What Is the Cyrillic Alphabet? Understanding Cyrillic Script

(Last Updated On: November 19, 2019)
What Is the Cyrillic Alphabet?

When you grow up speaking and writing the only language you have ever known, it can be quite confusing when you first see a completely different alphabet being used by another country. This is the experience that most people who don’t live in Eastern Europe have when they first see Cyrillic script being used. Although it shares some similarities with the Latin alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet can still appear quite strange in the eyes of a native English speaker. 

What Is the Cyrillic Alphabet?

The Cyrillic alphabet was the first form of written language to be used by many Eastern European countries. It was developed out of necessity so that foreign missionaries could more easily communicate with the individuals native to the Eastern areas. After several years of creating and refining the Cyrillic script, it began to get quite popular and quickly started to be used in most Slavic-speaking countries. 

The written language has remained so popular that it is still used either exclusively or in addition to other alphabets in at least 50 different languages. Some of the countries that still use the Cyrillic alphabet include Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Ukraine. 

The unique alphabet uses a combination of the 24 Greek letters in addition to 19 new letters that allow for the proper pronunciation of many Slavic sibilants. Despite how unusual the Cyrillic alphabet looks to the vast majority of people, it is actually considered one of the easiest languages to learn. 

Who Created the Cyrillic Alphabet and Why?

Early Cyrillic Script
The Early Cyrillic alphabet, which was the basis for modern Cyrillic script.

As the Roman Empire continued to expand at an alarming rate around the 3rd and 4th centuries, it began taking over many territories that did not share their Greek language. Therefore, trying to communicate with the people who lived in these newly acquired areas was almost impossible, which made trying to convert them extremely difficult. 

Rather than try and force the Greek language on them, missionaries out of the Byzantine branch of the Roman Empire decided that it would be a much better strategy to try and spread the gospel in the native Slavic language instead. However, issues arose when they discovered that there had not yet been a written alphabet that could be used to effectively communicate the Slavic language. 

Therefore, Prince Rostislav requested that Constantinople send over missionaries to what is now Slovakia and Hungary in order to try and create a language that would make communication easier. The two monks who would be up for the task were the brothers Cyril and Methodius. 

By using their patience and education, the monks were able to create an early rendition of the Cyrillic script known as Glagolithic script or Church Slavonic. It would later become known as Cyrillic script as an homage to its creator. Since it was the first comprehensive attempt to create an alphabet capable of communicating Slavic in written form, this Church Slavonic was adopted by various other countries and was instated as their official language. 

Basics of Cyrillic Script

There are several letters involved in the Cyrillic alphabet that look exactly like they do in the Latin alphabet. However, despite the fact that they look the exact same, they actually have a very different pronunciation associated with them, which can make learning in Cyrillic a bit tricky for a native English speaker. 

For example, even though the Cyrillic alphabet has the letter “B” in it, this is not pronounced as you would think it is. Instead, that letter should be pronounced as “ve”. The other letters in the Cyrillic script that would look familiar to an English speaker include the letters A, E, S, I, J, K, M, H, O, P, C, T, X, and Y. 

Unfortunately, the only ones that are pronounced as they would sometimes be in the English language are the letters A, I, J, K, M, O, T, and Y. Besides these letters, there are about 20 others that will look completely foreign to most individuals. 

How the Cyrillic Alphabet Has Changed

As mentioned earlier, Cyrillic is still the official alphabet used in many different countries located throughout Eastern Europe. However, over the years various parts of the language have changed, such as the exclusion of the hard sign. 

There have also been certain letters that have been left out, depending on where you go. Both Russia and Ukraine use 32 letters, with a possible 33rd depending on how someone views the soft sign. However, the countries of Bulgaria and Serbia only use a 30 letter Cyrillic alphabet. 


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