History of The Cyrillic Alphabet

Many people who want to study Russian or most Slavic languages complain that it is too hard, and one of the main difficulties they face is to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, which is very different from the Latin alphabet we are used to. In this article we will take a look at the Cyrillic alphabet history and a few curiosities about it.

Named after the Byzantine missionary Saint Cyril, the Cyrillic alphabet was developed around the 10th century AD in the First Bulgarian Empire. This writing system was developed as a considerable share of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman Empire was comprised by Slavic people and the Orthodox religious texts were still in Greek. So, St. Cyril and his brother Methodius developed the “Glagolitsa”, a new script based on the Greek alphabet for the Slavic population to be introduced to the religious texts, but with a few different letters that represented specific sounds in their language.

This was the predecessor to the modern Cyrillic alphabet. At the end of the century, it became the church official language in the Kievan Rus’ empire, and spread in all its dependencies, becoming the mainstream writing system. It originally had all the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet and 19 new letters that represented specific sounds in the Slavic language.

The alphabet did not suffer major changes for almost 800 years, when Tsar Peter the Great introduced a reform at the beginning of the 1700’s. The emperor decided to exclude a few archaic letters and introduced a new way of writing consisting of both capitalized and lower-case letters, which was defined as the “Civil Russian Alphabet”, and used in scientific papers, text books, military, and fiction literature. At the same time, the old-fashioned script was still used by the church.

This reform enabled Russian language books to be pressed in a similar way to modern European books as Peter mandated the use of westernized letter forms. It also enabled the use of Arabic numerals instead of Cyrillic letters that were used to represent numbers until then.

Since the late 19th century, there were several proposals to replace the Cyrillic alphabet as the official writing script of Russia. During the soviet period, there were many versions of the Latin alphabet that were considered as a replacement, which could have made the learning process of the Russian language much easier for western foreigners. Still, they were ultimately rejected.

During the 20th century came a second reform which removed several letters, and the Cyrillic alphabet started looking the way it is now. At the same time, Slavic linguists created written languages for the various ethnic groups that were part of the USSR, which were all based on the Cyrillic script.

Until nowadays many Slavic and non-Slavic countries still officially use this alphabet, such as Ukraine, Bulgaria, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, and others, which brings a total of about 50 different languages using it. Cyrillic is also the third official script in the European Union, after the Latin and Greek alphabets. Did you learn something new about the history of the Cyrillic alphabet?