатор — the way upstairs
экватор — some like it hot
поэт — writes pomes
Югославия — former Balkan nation
юмор — Russian Program forte
бюрократ — Soviet deadwood
нюанс — it’s easy to miss
мираж — it’s not what it seems
журнал — a magazine
журналист — a журнал worker
жасмин — tea flower
Женева — Swiss city
жакет — goes with a tie
жираф — an excellent necker
чемпион — the guy with the gold
Шанхай — city in China
Нью Йорк — The Big [Red Fruit]
май — another spring month
гейзер — a worthless gusher
Чайковский — big Russky composer
музыка — tunes
шашлык — shishkabob
(This last one isn’t all that commonly used of a word in English, but it does exist in the two dictionaries that I’ve consulted Webster’s and American Heritage)

That is the tutorial that has been so useful to me in helping me to learn to very quickly learn to read Cyrillic and to brush up on it before each trip. For those in need of a little explanation of what is happening above, I’ll go through the letters. First alphabetically and then after that, according to ways that they are grouped in Russian. After that, I will offer a few more words of practice for anyone who would still like a little more.

Cyrillic Letter – Alphabetically Arranged

А in Cyrillic is represented as – a – in Latin, which sounds like —” a” in alpha
Б in Cyrillic is represented as – b – in Latin, which sound like — “b” in bravo
В in Cyrillic is represented as – v – in Latin, which sound like — “v” in victor
Г in Cyrillic is represented as – g – in Latin, which sounds like — “g” in golf
Д in Cyrillic is represented as – d – in Latin, which sound like — “d” in delta
Е in Cyrillic is represented as – e – in Latin, which sounds like —  “e” in echo
Ж in Cyrillic is represented as – zx – in Latin, which sounds like — “s” in pleasure
З in Cyrillic is represented as – z – in Latin, which sounds like — ” z” in zulu
И in Cyrillic is represented as – i – in Latin, which sounds like — “i” in india
Й in Cyrillic is represented as – j – in Latin, which sounds like — “y” in boy
К in Cyrillic is represented as – k – in Latin, which sounds like — “k” in kilo
М in Cyrillic is represented as – m – in Latin, which sounds like — “m” in Mike
Н in Cyrillic is represented as – n – in Latin, which sound like — “n” in November
О in Cyrillic is represented as – o – in Latin, which sounds like —  “o” in Oscar
П in Cyrillic is represented as – p – in  Latin, which sounds like — “p” in papa
Р in Cyrillic is represented as – r – in Latin, which sounds like —  “r” in roll
С in Cyrillic is represented as – s – in Latin, which sounds like — “s” in Sierra
Т in Cyrillic is represented as – t – in Latin, which sounds like — “t” in tango
У in Cyrillic is represented as – u – in Latin, which sounds like — “u” in put
Ф in Cyrillic is represented as – f – in Latin, which sounds like — “f” in foxtrot
Х in Cyrillic is represented as – h – in Latin, which sounds like — “h” in hotel
Ц in Cyrillic is represented as – ts – in Latin, which sounds like — “ts” in cats
Ч in Cyrillic is represented as – ch – in Latin, which sounds like — “ch” in chair
Ш in Cyrillic is represented as – sh – in Latin, which sounds like — “sh” in ship
Щ in Cyrillic is represented as – st – in Latin, which sounds like — “sht” in shtook
Ю in Cyrillic is represented as – ju – in Latin, which sounds like — “u” in uniform
Я in Cyrillic is represnted as – ja – in Latin, which sounds like — “ya” in yard

Cyrillic Letters – Broken Down into Groups

Group 1:  5 Cyrillic Letters that are the same as English
01st  Letter –  А – like the “A”  in America
12th Letter –  К – like the “K” in Ken
14th Letter – М – like the “M” in Mary
16th Letter –  О – like the “O”  in Olga
20th Letter –  Т – like the “T” in Tom

Group 2: 6 Cyrillic Letters that are similar to Greek
04th Letter –  Г – like the “G” in Gloria
05th Letter – Д – like the “D” in Don
09th Letter –  З – like the “Z” in Zebra
13th Letter –  Л – like the “L” in Linda
17th Letter –  П – like the “P” in Peter
22nd Letter – Ф – like the ” F” in Fred

Group 3: 6 Cyrillic Letters are the same as English, but pronounced differently.  These are “false friends.”
03rd Letter – В – like the “V” in Victor
06th Letter – Е – like the “YE”  Yeah
15th Letter – Н – like the “N” in Nancy
18th Letter – Р – like the “R” in Russ
19th Letter – С – like the “S” in Sam
23rd Letter – Х – like the “H” in Herb

Group 4: 16 Cyrillic Letters are distinctly Russian
02nd Letter – Б – like the “B” in Ben
07th Letter – Ё – like the “YO” in Yolk
08th Letter – Ж – like the “SI” in Vision or the “S” in Pleasure
10th Letter – И – like the “I”  in Italy
11th Letter – Й – like the “Y” in Boy
21st Letter – У – like the “OO” in Moon
24th Letter – Ц – like the “CE” in Science or “TZ” in Switzerland
25th Letter – Ч – like the “CH” in Charles
26th Letter – Ш – like the “SH” in Short
27th Letter – Щ – like the “SHCH” (SH + CH) in Hush Child
28th Letter – Ъ – Hard sign (For simplification, I will leave this unexplained for now)
29th Letter – Ы – Hard I (For simplification, I will leave this unexplained for now)
30th Letter – Ь – Soft sign (For simplification, I will leave this unexplained for now)
31st Letter – Э – like the “E” in Emma
32nd Letter – Ю – like the “YU” in Yukon
33rd Letter – Я – like the “YA” in Yard

I have a hard time remembering what sound “Ч” represents. For this helpful tidbit kudos to Aaron Hotfelder: “Ч = ‘ch’ Since the letter looks like a ‘4’ and makes the “ch” sound, think of the word ‘fortune.’ Four-chun. Get it?”

For a little more practice, here are some international words used in the Bulgarian language (and many other languages) that will be understood by a speaker of English.

Extra Cyrillic Practice, From Bulgarian and International Words

атом – The building blocks of chemicals
администратор – The manager
Америка – The country I’m from
идиот – A book by Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky
Интернет – The World Wide Web
адрес – Where you live
Канада – The home of the Yukon Territory
зомби – A genre of creepy movies
модем – How you dial up to the internet
директор – The boss of a film crew
дискотека – Where you go to dance in Bulgaria
акробат – Swinging from a flying trapeze
диск – What computers no longer use
Банк – A place where money is held
банкер – A person who works there
бар – Where you go for a drink
ескорт – One who accompanies
рекорд – Spinning vinyl
бизнес – How you make your money
караоке – Singing in the Japanese tradition
орнамент – How you decorate your tree at Christmas
радиатор – Staying warm in the winter
дебит – The opposite of Credit
карате – A martial art
зебра – A striped horse

Хотел – A place to sleep when you travel
Такси – A yellow car that drives you around
Супермаркет – A place to shop
Телефон – Ways to contact friends
Офис – A place where work is done
сервиз – A place to get your car repaired
компутър – A super-calculator
България – A Southern Slavic Country that uses Cyrillic
София – The capital of that country
Кетчуп – Heinz has 57 varieties
Кафе – A place for coffee
стерео тунер – AM or FM?
Контраст – I agree
фаст Бургер – Mickie D’s
хот дог – Chicago Style – onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, mustard, relish, a dill pickle, and celery salt
Бистро – A place to eat
Министерство на финансите – They handle the country’s money
масаж – You go here for a back rub
физиотерапия – When your body’s not working right
информация – You have a question you need answered
Температура – How many degrees?
Паркинг – Where to leave your car when you don’t take a “Такси”
Оптика – Where you get your eye glasses from
ресторант – A place you go to eat
Факс – Sending a photocopy by telephone
Тенис Клуб – A place to play racket sports
базар – A grand place to shop

Finally, for one more practice round these are a list of English names
transliterated into Cyrillic.

Names in Cyrillic

Доналд – The Trump
Дорис – Day
Тони – Soprano
Сандра – Day O’Connor
Мартин – Luther King Jr.
Милдред – Babe Didrikson’s real first name
Том – Hanks
Анна – Tolstoy’s Karenina
Тим – Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
Нанси – Drew
Кен – Barbie and
Робин – Batman and
Марк – One of the 4 Gospels
Марта – Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority
Ерик – the Red, father of Leif
Бети – White, Of Golden Girls Fame
Антонио – Banderas
Дебра – Debbie Gibson
Адам – The first man
Лиз – Elizabeth Taylor
Алберт – Einstein
Карен – Derived from Katherine, probably from the Greek word for “pure”
Норман – Mister Bates
Дона – Summer
Анди – Griffith
Карол – Burnett
Бернард – A saintly dog
Алис – In wonderland

What did you think? My name in Cyrillic is Аллан Стиво or with the Slovak pronunciation it would be Аллан Штево. What’s yours? Add it to the comments section below.  If you are having trouble figuring it out, you’ll find a good Cyrillic-Latin Transliteration device here.

If you see anything important that I overlooked, or something that you don’t think I got quite right, please make yourself heard in the comments section (preferably with a Cyrillic name).

Road sign notifying drivers that they are leaving the city limits of Rokytovce, a town in Eastern Slovakia with a prominent Rusyn population. | Photo: skyscrapercity.com


Аллан Стиво (Allan Stevo) writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • jim stasheff

    Jul 9th, 2013

    Your picture of the Pepsi-Cola in cyrillic reminded me of a bit of doggerel my father taught.

    Pepsi Vodski hits the spotski
    Makes you dance a hot cazadski
    5 year plan can be done in two
    Pepsi Vodski is the drink for you!

  • Cousin John Хочбергер

    Jul 10th, 2013

    Allan, I would never have dreamed there was a way to learn Цыриллиц (Cyrillic) this quickly and easily. Congratulations on your new book! And… Бест оф луцк он ыоур нехт пройецт! (Best of luck on the next project!)

  • Nice !! It seems I didn’t need to go to college to learn Russian. Just ask Allan !!

  • […] Slovak on the other hand has a spelling system in which an O always sounds the same, a TI always sounds the same and a G and H always sound the same. Spend an hour learning the Slovak rules of pronunciation correctly and you will forever be able to pronounce almost any word correctly. This systematic, clear, ease of spelling and pronunciation is one reason that I believe Slovak is this best method of entry into Slavic languages, especially for someone unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet.  When it’s time to learn Cyrillic, having a Slovak base makes the learning process effortless, literally lasting minutes to reach a high level of competence.  (Start at this article on 52 Weeks in Slovakia if you want to learn to read Cyrillic in under an hour.) […]

  • […] item first appeared at 52 Weeks in Slovakia on July 8, […]

  • Thank you so much. Sitting on the sofa, learning your cyrillic and with every word a smile !!

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