Captain Jack Sparrow

Russian Vowels: All the Rules You Need to Know

If you’re a fan of the popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series, you may recall what Hector Barbossa, the feared captain of the Black Pearl, said about the Pirates’ code:

“The Pirates’ Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

Captain Barbossa’s sentiment doesn’t only refer to the Pirates’ Code, it also applies to Russian vowels.

While Russian vowel usage has a ton of rules, these rules aren’t hard and fast. They’re more like “guidelines” and have lots of exceptions to consider.

If you’re still in the early stages of learning the alphabet, or want to gain a better understanding of vowels as a Russian self-learner, read on. 

Contents

Russian Vowel Pairs

You may already be aware that Russian has 33 letters which includes 21 consonants, 10 vowels, a hard sign and a soft sign. The 10 vowels are divided into pairs: А—Я, О—Ё, Э—Е, У—Ю and Ы—И.

The first vowel in each pair represents a hard-indicating vowel, while the second letter in each pair is the soft-indicating vowel.

It’s best to learn these vowels in pairs because the sounds are very similar, and the consonant that precedes the vowel determines which vowel is used.

To better understand this, let’s examine the буквы (letters) and звуки (sounds) of these vowel pairs.

How to Pronounce Russian Vowels

We’ve provided detailed pronunciation information for each vowel, but if you’re unsure about the pronunciation of a word, you can always look it up on the user-generated pronunciation dictionary Forvo or see it used by native Russian speakers on the FluentU program.

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А and Я

A: A looks just like the English letter “a” but the closest sound to the Russian ‘a’ that exists in English would be in the words ‘hot’ ([ˈhɑt]), ‘got’ ([ˈɡɑt]) and the vowels in words father and but. A follows hard consonants as showcased in the table below. 

Я: Я is used in place of A when following soft consonants, or a soft sign. As a result, Я has a different sound. It’s like a combination of the sounds “y” and “ah” in English.

Я is an important sound and letter to master because Я is the pronoun for I, so you’re likely to use it a lot. 

When standing alone, after a vowel or a sign (ъ and ь), “Я” stands for two sounds: ‘y’+’a’, as in yacht. When it’s after a consonant, the sounds get squished together into one.

When unstressed and in the center of a word, it tends to sound like И.

Let’s look at the examples:

АЯ
Мама (mother) Я люблю тебя. (I love you.) - after after a consonant, the sounds 'y'and 'a' become one
Работа (work) Я американец. (I am an American.) - Я as two sounds: 'y'+'a'
Знать (to know) Вода как кипяток! (Water is like boiling water.) - Unstressed Я in the middle sounds like И

О and Ё

O: Similar to A, O looks and sounds the same as the English letter “o.” However, it’s important to note where the emphasis is in the word.

When O is stressed, it sounds like a long “o” similar to the English word board. However, an unstressed O sounds like the vowel in jog or hot.

For instance:

Окно (window) sounds like ak-no, and

Молоко (milk) sounds like ma-la-ko

Remember that only one syllable is stressed in any Russian word, so even if you have five O’s in a word, only one will sound like a long “o.”

Ё: The soft-indicating vowel equivalent of O is Ё. While it looks like an E with a little embellishment, it actually sounds like a combination of the sounds English “y” and “o.”

The English words yolk, yogurt and yodel provide examples of the correct Ё sound.

Ё is technically the youngest letter in the Russian alphabet, having been added in the 18th century. The use of the diaeresis (two dots) over the Е was more of a guideline until the 1940s when Stalin required all official documents be written using the proper Ё. But then, Stalin’s demand never stuck, so it has reverted back to a “guideline” in recent years. “Ё” is routinely omitted in official documents nowadays. 

As a general rule, Ё is always stressed. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but those are so few and far between they’re not worth noting for the beginning learner.

Some common Ё words include:

Ещё (still, yet)

Ёлка (fir tree or Christmas tree)

Её (genitive or accusative form of she) which is often used in sentences such as:

Её зовут Маша. (Her name is Masha.)

Э and Е

Э: While the Э letter itself will look foreign to most language learners, the Э sound is similar to a short “e” as in the case of the words ever, edge or exit.

E: The most important thing to remember with E is that it doesn’t sound like an English “e.” Instead, it’s more of a combination of “y” and “e,” as in yes, yet or yell.

ЭЕ
Это (this, that, it) Если (if)
Энергия (energy) Его (his)
Экономика (economics) Ехать (to go by transport)

It’s also important to keep in mind that E has a tendency to take the place of Э sometimes, especially in borrowed words, such as бренд , стейк , карате , проект , бутерброд , тест

У and Ю

У: This is another example of a letter which is written the same as the English version, but doesn’t sound like an English “y.”

When pronouncing the Russian У, use the double “o” sound. Just remember the phrase “oodles of noodles and doodles on poodles” and you should be just fine.

Ю: The Russian Ю is a combination of the English sounds “y” and “u.” Another helpful phrase to remember this sound is “You go to university in Utah.”

УЮ
Уже (already) Люди (people)
Думать (to think) Союз (union)
Рука (hand, arm) Любой (any)

И and Ы

Ы and И are two of the more difficult letters for Russian language learners to grasp because they look completely different from anything in English.

Native English speakers also tend to pronounce both sounds the same because the Ы sound in particular is challenging to master.

To make things a little easier, we’ll cover the soft vowel И first.

И: Quite simply, И is pronounced like the English “ee” or long “e.” Think meet, treat, feet, keep or leap. 

Ы: Since there’s no English equivalent for Ы, many people substitute the English “ee.” This is common but incorrect. The best way to make this sound is to think about making the “ee” sound, but place the tongue to the back of the mouth.

Ы always follows a consonant, so you’ll never find it at the start of a word, only as a middle or ending letter. And Ы is often added to the end of the word to form plural forms.

Here are some common words with Ы and И:

ИЫ
Лицо (face) Ты (you: singular and informal)
Улица (street) Мы (we)
Институт (institute) Вы (you: singular formal or plural)

Ы also shows up in several conjugations of the past-tense versions of the verb быть (to be):

Я была дома. (I was at home.)

Important Grammar Rules Involving Vowels

If you haven’t already done so, before getting into various spelling rules, it’s helpful to understand noun genders, cases and declensions.

Once you’ve reviewed those, you’ll find that vowels and vowel sounds are crucial to differentiating between the genders, cases and declensions.

Using Russian Vowels to Differentiate Between Genders

In brief, most masculine nouns end in a hard consonant.

However, some words can have other endings or are masculine by nature. 

For example: 

Masculine nouns endingsExamples
end in Й Музей (museum), Китай (China)
end with a soft sign День (day), Гость (guest), Секретарь (secretary)
masculine by nature Папа (papa), Дядя (uncle), Дедушка (grandfather)

Feminine nouns, on the other hand, commonly end in the vowels A or Я, or a soft sign, such as:

лампа (lamp)

Россия (Russia)

дочь (daughter)

Finally, neuter nouns can typically be recognized as ending in O, Е, Ё or MЯ, as in the case of:

Дерево (tree)

Море (sea)

Бельё (linen)

Имя (name)

Using Russian Vowels in Declensions and Case Changes

Russian declensions and case changes will often require you to add a vowel onto the end of a word.

However, sometimes the interaction of two different vowels will create a special situation, requiring you to sub out one letter for a different one.

Confused? Not to worry. The following rules will help clarify the ins and outs of correct Russian spelling:

1. Only soft-indicating vowels may be used after a soft sign or soft consonant.

Let’s look at how this works out with the declensions and pluralization of the word портфель (briefcase):

Ь + А becomes Я:
портфель + а = портфеля  — Genitive / (of) briefcase

Ь + О becomes Е:
портфель + ом = портфелем  — Instrumental / (with) briefcase

Ь + Е becomes Е:
портфель + е = портфеле  — Prepositional / (in) briefcase

Ь + У becomes Ю:
портфель + у = портфелю  — Dative / (to) briefcase

Ь + Ы becomes И:
портфель + ы = портфели  — Plural / briefcases

2. Similarly, only soft vowels may be used after Й.

Let’s see how this one works out for the declensions and pluralization of музей (museum):

Й + А becomes Я:
музей + а = музея  — Genitive / (of) museum

Й + О becomes Е:
музей + ом = музеем  — Instrumental / (with) museum

Й + Е becomes Е:
музей + е = музее  — Prepositional / (in) museum

Й + У becomes Ю:
музей + у = музею  — Dative / (to) museum

Й + Ы becomes И:
музей + ы = музеи — Plural / museums

3. “ы” and “э” never follow “ж” and “ш”

There are eight Russian consonants that are governed by special spelling rules. Ы can never follow consonants Ж and Ш. If you have a word where you need to put Ы after one of these letters, use И instead.

Here are some examples:

Книги (books)

Товарищи! (Comrades!)

Старики (old men)

Consonants Ш, Ж, Щ, Ч and Ц should be followed by O when the syllable is stressed, or E when the syllable isn’t:

В большом хорошем доме (in a big, nice house)

Finally, Ю and Я never follow any of the eight special consonants. Instead, У or A must be used, respectively:

Урока (genitive of lesson)

Отца (genitive of father)

Человеку (dative of man)

With all that under your belt, you’re well on your way to mastering the Russian vowels!

 

Sure, these vowel rules may seem difficult to memorize at first. But if the rules here seem unwieldy, consider the English-language “I before E” rule.

You learned that rule at some point, and you can learn the Russian vowel sounds, too.

Happy learning!

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