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A Short History of the Cyrillic Alphabet

The Slavic family of languages is a cultural tie that unites the peoples of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the vast expanse of the Former Soviet Union: some 315 million people speak a Slavic language, and more than two-thirds write and read their language in Cyrillic script.  Its emergence in the ninth century A.D. was driven by the key political, cultural, and religious issues of the day and of the region.

In 285 A.D., Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two: the western half continued to be governed from Rome, and the eastern half was ruled from present-day Istanbul, known then as Byzantium but shortly rechristened Constantinople after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 A.D.  Over the next two centuries, Byzantine emperors attempted to make allies of and convert their eastern neighbors to their Roman laws, Greek culture, and Christian faith, dispatching missionaries to the pagan Slav rulers of Bulgaria, the Khazars, and the land of Rus. 

Unlike missionaries in the western part of Europe, the Byzantine rulers understood the value of preaching the gospel to the pagans in their vernacular, rather than attempting impose Latin or Greek upon them.  The problem was that the Slavs’ spoken languages had no alphabet or written literature, and Greek, the lingua franca of the Eastern Christian Empire lacked the appropriate letters and diphthongs to pronounce the unique Slavic sibilants and vowel sounds.  By the mid-ninth century, this problem became urgent when Prince Rostislav petitioned Constantinople for missionaries to convert present-day Slovakia and Hungary.

Brothers Cyril and Methodius - both Greek monks from Thessaloniki solved the problem by systemizing a liturgical Slavic lexicon, which enabled its speakers to discuss religious concepts.  This language became known as “Church Slavonic,” and was the primary official language of most Slavic countries like Russia until the seventeenth century.  To write Church Slavonic, the brothers invented the Glagolithic script, which served as a prototype for a later, more practical alphabet that developed during the remainder of the ninth century.  This is the “Cyrillic” alphabet we know today.  Scholars debate if it was named after St. Cyril, or if it was from the word “kurilotsya” meaning “origin.” 

The Cyrillic alphabet combined 24 Greek letters and an additional 19, which enabled the correct pronunciation of characteristic Slavic sibilants such as “Ch,” “Ts,” “Sch,” as well specific vowel sounds such as “Ya” and “Yio.”  Some letters have since been dropped from the language, such as the “hard sign.”  With a few exceptions, each letter represents a unique sound, making Cyrillic comparatively easy to read and learn.

St. Clement of Ohrid in Macedonia and St. Konstantine of Preslav were responsible for disseminating the new language throughout the Slav world, where it was quickly adopted along with Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Byzantine culture.

Today, Cyrillic is the official alphabet and typescript in Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Mongolia, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Tadzhikistan, and Ukraine.  Cyrillic is also used by many minority languages and dialects such as Uralic, Iranian, Ossetian, Buryat, Eskimo-Aleut, Uzbek, and Chukotka-Kamchatkan.

Alexander+Roberts fashion distinctive journeys into the heart of Eastern Europe to discover unique aspects of the region’s culture and history, such as our Ancient Crossroads: Albania, Greece, and Macedonia.

Posted: 11/10/2015 10:38:54 AM by Alexander + Roberts