What is the Cyrillic Alphabet?

Niki Foster

The Cyrillic alphabet is a family of alphabets used for a variety of Slavic languages and some non-Slavic languages, including nearly all languages of the former Soviet Union. Cyrillic is the third official alphabet of the European Union, following Latin and Greek, since 1 January 2007, when Bulgaria became a member. The Cyrillic alphabet is named after Saint Cyril, a 9th century Greek missionary to Slavic peoples, who helped develop the writing system.

A map of the Soviet Union. Nearly all languages of the former Soviet Union are written in Cyrillic.
A map of the Soviet Union. Nearly all languages of the former Soviet Union are written in Cyrillic.

The Cyrillic alphabet is based on the Greek alphabet, with other letters added for sounds not in Greek. Saint Cyril and his brother, Saint Methodius, developed the first known Slavic alphabet, Glagolitic, in the 860s, and their students improved upon it, along with the Saints' early version of Cyrillic, in the following decades. By the 12th century, the Cyrillic alphabet had become the preferred writing method for Slavic languages.

There have been many changes in the Cyrillic alphabet over the years. Tsar Peter the Great of Russia called for a Westernization of the alphabet as part of his general plan towards Westernization in the early 18th century. As a result, the Cyrillic alphabet became more similar to the Latin alphabet used for English and most other languages of Western Europe. Russia's political dominance in Eastern Europe led to other countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet also adopting the Latinized version of the alphabet.

The Cyrillic alphabet and Slavic literacy are traditionally celebrated on the feast day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, 11 May in Eastern Orthodox countries and 5 July in Roman Catholic countries. Since 1851 at least, the holiday has been known as the "Day of the Bulgarian script" in some areas. National holidays honoring the brothers and Slavic literacy and culture are celebrated in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Russia, and Slovakia.

Some languages, including Azerbaijani, Moldavian, and Uzbek, have been written in the Latin alphabet as well as the Cyrillic alphabet. Those three languages, in fact, switched their official alphabet from Cyrillic to Latin following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, though the Cyrillic alphabet is still in use in some areas.

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Discussion Comments


Personally, I don't see that what looks like a backward "R" is an improvement over the old alphabet. However, I was interested to learn about the origin of the Cyrillic alphabet. It never occurred to me it was an offshoot of the Greek alphabet! But considering that Saints Cyril and Methodius were important missionaries to the area, it makes perfect sense.

I actually would like to learn to read Russian in the Cyrillic alphabet. I know a few words of Russian that I learned several years ago, but there's not much call for it where I am. Spanish is much more useful. Still, I'd like to learn a little more Russian than I currently speak.

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