The History of the Cyrillic Alphabet

Cyrillic. This word alone terrifies many learners of Slavic languages around the world. Letters that look similar to the ones in Latin script but make other sounds, letters that don't make any sound at all… They all just seem so complicated. In this article, we want to share with you the history of the Cyrillic alphabet and how it became what it is now.

Unfortunately, there are still many gaps in the history of the origin of the Cyrillic alphabet, and there are many different factors that have contributed to such a loss of information. The main one being that not many materials on ancient Slavic writing have survived, due to the poor durability of the materials or people’s disinterest in their perseverance. Slavs used to write mostly on birchbark, therefore they were unlikely to be saved to this today. However, it is still possible to outline the main events that led to the changes in the alphabet.

In the second half of the 9th century, Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire) was home to a fairly large number of different Slavic ethnicities. It served as the main reason for emperor Michael III to create a new alphabet for the Old-Slavic language in order to translate Greek religious texts into it. He entrusted this task to the brothers Cyril and Methodius. That is why, as you might have already guessed, the new alphabet was named after one of them. There are also theories that Cyril originally invented the so-called Glagolitic alphabet that had symbols slightly different from those in Cyrillic which was later invented by one of his students. At the end of the 10th century, the Cyrillic alphabet became the language of the Church and religious texts of Kievan Rus. It slowly spread all over the territory of modern Russia and several other countries and became the main type of written language. At that time the Cyrillic alphabet consisted of the letters of the Greek alphabet and some additional ones that were meant for Slavic sounds absent in Greek.

Old Slavic Alphabet

Since its creation, kirillitsa (the Russian name of the Cyrillic alphabet) did not undergo any major changes in quite a long time. The first major update of the alphabet happened in the early 18th century when Peter the Great carried out a writing reform. The Emperor decided to get rid of some letters and introduced a new way of writing - the Civil Script. It was the first time that lower case letters appeared in Russian (the text was written in capital letters before that). The new writing style was intended for secular texts: textbooks, periodicals, military and educational institutions, and fiction. The usage of the old variant of writing was limited to religious literature. It is still used in orthodox churches in modern Russia.

The introduction of the Civil Script helped make the Russian books look more like the European ones. It has also helped facilitate the publication of new books on printing presses from Western Europe. The first book printed in the Civil Font was a geometry textbook published in 1708.

Also since the reforms of Peter the Great, Russia began to use Arabic numerals. Before that, the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet had been used instead.

During the three centuries, the Cyrillic alphabet underwent several reforms. The number of letters generally decreased, except for the letters "э" and "й" (used earlier but legalized in the 18th century) and the only special letter - “ё”, proposed by Princess Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova. The last major reform of the Russian alphabet was carried out in 1917-1918, and the result of it was the modern Russian alphabet, consisting of 33 letters, as we know it today.

Currently, the following countries use the Cyrillic alphabet as their official alphabet: Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Montenegro, Abkhazia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Transnistria, Tajikistan, South Ossetia. The Cyrillic alphabet of non-Slavic languages was replaced by the Latin alphabet in the 1990s but is still used unofficially as the second alphabet in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

One of the best qualities of the script that is worth mentioning is that words are pronounced as they are written. In both Old Slavonic and modern Russian, we will not find such a noticeable discrepancy between the spelling of the words and their pronunciation, as, for example, in English or French.

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