Mastering Russian Vowels: All the Rules You Need to Know
“The Pirates’ Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”
If you’re a fan of the popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series, you may recall this memorable quote spoken by Davy Jones, the feared captain of the Black Pearl.
As a result of Jones’s loose rule-following, the young heroine Elizabeth ends up a shipboard prisoner.
But did you know that Davy Jones’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 honestly more like “guidelines.” There are tons of exceptions (and exceptions to the exceptions!) to consider.
Are you feeling like a prisoner to Russian vowel usage?
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. After reviewing these vowel usage rules (and when to break them), you’ll feel like you’re enjoying a relaxing beach holiday—rather than sailing through troubled waters.
Mastering Russian Vowels: All the Rules You Need to Know
Russian Vowel Pairs: Similarities and Differences Between Letters and Sounds
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.
But First, a Note on Pronunciation:
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.
А and Я
A: A is relatively easy for language learners because it looks just like an English letter “a” and has a sound similar to the English “a” as in the case of animal or apple. A follows hard consonants as showcased in these examples:
Знать (to know)
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.
English words with the correct Я sound would be yacht, yard or yawn.
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. For example:
Я люблю тебя. (I love you.)
Я американец. (I am an American.)
Я хочу купить водку. (I want to buy vodka.)
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 hello. 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. However, to a large extent 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.
While the Ё rule remains steadfast, it has reverted back to a “guideline” in recent years. This is especially true in the case of text messaging, since the E is much easier to type on mobile phones and devices. Other digital media platforms have followed suit; see, for example, this post from the news agency RIA, which leaves out the two dots in ушёл (left).
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. Some of the most common Э words are:
Это (this, that, it)
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.
Ехать (to go by transport)
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.
Думать (to think)
Рука (hand, arm)
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.”
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. Common И words include:
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 that you should memorize:
Ты (you: singular and informal)
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, masculine nouns may end in Й:
Or sometimes a soft sign:
Unless they’re masculine by nature:
Feminine nouns, on the other hand, commonly end in the vowels A or Я, or a soft sign, such as:
Finally, neuter nouns can typically be recognized as ending in O, Е, Ё or MЯ, as in the case of:
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. The 7-, 5- and 8-letter spelling rules apply to certain consonants.
There are eight Russian consonants that are governed by special spelling rules. Those consonants are: К, Г, Х (which are called velars), Ш, Ж, Щ, Ч (which are referred to as hushers) and Ц.
The seven-letter spelling rule involves the velars and hushers and states that Ы can never follow those letters. If you have a word where you need to put Ы after one of these letters, use И instead. Here are some examples:
Старики (old men)
The five-letter spelling rule requires the hushers (Ш, Ж, Щ, Ч,) and Ц 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, the eight-letter spelling rule states that 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. (If only it weren’t more like a guideline!)
You learned that rule at some point, and you can learn the Russian vowel sounds, too.