THE CYRILLIC ALPHABET
SPELLING RULES -- Three main Russian spelling rules
The Russian alphabet is generally effective at conveying the sounds necessary for the correct pronunciation of Russian. Unlike French, for example, every letter in a word is pronounced, and unlike English, they are pronounced according to set rules to which there are rarely any exceptions. In order to write Russian correctly, however, there are certain concepts, and three spelling rules (which are rules because they are not logical) that must be mastered.
1. Russian builds words by adding endings onto base forms, or roots, which carry a (sometimes very) general meaning. For example, the base form ВОД relates to "water", and adding an -А results in ВОДА, which is the Russian word for water. Adding the ending makes the root into a noun. Russian consonants, such as the Д in ВОДА, are either hard consonants or soft consonants. Whether an ending ends in either a hard or soft consonant is historical luck, but it can change the meaning of the word. Russian considers the default to be a hard consonant, so the letter -Д- on its own is hard. If it is soft, then Russian adds a soft sign ("Ь") to indicate it: "-ДЬ"- is now the soft variant (the actual soft sign is not pronounced). This only works is there is no vowel following the consonant. If there is, then the choice of vowel will reflect whether the consonant preceding it is hard or soft. Vowels generally come in pairs -- one pair to reflect the hard and soft variants of the basic sound. This is an important concept, because generally when adding or changing the endings of words in Russian you cannot change the hardness or softness of the affected consonant -- so hard stays hard, and soft stays soft (with the exception of the prepositional case and some dative endings). Below is a chart of these pairs.
follows a vowel.
Though in Russia (and in class!) we use the Cyrillic alphabet when writing and speaking Russian, there has to be a way to render Russian words in our alphabet (the Latin alphabet) as closely as possible. This is called transliteration and comes in remarkably handy -- especially with computers. If you're needing something in Russian at the library, you can't exactly type the title or author in Cyrilliic, so you do it in our alphabet. The switch from Cyrillic to Latin is done according to certain rules, and all countries do not transliterate Cyrillic in the same manner. For English speakers, there are two forms of transliteration which are most common -- the European (or German, or Czech) system, and the Library of Congress system and its simplified variant. Each system requires accents, which aren't convenient, except for the simplified Library of Congress system, which does not require accents at all and is the system most commonly used in computers as a result. If we didn't have a set of rules, then some people would write Пушкин's name as "Pooshkin" instead of the more common "Pushkin."
When transcribing a word from Russian into English, it is generally advisable to follow the transliteration system, unless there is a convention on how to write the word. For example, Толстой would be transliterated as "Tolstoi" according to the Library of Congress system, and this form is indeed used. However, "Tolstoy" is more familiar.
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