Cyrillic Will Drive You Bonkers

My efforts in the past month to learn Ukrainian via DuoLingo have been steady and enjoyable, and it’s great to see words that I recognize from Twitter feeds, even if only a few.

But one aspect of the language that has caught me off-guard is the Cyrillic script. It is a beautiful script with a rich history in eastern Europe, and used in many languages today, however because of its overlap with the Roman alphabet, it’s also confusing me a lot.1 Unlike something entirely different like Korean hangeul or Japanese hiragana, when I try to read Cyrillic, and i am not paying attention, my brain jumps back to English readings and I tend to mispronounce words. The script itself is just as easy to learn, as any other script, but learning to undo habits as a native English speaker is a lot harder.

Here’s some examples of letters that overlap with English:

English LetterUkrainian Pronunciation
H“en” as in “noodle”
B“vee” as in “vest”
P“ar” as in “road”
C“es” as in “snake”
Msame as in English
Xa kind of throaty sound, like the “h” that you might hear in Arabic, Hebrew or Ancient Greek
Y“oo” as in “food”
I“ee” as in “feet”
Ksame as in English

You can see how many look like English, and some even sound like English, but many others have entirely different pronunciation. Then there are letters that kind of look like English letters, but are not.

LetterUkrainian Pronuncation
Я“ya” as in “yawn”
И“ih” as in “fish”2
Є“ye” as in the rapper.
Ш“sh” as in “sherbert”
Й“yih” as in “yip”

…and so on. Also, bear in mind that various Slavic languages that use Cyrillic use them in slightly different ways from one another.3 An old Russian friend of mine who’s also been learning Ukrainian to appreciate what’s happening (and not what propaganda says), told me that the “и” and “е” in Ukrainian are read differently than what he’s used to, and therefore confusing to him.

However, all hope is not lost. As I familiarize myself with basic Ukrainian vocabulary and start to see certain words over and over again, they are starting to internalize and I get mixed up a little less and less each time. It’s really strange when i try to read something in English, but as if it were a Ukrainian word. 🤪

But practice and patience are gradually paying off.

Cyrillic is a pretty fascinating and useful script to familiarize yourself with, but be prepared for confusion if your first languages uses the Roman alphabet.

P.S. Featured image provided by Wikimedia Commons and shows an excerpt of the Lord’s Prayer from the 1780’s. Photo by Ioan Bob, Public domain.

P.P.S. More great information on the Cyrillic alphabet can be found here:

1 I bet Ukrainian / Russian speakers feel similar frustration with learning English. 😄

2 when Ukrainian is romanized, this letter is expressed as “y” which is even more confusing.

3 Just as the Roman alphabet is applied to languages like English, French, Spanish and German in slightly different ways, with letters that appear in one but not others.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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