How to Pronounce the Russian Vowel Ы (5 Approaches)

  • January 19, 2018

Often the Russian vowel Ы is one of the hardest Russian letters for native English speakers to pronounce. This is because Ы simply has no equivalent in the English language. 

When I first started learning Russian the letter sounded more like a noise than an actual letter. I simply didn't have a frame of reference for making the correct sound. 

In this post we'll take a look at a few difference ways to get to a correct pronunciation of Ы. While there is one correct way to pronounce the letter, there are multiple ways to find it. 

1) Find ы between [i] and [u] 

Russian's ы lies somewhere between the [i] sound in the English word "hockey" and the [u] sound from "boom". If you watch your lip position and practice going back and forth between these two sounds you should be able to find the ы sound.

2) Use the consonant ш

You can actually use the Russian consonant ш to find the correct pronunciation of ы. Pronounce the ш sound while trying to make a vowel sound as lazily as possible (don't move your lips and keep your tongue back). The sound you're likely to make is the ы sound. 

3) Find ы from и

One of the most common ways to find the correct pronunciation of ы is to compare it to tongue position of the vowel и. Notice how when we pronounce ы the back of our tongue raises. When we pronounce и our tongue is in a more forward position.

4) Smile or use a toothbrush

These next two approaches come from a Russian speech therapist. I would have never thought this on my own, but there're both great techniques. Just be careful with the toothbrush!

5) Pretend you're stabbing yourself in the stomach

This is final approach is a bit unorthodox, but many have said that it's helped them. Basically you find the ы sound by imitating the sound you might make if you shoved a dagger into your gut (gruesome I know). I found that it helps to think of those ridiculous death scenes from old kung fu movies. 

Final thoughts

Between these different approaches you should be able to find the correct pronunciation of ы. Even after you find the sound it will take some practice before you can easily use it in a word or within a Russian sentence. 

Practice making the sound with different consonants, then work your way up to shorter and eventually longer words. Once you nail this difficult vowel sound you might actually impress your Russian speaking friends!

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