Latin Script in Russia

car.jpegI have heard a few people asking the same question about familiarity with the Latin script in Russia, so I decided this is worth addressing. An American technical writer once asked me if the Latin script in “Кнопка Shift” (“the Shift button”) was as unintelligible to Russians as “кнопка” was to Americans. For anyone who is curious, I told him Russian computers had the English word “Shift” on the keyboard, so people were used to seeing it. On a more serious note, I will list some of the questions about the Latin script in Russia.

Are “English letters” confusing for Russians?

McCafe signReaders of non-Latin script languages tend to have a hard time imagining a Latin-script only perspective, so these questions can often be baffling. At least in Russia, you are routinely exposed to the Latin alphabet. Computer keyboards have both Cyrillic and Latin letters on the same keys, and you toggle between the two by pressing Alt + Shift. URLs and email addresses are (mostly) in Latin letters. Many international brands retain the spelling of their names in Latin letters in Russia. Moreover, math and chemical formulas still use Latin letters. In short, no, Latin letters don’t look like a hodge-podge of symbols to a Russian speaker.

So Russians can read English?

Downing Street signYou might have noticed how I’ve been careful to say “Latin” and not “English” letters. While virtually everyone can read and recognize the Latin script, not everyone will read English. In fact, the most prevalent way of reading Latin letters is the Latin way. So, “a” become “ah,” “bee” becomes “bay”… well, you get the idea. A Russian who hasn’t taken English won’t know that the “u” in “cut” is pronounced like an “uh” — they will probably pronounce it like an “oo,” closer to the Latin.

I’ve seen Russian written in Latin letters; why not do that all the time?

Smena Russian film cameraThe Russian language only uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Any Russian text you saw written with the Latin alphabet is what is called transliterated. That means the sounds of the Russian were approximated using Latin letters. There are several systems of transliteration; however, there is no agreed upon standard for “spelling” Russian with Latin letters. The reason Russian words might have been transliterated was because of encoding restrictions of some of the older applications, where only Latin characters could be displayed properly. This practice is really a workaround and is frowned upon.

For these reasons, you should only use the Cyrillic script for your Russian documents. If you are working with a professional copyeditor or translator for your Russian communications, they will be able to verify that all Russian text is legible and not corrupted. Learn how I can help you produce professional content in Russian.

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2 thoughts on “Latin Script in Russia

  1. Having taken one semester of Russian as an undergraduate (and forgotten pretty much everything except the Cyrillic alphabet) it seems to me that the Cyrillic alphabet is tailor-made for Russian and other Slavic languages.

    Polish is a Slavic language that uses the Latin alphabet and it seems to me that more letters are required to spell the same words–and look how often Americans trip over the spelling of Polish names (not that the ease of usage for Americans should be a factor, of course). Our last mayor was named Dave Cieslewicz (Chess-LEV-ich) and he was continually referred to as “Mayor Dave.”

    I remember when learning the Cyrillic alphabet finding it strange that there was a letter with the pronunciation of “shch.” And then I remembered the name of Nikita Khrushchev. I thought, “well that certainly simplifies the spelling.”

    1. Thank you for your insightful comment. From what I’ve heard, that is very true. When the Slavonic alphabets (Glagolitic/Cyrillic) were initially created, their creators seemed to cherry-pick suitable letters from various alphabets — Latin, Hebrew, possibly Armenian?
      Again, from what I’ve read, “shch” approximates the old pronunciation of щ – namely sh + ch. This letter is now pronounced “sh” (palatalized) as opposed to ш, which is closer to the “hard” German sch.
      I personally prefer phonetic transliteration of certain names, so I would rather see something like Hrushyov. Your average English speaker won’t know the difference between “kh” and “k” and will probably think the former is a weird way of spelling the latter. So what’s the point of representing the Russian spelling if it is meaningless to the English audience, anyway.
      This being said, there are accepted transliterations, and Khushchev (and the corresponding pronunciation KROO-shev) is one of them.

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