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Useful Notes / Cyrillic Alphabet

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The Cyrillic alphabet and the languages that use it.

About the alphabet itself

Cyrillic alphabet comes from the time of the Christianization of Kievan Rus' and other Slavs under the influence of the Byzantine Empire. As legend says, it was created by two monks, Cyril and Methodius, to be used as the Slavic peoples' alphabet. In truth, they created the Glagolitic alphabet, which is the early version and looks very different from the known Cyrillic. The original Cyrillic was actually created by their Bulgarian disciple, Saint Clement of Ohrid (Kliment Ohridski), who created new glyphs based mostly on Greek lettering styles of the era (with some letters drawn from Glagolitic and Coptic) and named it after his teacher Cyril. This original alphabet survives today as the alphabet of ceremonial books in the Russian Orthodox Church (in Russia, it is also used to evoke archaic style and all-Russianness, similar to how Germans use Fraktur or the Japanese use hentaigana). However, the Slavic languages (several of which don't use the Cyrillic alphabet at all; see below) have changed significantly, and today we have several simplified Cyrillic alphabets, each tied to a specific language.

The major difference of Cyrillic from Latin script is that some Cyrillic letters change the way the previous letter is pronounced (which is actually quite common in various scripts using Latin too, but as they are much more varied, hardly anyone notices), but all changes are somehow systematic — unlike, say, as it it in English.note  There are a few exceptions from pronouncing rules, but even they may still be pronounced as written without misunderstanding.

The major inherited problem with Cyrillic scripts is that it shares very few letters with Latin scripts, or, more precisely, in many cases it uses the same glyphs to denote different sounds. For example, Cyrillic letter "Р/р" corresponds not to the Latin "P/p", but the Greek rho, meaning "R/r". Thus, it requires its own 66 or more codepoints in character encoding. In the past, when single-byte encodings were used, there were at least three incompatible character encodings for Russian Cyrillic in active use and some for other languages as well.

Even now, 'translit', i.e. direct transliteration of Cyrillic letters with some groups of Latin letters, is in active use when normal Cyrillic is hard to use. Another historical note is that Cyrillic appears to not be the first Slavic writing system. Before it and Glagolitic alphabet, early pagan Slavs apparently used their own indigenous writing system, known as "cherty i rezy", "strokes and incisions", after the offhand mention in a book by the Bulgarian monk and writer Hrabr.

Unfortunately, so little remained from the pre-Christian Slavic culture that now there are no undoubted specimens of that writing, which some linguists presume to be runic in nature and used mostly in pagan religious rituals, while others speculate that it was much more widespread and used as a common writing, being syllabicnote  and thus close in nature to the early Greek "linear scripts" or Japanese kana.

The Slavic world has historically been religiously divided between Rome and Constantinople, and as a result, the choice of alphabet often has religious roots, with Latin characters preferred in majority-Catholic countries and Cyrillic in majority-Orthodox ones. This is most evident in the former Yugoslav territories, where Catholic Croatia and Slovenia and majority-Muslim Bosnia prefer Latin alphabets, while the largely Orthodox Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia use Cyrillic. (Majority-Muslim Kosovo uses Latin for Albanian and Cyrillic for Serbian.) Since Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, and Slovene all form part of a single West South Slavic dialect continuum, the situation is similar to that of the Hindustani languages, where Hindi is written in Devanagari, Urdu in Perso-Arabic, and dialects from outside South Asia generally use the Latin alphabet. Outside the area, the majority-Catholic countries of Polandnote , the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, as well as Slavic communities (e.g. Sorbian) in Austria, Hungary, Germany, and Italy, use the Latin alphabet, while Orthodox Russia, Ukraine, and Bulgaria use Cyrillic. Romania is an exception; they speak a Romance language but are majority Orthodox, and switched from Cyrillic to Latin in the middle of the 19th century, while neighboring (formerly Soviet) Moldova speaks a dialect of Romanian but used Cyrillic up until the breakup of the USSR. Belarus has generally used Cyrillic, but has had significant Polish influence over its history (its western half was part of Poland for much of the 19th and early 20th century) and several forms of Latinized Belarusian exist.

While Cyrillic was and still remains one of the world's most influential writing systems, the past two hundred years haven't been easy for it, with more and more Cyrillic-based languages opting for switching to the Latin alphabet instead, which is widely seen as facilitating international communication to a much larger degree and, sometimes, better fit to render their respective phonologies, with Romanian (in the 19th century in Romania proper and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Moldova as well) or Azeri being the prime examples of this trend. Aside from that, Latin has become the co-official alphabet in all the Serbo-Croatian-speaking republics of former Yugoslavia (whereas Croatia and Slovenia use Latin-based ones exclusively) and in both Belarus and Ukraine there is a never-ending talk of a possibility to introduce a Latin alphabet or maybe even replacing the Cyrillic one with it altogether (albeit the chances of it coming into fruition anytime soon are rather slim). It's telling that the Soviet Union itself considered dropping the Cyrillic as a remnant of the ancien regime immediately following the revolution and had the Communist Party not changed their mind at the right moment, it's very likely that by today the entire alphabet would have fallen into worldwide disuse. Needless to say, introducing the Cyrillic to any non-Cyrillic-using language isn't considered an option anywhere.

See also The Backwards Я, which often employs Latin letters to represent Cyrillic ones in order to create a mock-Slavic writing style. (Nothing to do with an international chain of toy megastores.)

    Languages that use Cyrillic 

Old Church Slavonic

Originally a somewhat obscure dialect spoken in and around the city of Thessaloniki (the capital of the Greek side of the Macedonia region), Old Church Slavonic was based on a dialect of East South Slavic, the language group that would eventually become Bulgarian and Macedonian. It became the liturgical language of the Slavic Orthodox churches due to the efforts of the above-mentioned Cyril and Methodius, for whom it was apparently their native language, and is still used in slightly modified forms in most of the Slavic churches. The alphabet traditionally used for OCS writings is rather primitive in relation to more modernized forms of Cyrillic, including Hellenisms like the "ou" ligature and the jus letters (Ѧ, Ѫ, Ѩ, Ѭ) which represent nasalized vowels that no longer exist in any Slavic language save Polish and some of its relatives like Kashubian.


A fun thing: despite the name, in most of the Belarus, Russian is the native language. Most people speak it both at home and in official settings, Belarusian (or B(y)elorussian, the more Russified spelling used during the Soviet era), being now mostly associated with poor farmers and the like, despite the government stating that both languages are official. In fact, up until the beginning of the 20th century Belarusian wasn't considered a language on its own at all, but was seen as a particularly rustic (and Polonized) dialect of Russian. One of the constant points of ridicule about Belarus' president Alexander Lukashenko is that being a country bumpkin he speaks neither Russian nor Belarusian, but rather a common pidgin known as trasyanka, which is widespread in the rural areas. Since the beginning of the 20th century Belarusian nationalists try to reinvent it as an elite language, but given that their chief activity seems to be more squabbling with each other, the result is nowhere in sight, and their involvement actually seems to make the situation worse: now there are two separate literary dialects, and three writing systems, two using Cyrillic and a third using Latin.

The Belarusian alphabet is notable mainly for the letter Ў, which represents a /w/ sound, something that's rather unusual in East Slavic languages. It's otherwise fairly similar to the Ukrainian alphabet.

Bulgarian and Macedonian

Bulgaria was a member of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, but is now a member of NATO and The European Union (as are the rest of the "buffer states"). It was also the country where the Cyrillic alphabet was created and first taught and used. It is also somewhat mutually intelligible with Russian and uses a pretty similar subset of wider Cyrillic.

The Macedonian language, spoken in the Republic of North Macedonia as well as Slavic-speaking parts of Greece, is a close relative of Bulgarian, having only separated from it in the last century or so. However, because of the Republic's status as the southernmost part of the former Yugoslavia, it uses an alphabet derived more from the Serbian than the Russian.

Romanian (particularly Moldovan)

Romanian as spoken in the former Moldavian SSR, now the independent country of Moldova, with a new orthography imposed to justify a Soviet landgrab in The '30s. Post-Soviet Moldova uses almost the same Latin alphabet as standard Romanian, with one or two minor differences. Cyrillic Moldovan is still used in the breakaway province of Transnistria, though, as it is generally Russia-aligned. Romanian is not a Slavic language but a Romance language (it sounds a little like Italian), but it contains a tremendous amount of Slavic vocabulary.

Since Romanian evolved among Greek and Slavic influences, the use of the Cyrillic alphabet had a historical precedent; until the 1860s, standard Romanian used its own, somewhat archaic form of Cyrillic. The Moldovan form, however, is more of a straight transliteration of the language into Russian Cyrillic with no direct relationship to the original Romanian style. The closely related Aromanian language, spoken mainly in Greece and other countries of the southern Balkans, was written in modifications of the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets until adopting an alphabet loosely based on modern Romanian Latin and Latinized Macedonian in 1997.


The "Cyrillic" most people see is the Russian variant, as established by a spelling reform at the beginning of the USSR in 1917. It has 33 letters and is generally phonetic in nature, with a few exceptions making it one of the least phonetic Cyrillic orthographies anyway. Older Russian literature, as well as much of the literature of Russian expats who fled the nascent Soviet Union, uses a number of letters that were eliminated because they had the same sound as more common letters, but were kept mostly for etymological purposes (most were loanwords from Greek or Church Slavonic, or represented vowels that no longer existed). Notably, the "hard sign" Ъ note  was reduced to a rarity; it now exists solely to prevent palatization of the preceding letter.

TOW has quite a lot on the circuitous transformation of old Cyrillic to modern Russian.

There is not just one Russian accent (dialects would be the better word), but two or three:

  • Northern Russian — o and e are always /o/ and /e/ (never /a/ or /ji/), and v and f sometimes become /w/ as in Ukrainian.
  • Southern Russian — identifiable by the Г in "гриб" (grib, mushroom) being pronounced /h/ instead of /g/. The accent of Mikhail Gorbachev, and very similar to sound changes in Belarusian, Ukrainian, Czech, and Slovak. Also known for akanye, the reduction of /o/ sounds to /a/ or even /ə/ when unstressed; this is also a property of standard Russian as well as a good number of other Slavic languages, especially Belarusian where the spelling makes it obvious, although its effect in southern Russian dialects are much more pronounced than the standard. A side-effect of the g<->h confusion is that up until the late 19th and early 20th century, many loan words into Russian that begin with H in other languages (such as the name Genrikh, from German "Heinrich") came to be pronounced with a /g/ sound. Modern practice is to use "Х" (i.e. the "kh" sound), so for example the word "hooligan" note  becomes хулиган, not *гулиган.
  • Moscow/St. Petersburg- "Standard" Russian.
    • Actually, these have significant differences. Phonetically, St. Petersburg dialect is "cleaner", with fewer reductions. There are also some lexical peculiarities exclusive to St. Petersburg; e.g., curb is known as "porebrik" in St. Petersburg, and as "bordjur" in the rest of Russia. St. Petersburg natives are quite proud of these.
      • Not entirely accurate. There are a number of lexical differences between Moscow and St. Petersburg, like the "porebrik"/"bordjur" one, but for the rest of the country it varies. Most regions use Moscow's names for some things and St. Petersburg's for others.


The language of the country that is the successor state to the former Yugoslavia and which appears to be about to lose yet more territory to the new Kosovo/Kosova. The language was formerly collected together with Croatian and Bosnian (which use the Latin alphabet) as Serbo-Croatian, but they are now separated by linguists — though, as it was noted many times, a language is a dialect with an army and a navy, so their separation is seen by many as mostly a political move. All three language remain mutually intelligible anyway, and to a lesser extent with the closely related Slovene. note 

The modern Serbian Cyrillic alphabet was created in 1818 by linguist Vuk Karadžić, and the Latin Gaj alphabet used by Croatian and Slovene (also sometimes by Serbian) and created two decades later by Ljudevit Gaj corresponds with it almost exactly. It's functionally somewhat simplified compared to the Russian form, with fewer ligatures and some specifically Serbian letters, as well as the addition of the Latin J to replace letters like Я, Ю, and Й. Both Karadžić and Gaj alphabets are the most phonetic of Slavic orthographies, for example it is written српски/srpski (Serbian (adjective, language)) but Србин/Srbin (Serb (man)) – in many other languages devoicing is not taken into account. The cursive style is also very different from Russian, and the two hands can frequently be mutually illegible without some training.note  This stylistic difference extends to Cyrillic italics, for which most fonts provide the Russian version; this fact is absolutely infuriating to Serbians.note 

Due to the fact that Serbians played a major part in the horrors of the Balkans Wars, Serbia is a common place from which to source villains and therefore the language comes with it.

One of the more notable instances of the use of the Serbian language in fiction is the revelation of Nina Myers as The Mole in 24. Nina uses Serbian (to delay the revelation a few seconds longer) in her conversation with Victor Drazen (the Serbian spelling is Viktor). The on-screen subtitles have her stating "It's Yelena", her Code Name. Serbians would spell it "Jelena", as in the tennis player Jelena Janković. The writers probably didn't want the American audience thinking it sounded like "Gel-an-ah".

Speaking of Viktor Drazen and his family, their names are a case of artistic license since Drazen is a first name, not a family name (Drazenić or Drazenović would be more likely); his wife Elena should be Jelena; Andre should be Andrej and Alexis should be Aleksej, and those two names would even so only be used if the parents were huge fans of Russian literature.


Ukrainian is very similar to Russian and people from the different countries can have conversations, but there are differences, sometimes even in basic words. Ukrainian itself has dialects. The eastern one is more like Russian, and in border regions of Russia and Ukraine a mix of Russian and Ukrainian known as surzhyk is in active use.

Not everyone in Ukraine speaks Ukrainian at home, although nearly everyone knows it. The rough division is a line running through Kyiv/Kiev and very closely matches the voting patterns in the 2004 Presidential Election (with Ukrainian users tending to vote for Yushchenko and Russian users for Yanukovych).

Ukrainian shares the g->h sound shift of Belarusian and southern Russian, and therefore sometimes uses the letter Ґ for a hard "g" sound in loanwords and names to avoid confusion with the more common Г. It also underwent some rather eccentric vowel shifts that crunched a lot of vowels down to "y" or "i", making transliteration to other alphabets a bit exciting.


Mongolia's official writing system for the Mongolian language has been the Cyrillic script since the 1940s. Note that the Mongolian language is written in more traditional scripts in other places, such as the Inner Mongolia autonomous region of China. In Mongolia itself, the traditional alphabet is being reintroduced mainly for national pride.


Dungan is a dialect of Mandarin Chinese spoken by ethnic Chinese Muslims in Russia and other former Soviet lands, and is basically written in Russian Cyrillic. It's a fairly obscure language, but it's of great interest to Sino-Tibetan linguists because of how the shift from hanzi to alphabetic characters affected the assimilation of loanwords compared to standard Mandarin.


In addition to these, there are several languages in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union that wound up with a Cyrillic orthography because they did not have an alphabet (much like almost all Native American languages have a Latin orthography). Several other nationalities in Russia and the former Soviet Republics (Azeris, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Turkmens, Tatars, Chechens, etc.) had preexisting (usually Perso-Arabic) orthographies replaced with Cyrillic ones during the Soviet era, although most of them outside Russia are phasing them out.

Many of the languages of the Caucasus have an unusually large number of phonemes; as a result, the Northwest Caucasian language Abkhazian might be the record holder for the largest alphabet in the world, with 62 letters, a good number of which are combinations or ligatures of Russian letters to represent sounds unique to Abkhazian. (Its extinct relative Ubykh actually had an even more complex sound structure, but no written standard and therefore no unique alphabet, in Cyrillic or Latin.)

Please note that Czech, Slovak, Polish, Lithuanian, and a lot of other Slavic and other Eastern European languages do not use Cyrillic alphabet, and sometimes even assuming that they can read it could be offensive.note 

Andrey or Andrei- Transliteration Issues

Because not all the letters directly translate into English sounds, you get various approaches to Cyrillic-Latin transliteration. This is why you get the Project 955 missile submarines either spelt "Borey" or "Borei" in English.

There are a number of different systems, such as that used by the Library of Congress.

You will sometimes get the words, in either alphabet given those little line accents called "udareniye". These aren't actually used in writing, they're just pronunciation aids, and are there to indicate word stress.