Why Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet

Why Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet
29 December 2022

For most of us it is one of the first things to tackle when learning Russian: The Cyrillic alphabet. Despite looking very cool it can be a bit confusing when starting out the journey into the craziness of Russian. It’s basically like learning to read again, since it only has five letters which look and sound like their Latin counterpart. Don’t let that scare you off though. You can get an overview of all the letters and their pronunciation here and the is plenty of good advice for learning like this article. However, we will take a closer look at the history of the Cyrillic script.


Origin of the Cyrillic alphabet:

Tracing its origins all the way back to the 9th century not everything is known about how the Cyrillic script developed. According to current knowledge it started out in the Mediterranean. Byzantine Emperor Michael III sent two priests, Cyril and Methodius, on a mission to spread Christianity among the Slavic people. They created the Glagolitic alphabet which facilitated the translation of Greek religious text into Old Church Slavonic. Later the students of Cyril and Methodius created the early Cyrillic alphabet in the Bulgarian Empire. It was a simplification of the Glagolitic alphabet, with letters looking more similar to the Greek alphabet.


Cyrillic in Russia:

Together with the Christian belief the Cyrillic script was spread throughout Europe’s Slavic population. Old Church Slavonic became somewhat of a lingua franca for them. And this way it also spread to Russia. However, if you ever visited a Russian Orthodox Church you have probably seen a lot of letters which you wouldn’t find in modern day Russian. So where did they go? Well, responsible for their disappearance is Tsar Peter the Great himself. During his rule of the Tsardom of Russia he introduced many reforms regarding different fields of Russian society. These reforms also affected the Alphabet. In 1708 he introduced the “civil script” (rus. гражданский шрифт), dropping unwanted letters by simply crossing them out of charts. It also eliminated all sorts of diacritics except of the “Й” and introduced Arabic numerals. Before Cyrillic letters were used for numbers.


Cyrillic script nowadays:

Today there are nine countries that use Cyrillic as their official script. And just like the Latin alphabet has different adaptations for different languages so does the Cyrillic alphabet. Take a look at the Kyrgyz Cyrillic alphabet for example. It contains the three letters “Ң”, “Ү” and “Ө” which it uses for very specific sounds and therefore are not a part of every version of the Cyrillic alphabet. These kind of adaptations help a lot with the phonetical consistency of each language.

And the phonetical consistency is exactly what I love the Cyrillic alphabet for. Taking a look at English, you can find the same letter making different kinds of sounds depending on its context. In Russian you really only have this problem with the letter “О”, which can also be pronounced similar to an “A”. There’s this funny video illustrating just how inconsistent English is with its pronunciation. And I think after watching it you will understand how useful the Cyrillic alphabet actually is. Спасибо за чтение, thank you for reading.

Finn Botjes, currently learning Russian at Liden & Denz Riga

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