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Who Invented the Cyrillic Alphabet?

Who Invented the Cyrillic Alphabet?

You might already have seen those strange-looking letters that appear half-Greek and half-Latin, commonly used in Russia and its neighboring countries. It’s the Cyrillic alphabet, the third official alphabet in the European Union, after Latin and Greek.

The first Slavic alphabet, created in the 9th century by two brothers, led scholars and authors to develop the Cyrillic Alphabet.

In addition, it serves as the official script for over 50 different languages, including Russian, Uzbek, Ukrainian, and Serbian. So, if you want to study any of these languages, you’ll first need to learn the Cyrillic alphabet.

What is the Cyrillic Alphabet?

Cyrillic script/alphabet, also called Slavic script or Slavonic script, is a comprehensive writing system that is used for multiple languages across Eurasia. According to statistics [1], it’s used by hundreds of millions of people in multiple countries across Central and Northern Asia and Eastern Europe.

Cyrillic alphabet.
Cyrillic alphabet
FDRMRZUSA, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

People, who aren’t familiar with the history of the Cyrillic alphabet, often get confused due to the name of this script because it doesn’t specify the country of origin. For that reason, many people also called it the Russian alphabet as it is most popular in Russia.

The invention of this script has nothing to do with Russia because it was conceived in Bulgaria [2]. Therefore, many Bulgarian intellectuals, such as Stefan Tsanev [3], suggest that it should be called the Bulgarian alphabet.

Regardless of the etymology, the Cyrillic alphabet has played a crucial role in the cultural and intellectual development of the Slavic people and continues to be an important part of their heritage.

It’s also an important part of the broader history of the alphabet, as one of the most widely used writing systems in the world.

Cyrillic Alphabet Invention and Development – Who Invented It and How

Bulgaria and some other countries in Europe used to worship pagan deities in the 9th century. People in these countries had to make a choice – become Christian by joining the Byzantine Orthodox church or becoming Roman Catholic.

At that time, both religions wanted to have more political control by gaining new worshippers.

To help new Christians read and understand religious books in their language, the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) came up with a clever idea.

This task was assigned to two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, from Thessaloniki. They created the very first Slavic alphabet, called the Glagolitic [4], to translate Greek religious books into the Slavic language.

On the basis of this Slavic alphabet, the followers of Cyril and Methodius, including Clement, Saints Naum, Sava, and Angelar, developed the Cyrillic alphabet in the 11th century, in the Preslav Literary School [5].

The original Cyrillic alphabet consisted of 24 letters taken from the Greek alphabet and 19 additional ones from the Slavic language (for Slavic sounds).

Further Development 

There were many popular scholars and writers working at the Preslav Literary School, such as Chernorizets Hrabar, Joan Ekzarh, Constantine of Preslav, and Naum of Preslav.

The school also served as a translation center, especially for Byzantine authors. They started translating religious books to teach Christianity to the people living in the kingdom of Bulgaria.

As a result, the Cyrillic alphabet spread quickly among people of both Slavic and non-Slavic languages. It became the basis of the alphabet that people used in different languages in the areas of Eastern Europe dominated by the Orthodox Church.

St. George church at Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople.
St. George church at Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople
Klearchos Kapoutsis from Santorini, Greece, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s important to note that the Cyrillic alphabet was also used by Muslims Slavs and Catholics for centuries.

The literature that scholars and writers produced started reaching north from Bulgaria and soon became the lingua franca of Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

How Was the Russian Alphabet Developed?

The Cyrillic alphabet was first written in Russia in the early Middle Ages. People at that time used legible, clear-cut, and large letters to write this script, and cursive forms were developed much later.

The Cyrillic alphabet remained pretty much the same in Russia for centuries, and the first significant reform took place in the early 18th century.

Peter the Great, a Russian monarch, decided to reform the written language. So, he liquidated some of the original letters of the Cyrillic script and added some new ones to introduce a new writing style.

This new script was called the Civil Russian alphabet, and it was closer to the Latin alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet only had capital letters but the introduction of the civil script allowed people to use lowercase letters as well.

Use of Civil Russian Alphabet

This new writing style was specifically meant for civil texts, such as military, papers, textbooks, fiction, and scientific literature. So, the use of the original Cyrillic letters (old Slavic language) was reduced and it became the script just to be used for religious texts.

Russian Civil Script as of 1707.
Russian Civil Script as of 1707
Лобачев Владимир, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The adoption of the civil alphabet allowed Russian books to resemble European ones. It also made it easier to print new books using the standard printing machines that Russians used to import from western Europe.

The first book printed in 1708 using the Civil Russian alphabet is called the Geometry of the Slavonic Semlemerie [6].

Another change that Peter the Great made in the Civil Russian alphabet was the inclusion of Arabic numerals. Before that, people had been using Cyrillic letters.

The Russian alphabet continued to change/update over the next several centuries. Many Cyrillic letters were removed and some special letters, such as “ё” were introduced.

In 1917 – 1918, the last major reform was carried out, resulting in the modern Russian alphabet, which now consists of 33 letters.

Proposal To Replace Cyrillic Alphabet With Latin Alphabet

In the early 20th century, during the time of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Soviet period, it was proposed that the Cyrillic alphabet be replaced with the Latin alphabet [7].

This was part of a broader effort by the Soviet authorities to reduce the influence of religion and traditional culture and to promote the adoption of more “modern” and “international” ways of thinking.

Although the acceptance of this proposal would have made it easy for modern-day students to learn Russian, it wasn’t accepted. The Cyrillic alphabet continued to be used in Russia and other Slavic countries and remains a crucial part of their cultural heritage and national identity.

What Other Languages Use Cyrillic Alphabet

Serbian Cyrillic alphabet.
Serbian Cyrillic alphabet
FDRMRZUSA, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Cyrillic alphabet is used to write several languages in addition to Russian. Some of the most notable examples include Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Belarusian, Macedonian, and Serbian. 

These languages were developed from the same Slavic language group and share many similarities in their vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

In addition to these Slavic languages, some non-Slavic languages also use the Cyrillic Alphabet, including Mongolian and some of the languages spoken in parts of Central Asia and the Caucasus. 

They have adapted the Cyrillic alphabet to suit their unique sounds and writing conventions. 

It is used by a wide range of languages and language groups and continues to play an important role in the cultural and intellectual life of the people who use it.

Modern-Day Cyrillic Language

The modern Cyrillic alphabet consists of 33 letters, including 21 consonants and 12 vowels. It is written from left to right, and the letters are generally similar in shape to their Latin counterparts.

However, there are some differences in the way the letters are written and pronounced, particularly with regard to the letters that represent vowel sounds.

It has evolved over time, and different languages use several variations of the alphabet. 

For example, the Russian and Bulgarian alphabets are slightly different, with the Russian alphabet having an additional letter (Ё) and the Bulgarian alphabet having several letters that are not used in Russian.

Overall, the Cyrillic alphabet is a complex and fascinating writing system, with a rich history and a wide range of uses. It continues to be an important part of the Slavic people and is an essential tool for communication and education in many parts of the world.

Final Words

While it is true that the modern Russian alphabet has undergone some changes since the original Cyrillic alphabet was developed in the 9th century, the basic principles of the alphabet have remained the same.

In addition, it is not necessary to be an expert to learn how to read the original Cyrillic alphabet and understand the texts written in it. However, some knowledge of the history and usage of this alphabet will surely be helpful.

In other words, while it may require some effort and study, anyone can learn how to read the original Cyrillic alphabet and understand the texts written in it. It is not a skill that is limited only to experts.