Decoding the Russian alphabet

A recent trip to St Petersburg in Russia was a delight. I was there at the end of June, during the period of the White Nights, when the sun doesn’t set. It’s a magical time to visit this gorgeous city but among all the world-class art galleries, stunning baroque architecture, and fascinating history I found myself seduced by the language and in particular the beautiful Russian Cyrillic alphabet.

Upper case forms of the Russian alphabet. Photo credit: wikipedia

The Cyrillic alphabet is named after the Byzantine scholar Cyril who with his brother Methodius created the first slavic writing system in the 9th century to help translate the Bible. The modern Russian alphabet currently has 33 letters: 10 vowels, 21 consonants, and 2 signs (ь, ъ). But in common with other languages, various changes have been made to the printed form of the language over the past 200 years, including the introduction of new letters, the eliminations of others, and attempts at making spellings more consistent.

Because the Cyrillic alphabet has some letter forms that look similar to our English Latin alphabet, there is a temptation to assume they have the same sounds. For instance, there are letter forms that look like our A, B, C, E, H, K, M, N, O, P, and T. And, although the A, E and K sounds similar to ours, the C turns out to sound like our S, and the H turns our to be the sound for our N. There’s also a letter that looks like a backwards N that sounds like our I and a letter that resembles a lower case r that sounds like a G.

As the days passed, I found myself looking at shop signage and, with the aid of my phrase book, trying to decode what I was seeing. The quickest route to unlocking the treasures of the Cyrillic alphabet turned out to be signs for fast food outlets:

MacDonalds, St Peterburg.


Starbucks Cafe, St Peterburg.


Decoding the Russian alphabet was fun – and has made me seriously think about learning the language, if only to work out what it said on this souvenir t-shirt…

Putin souvenir, St Petersburg.

Thankfully, the internet is a quicker option. A quick search turned up this article on reuters, which tells me that the souvenir slogan – which can be found on t shirts, mugs, even phone covers – says “The most polite of people”. Maybe I’ll just stick to the fast food chains.



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