The History of Cyrillic


The Cyrillic alphabet is currently in use by several eastern European languages, primarily Russian, and also Serbian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Byelorussia, Macedonian. This set of characters is usually attributed to St. Cyril (827-869), who, along with his brother St. Methodius (826-884), was sent from Thessalonica, Greece, by Emperor Michael III to Christianize the Khazars. The Khazars were a Tatar people of the Balkan region (now Slovakia) who practiced Judaism. It is apparent that the missionary effort was not very successful, since the Khazars were probably the source population of much of European Jewry.

As a royal commission, Cyril was directed to create a Slavonic alphabet as a church standard from the mélange of Greek, Hebrew, old Latin, and various rogue characters in common use in the Ninth century. Cyril did indeed create an alphabet, but it was far from the Cyrillic for which he is credited. It was the Glagolitic  alphabet, derived in part from Greek, but also containing some entirely new forms. The design of the letters was artistic, and, as shown below, had strong resemblances to church architecture in form. The illustration shows only a portion of the entire alphabet, with their Latin letter equivalents.

The above is a small sample and is presented in its simplified format. Hand illustrated books and manuscripts in old Glagolitic are incredibly ornate and decorative, as the sample from a 14th century manuscript shows:


Over time, the Glagolitic letter forms became softened and more rounded, and the following was used from the 10th century almost to modern times in Slavonic liturgical writings.

The word "Glagolitic" is derived from "Glagol", which meant "word" and was used for the fourth letter (g) of the alphabet. "Glagol" means "verb" in modern Russian. Originally, "Glagol" probably came from an Old Slavic verb meaning "to speak." Cyril died in Rome, but not before the Vatican approved of his revised Slavonic liturgy. Both Cyril and Methodius were canonized by Pope Leo XIII in 1881. The Cyrillic character set, as used to this day, was actually the work of one or more of Cyril's students under the leadership of the Bulgarian tsar Simeon. This character set achieved common use in the 10th century, and contained many letters derived from Greek. It was not until the Europeanization of Russia by Peter the Great (1682-1725), that the notion of upper and lower case letters was introduced. It was decreed that sentences should begin with larger letters, i.e., upper case. Many German, French, and even English words were added to the Russian vocabulary at that time.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the Cyrillic alphabet comprised 38 letter pairs (more than that outside of Russia proper). The extra letters included some Greek forms, like the dotted-i, the "fitah" (from the Greek "theta"), the "izhitsa" (looks like a "V" with a serif on the top right tip), and the infamous "yatz":   

"Yatz" had a phonetic value exactly equivalent to the letter "e", that is a "yeh" sound. It appeared seemingly randomly instead of "e" in many Russian words. The reasons were obscure, partly from word origins, partly from tradition and sheer habit. In any case, school children had to memorize, by rote, long lists of words which were spelled with "yatz" instead of "e."

After the Bolsheviks took over the government in 1918, politics presided over the prestigious Academy of Science and other agencies. Two major advances in Westernization took place. First the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian, and second, the Cyrillic orthography was simplified mainly by the removal of the spurious letters dotted-i, fitah, izhitsa, and, most significantly, the yatz was abolished, along with the long lists of words that tortured children. In addition, the over-used "hard-sign" was removed, except in a few cases were it was truly needed. As a result, Russian today is an almost perfectly phonetically spelled language. This makes transliteration from Russian to English fairly easy and accurate. Not so the other way. The rules of English spelling are variable, uncertain and downright capricious.

Some useful links:

    Glagolitic Records - Historical Background

    Cyrillic Character Sets

     Also search under "Glagolitic" and "Cyrillic" on the Web for a wealth of information


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