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The old Cyrillic alphabet is a writing system developed in the First Bulgarian Empire in the ninth or tenth century to write the Old Church Slavonic liturgical language. The modern Cyrillic alphabet continues to be used primarily for Slavic languages, and for Asian languages that were under Russian cultural influence during the 20th century.


The earliest form of manuscript Cyrillic, known as ustav, was based on Greek uncial script, augmented by ligature and by letters from the Glagolitic alphabet for consonants not found in Greek. There was no distinction of capital and lowercase letters, though manuscript letters were rendered larger for emphasis, or in various decorative initial and nameplate forms.

Tradition holds that the two Slavic scripts, Glagolitic and Cyrillic, were invented by two brothers, the monks Saint Methodius and Saint Cyril, who brought Christianity to Bulgaria in the 860s. However, Glagolitic appears to be older, and Cyrillic later. It appears that Glagolitic may have predated the introduction of Christianity, and was only formalized by St Cyril and expanded by him to cover non-Greek sounds, possibly under commission of Boris I when Christianity was made the official state religion in 864. Cyrillic, on the other hand, may have been a creation of Cyril's students, perhaps at the Preslav Literary School, who derived it from a more 'dignified' Greek in the 890s as a more suitable script for church books, though retaining Cyril's non-Greek additions from Glagolitic.

Since its creation, the Cyrillic alphabet has adapted to changes in spoken language and developed regional variations to suit the features of national languages. It has been the subject of academic reforms and political decrees. Variations of the Cyrillic alphabet are used to write languages throughout Eastern Europe and Asia.

The form of the Russian alphabet underwent a change when Tsar Peter I of Russia introduced the Civil Script (Russian graždanskij šrift, or graždanka, in contrast to the prevailing Church Typeface, cerkovnoslavjanskij šrift) in 1708. Some letters and breathing marks which were only used for historical reasons were dropped. Medieval letterforms used in typesetting were harmonized with Latin typesetting practices, exchanging medieval forms for Baroque ones, and skipping the western European Renaissance developments. The reform subsequently influenced Cyrillic orthographies for most other languages. Today, the early orthography and typesetting standards only remain in use in Church Slavonic.

A comprehensive repertoire of early Cyrillic characters is included in the Unicode 5.1 standard, published on April 4, 2008. These characters and their distinctive letterforms are represented in specialized computer fonts for Slavistics.

The alphabet

Image Unicode Name
Trans. IPA Origin Notes
А а az a Greek alpha Α
Б б buky , b Derived from below?
В в vědě v Greek beta Β
Г г glagoli g Greek gamma Γ
Д д dobro d Greek delta Δ
Є є estĭ e Greek epsilon Ε
Ж ж živěte ž, zh Glagolitic zhivete
Ѕ ѕ / Ꙃ ꙃ dzělo dz Greek final sigma ς
З з / Ꙁ ꙁ zemlja z Greek zeta Ζ The first form developed into the second.
И и iže i Greek eta Η
І і / Ї ї i/ižei i, I Greek iota Ι
Ћ ћ gerv, gjerv , đ, dj , Glagolitic djerv Ⰼ ? Revived for Serbian. In Russian, it is used in academic texts to transliterate Glagolitic.
К к kako k Greek kappa Κ
Л л ljudije l Greek lambda Λ
М м myslite / m Greek mu Μ
Н н našĭ n Greek nu Ν
О о onŭ o Greek omicron Ο
П п pokoi p Greek pi Π
Р р rĭci r Greek rho Ρ
С с slovo [slovo] s [s] Greek lunate sigma Ϲ
Т т tvrdo t Greek tau Τ
Оу оу / Ꙋ ꙋ ukŭ u Greek omicron-upsilon ΟΥ / Ꙋ The first form developed into the second, a vertical ligature.
Ф ф frtŭ f Greek phi Φ
Х х xěrŭ x Greek chi Χ
Ѡ ѡ otŭ ō, w Greek omega ω
Ц ц ci c Glagolitic tsi
Ч ч črvĭ č, ch Glagolitic cherv
Ш ш ša š, sh [ʃ] Glagolitic sha
Щ щ šta št, sht Glagolitic shta Later analyzed as a Ш-Т ligature by folk etymology
Ъ ъ jerŭ ŭ, u: Glagolitic yer
Ꙑ ꙑ jery y , or possibly ЪI or ЪИ ligature
Ь ь jerĭ ĭ, i: Glagolitic yerj
Ѣ ѣ jatĭ ě Glagolitic yat Ⱑ ?
Ю ю ju [ju] ju I-ОУ ligature, dropping У There was no [jo] sound in early Slavic, so I-ОУ did not need to be distinguished from I-О.
Ꙗ ꙗ ja [ja] ja I-А ligature
Ѥ ѥ jeː [jɛ] je [iɛ] І-Є ligature
Ѧ ѧ ęsŭ ę, ẽ Glagolitic ens Called юсъ малый (little yus) in Russian.
Ѩ ѩ jęsŭ ję, jẽ I-Ѧ ligature Called юсъ малый йотированный (iotated little yus) in Russian.
Ѫ ѫ ǫsŭ ǫ, õ Glagolitic ons Called юсъ большой (big yus) in Russian.
Ѭ ѭ jǫsŭ jǫ, jõ I-Ѫ ligature Called юсъ большой йотированный (iotated big yus) in Russian.
Ѯ ѯ ksi ks Greek xi Ξ These last four letters were not needed for Slavic but used to transcribe Greek.
Ѱ ѱ psi ps Greek psi Ψ
Ѳ ѳ fita θ, th, T, F / / Greek theta Θ
Ѵ ѵ ižica [iʒitsa] ü, v , , Greek upsilon Υ

In addition to the basic letters, there were a number of scribal variations, combining ligatures, and regionalisms used, all of which varied over time.

See also

[IPA_for_Russian|IPA for Russian]

Numerals, diacritics and punctuation

Each letter had a numeric value also, inherited from the corresponding Greek letter. A titlo over a sequence of letters indicated their use as a number. See Cyrillic numerals, Titlo.

Several diacritics, adopted from Polytonic Greek orthography, were also used (these may not appear correctly in all web browsers; they are supposed to be directly above the letter, not off to its upper right):

  trema, diaeresis (U+0308)
  varia (grave accent), indicating stress on the last syllable (U+0340)
  oksia (acute accent), indicating a stressed syllable (Unicode U+0341)
  titlo, indicating abbreviations, or letters used as numeral (U+0483)
  kamora (circumflex accent), indicating palatalization (U+0484); in later Church Slavonic, it disambiguates plurals from homophonous singulars.
  dasy pneuma, rough breathing mark (U+0485)
  zvatel'tse, or psilon pneuma, soft breathing mark (U+0486). Signals a word-initial vowel, at least in later Church Slavonic.
  Combined zvatel'tse and varia is called apostrof.
  Combined zvatel'tse and oksia is called iso.

Punctuation marks:

  ano teleia (U+0387), a middle dot used as a word separator
  comma (U+002C)
  full stop (U+002E)
  Armenian full stop (U+0589), resembling a colon
  Georgian paragraph separator (U+10FB)
  triangular colon (U+2056, added in Unicode 4.1)
  diamond colon (U+2058, added in Unicode 4.1)
  quintuple colon (U+2059, added in Unicode 4.1)
  Greek question mark (U+037E), similar to a semicolon
  exclamation mark (U+0021)

See also


  1. Cubberley 1994

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