Nice one, Cyril

In the summer of 864, two scholarly monks named Cyril and Methodius left Constantinople for Moravia, where they remained for the next three years. During that time, they invented a new alphabet with which to transcribes the as then unwritten Slavonic speech. They also translated the Bible and parts of the liturgy.

Cyril, the leading protagonist, came from Thessalonica and his baptismal name was, like that of many emperors, Constantine. In fact, he only adopted the Slavonic name Cyril on his deathbed many years later, but history will forever know him as Cyril and his alphabet as Cyrillic.

Curiously, he chose Macedonian Slavonic as his language for the project, though this may have been the language most familiar to the polyglot monk. It would not have been familiar to the Moravians, whose native dialect was Slovakian. Another good reason for using this language was that the Byzantines were in near constant conflict with the Bulgars, to whom the language would have been much more understandable. What better way than to spread Christianity to the troublesome Bulgars than to spread the word in their own language?

National Library in Sofia: Cyril and Methodius statue

National Library in Sofia with a statue of Cyril and Methodius

Thus was Cyrillic born. While the alphabet has undergone many changes over the years, the basis was laid by Cyril and Methodius. In fact, it would be more accurate to use the plural ‘alphabets’ as each country that uses Cyrillic has developed its own adaptations.

With its origins firmly in the Orthodox Church, it is hardly surprising that those countries that use Cyrillic are ones in which that church is predominant. The following countries use Cyrillic script:

Belarus
Bosnia/Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Kazakhstan
Kyrgyzstan
Macedonia
Mongolia
Montenegro
Russia
Serbia
Tajikistan
Ukraine

Romania is a rare exception of a largely Orthodox country using Latin scripts. The earliest texts in the Romanian language date as recently as the sixteenth century and are in Cyrillic. That script continued into the middle of the nineteenth century, since when Latin has been used.

In neighbouring Moldova, a special version of the Cyrillic alphabet derived from the Russian version was used until 1989, when the Romanian language spoken there officially returned to the Romanian Latin alphabet, although in the breakaway region of Transnistria the Cyrillic alphabet is still used.

There are numerous websites that list all of the alphabets, so we will restrict this article to the Russian alphabet, which contains 33 letters.

А а as in ‘bar’

Б б also as in ‘bar’

В в as in ‘very’

Г г as in ‘gallery’

Д д as in ‘delta’

Е е as in ‘yes’

Ё ё as in ‘yolk’

Ж ж as in ‘treasure’

З з as in ‘zing’

И и as in ‘thee

Й й as in ‘boy

К к as in ‘king’

Л л as in ‘leg’

М м as in ‘man’

Н н as in ‘no’

О о as in ‘more’

П п as in ‘pink’

Р р as in ‘rough’ (though rolled r)

С с as in ‘set’

Т т as in ‘toy’

У у as in ‘loot’

Ф ф as in ‘felt’

Х х as in ‘help’

Ц ц as in ‘lots

Ч ч as in ‘chin’

Ш ш as in ‘ship’

Щ щ as in ‘schtik’ (soft C sound)

Ъ ъ silent hard sign (preventing palatisation of preceding consonant)

Ы ы as in ‘hit’

Ь ь silent soft sign (for palatisation of preceding consonant)

Э э as in ‘bet’

Ю ю as in ‘use’

Я я as in ‘Katya

To western eyes, Cyrillic can appear bewildering at first glance. However, for those of us with English as a first language, there is a logicality to the letters. The important thing is that they tell you how to pronounce a word. In English, we have dilemmas. Should we use a hard or soft C, for example. There are no such mysteries in Cyrillic.

In fact, it’s all relatively simple. A number of letters perform the same, or at least a very similar, function to those in the Latin alphabet. A, E, K, C, O, M, T and even B are much the same in both sets. Once you have fathomed that Cyrillic P, H and X are really R, N and H, you’re a third of the way there already.

Other letters are readily decipherable; the Cyrillic D looks very much like a Greek delta, the G almost identical to gamma and the F (or ph-) like the -th of the Greek theta. The Z is easy enough, too, as many people even in the west write a squiggly Z rather than a sharp-edged one.

As for the Russian alphabet’s best letter, the ‘backward R’, one way to memorise its use is to remember that whenever you see the name ‘Russia’ in Cyrillic, this is the letter you’ll see at the end of the name rather than the beginning.

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