A Beginner's Guide to Cyrillic
aka 'Where's My Secret Decoder Ring!'
The Cyrillic Alphabet
Reading Cyrillic is a bit like playing the memory card game from childhood, except instead of remembering which card is the red shovel you overturned 3 turns ago, you have to remember which letter you're reading
looks like and stands for the same as the corresponding roman alphabet character (A, M)
looks like a roman alphabet letter but stands for another one (B = V, H = N)
stands for another letter of the alphabet but is actually a number (3 = Z, б =B)
looks like a roman alphabet letter but is actually a sound made by pressing teeth and tongue together to make a sound in a throat-clearing manner (Х = kha, Ш = sha)
resembles a greek letter (П = P, Ф = F)
is backwards and/or looks like something I doodled in executive meetings (Я= ya, И = eee, Ж = zhe)
SO, when trying to navigate one's way around Russia it becomes a game of double-translation - first the Cyrillic to a Roman alphabet equivalent, whereby you can sound out the Russian word, and then from the Russian word to the equivalent English one.
To read an average-length word, mentally it goes a little something like:
"Right, ok, backwards 7 is G, A ...is that actually A or is it another letter?...no, it's A, Pi which equals P, wait no, that's more like a lambda so that's an L, backwards N with squiggle which is an 'eeee' sound, kinda, C which is actually S, K which is K, backwards R which equals the sound 'ya', 3 which is...er...right...the Z-sound. So to sound it out that is...wait what was the backwards N-squiggle again?"
You can see how this might be a long and tedious process.
The first few days in Russia I hadn't figured out anything beyond C = S and P = R and relied on the English menus in the restaurants (which were interesting in and of itself, given I had 'fried under oppression with greens in plum sauce' night 1 - Ringlish for 'quail' evidently). Either that, or take the chances of getting beef tongue in aspic by playing Russian menu lucky dip "uhhhh...I'll have the 3rd one down I guess".
However, by the end of week 1 I had a few letters down and was starting to be able to sound out words in the manner one would see Bert & Ernie perform on Sesame Street, e.g.
Approaching one of the many short stops between Moscow ("MOCKBA") and Irkutsk ("ИPKУTCK") I decided to test my improved Cyrillic reading capabilities and sound out the name of the station:
"Hey guys! We're at, er, yeeeeh-nnnnn-tttt-errrrrr-nnnnyyyy-ehhh----. Oh. Internet."
On the restaurant car in the train I managed, with the assistance of my Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook* culinary reader section, to translate 3 items on the menu as being 'fish pie.'
Ultimately Cyrillic requires a great deal of patience in addition to highly developed abstract reasoning skills. I may score off the charts on the latter but anyone who knows me, knows I lack the former - so I give up.
I have all confidence that Mandarin will be much easier.
*A Plug for Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook
One need only go to the social section in the Russian Phrasebook to know just how worthwhile this purchase is. You can learn such essential travelling phrases as:
Would you like to go out tonight?
Yes I'd love to.
Sorry I can't.
Would you like a drink?
This isn't normally how I meet people.
Excuse me, I have to go now.
I like you very much.
Do you want a massage?
Don't worry, I'll do it myself.
It helps to have a sense of humour.
Is that why you're single?
My suggestion is that, if you're getting to the 'We need to talk' or 'Will you go out with me / meet my parents / marry me' part of the love & romance section, your Russian requirements are beyond the capabilities of the Lonely Planet phrasebook. But perhaps someone has successfully applied these essential travelling phrases, who knows!