The Origin Of Cyrillic Script
Hmm, strange combination of letters, but it’s definitely a T, B, and an I.
- и я?
Wait, why are the N and R backwards?
- это кириллица, глупо
Oh, I think I’ve seen that before... It’s Russian isn’t it?
Yes, it’s Russian, but Russian isn’t the only language to use this script. This script is called Cyrillic, and is used in many Slavic and Turkic languages.
The most widely spoken languages that use Cyrillic script are: Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Belarusian, Czech, Kazakh, Kirghiz, and Macedonian.
Now, let’s find out why it’s so similar to the Roman alphabet we use, and where the differences came from.
It all started with Boris the First during the First Bulgarian Empire.
In the 850s, when Boris I first came to the throne, the religion of the Bulgarian Empire was Paganism. However, under the Pagan religion, the Bulgarian Empire was not taken seriously by other European powers. This is why Boris I made the decision to introduce Christianity to the Bulgarian Empire instead.
However, this in turn also presented a political problem for Boris I because the introduction of Christianity meant there would be Byzantine missionaries who spoke Greek spreading their culture throughout the empire.
This meant that as Christianity spread, so did the Greek language. At this time, Slavonic was the language of the Bulgarian Empire, but it had no writing system. All official writing occurred in Greek.
Because the Byzantine Empire was their foe at the time, this meant that a linguistic decision had to be made.
At the same time in Great Moravia, two brothers, Cyril and Methodius introduced a new system of writing:
The Glagolitic Script
Ⰳⰾⰰⰳⱁⰾⰹⱌⰰ (Glagolitsa) is the oldest known Slavic alphabet. It is a writing system where every letter represents a different sound.
Cyril and Methodius were ordered to create a new writing system under the Byzantine Emperor Michael III in order to translate liturgical text to further spread Christianity to Slavonic speaking areas. Cyril, decided to base the system on the Old Bulgarian language.
In 886, a bishop of Nitra (Moravian city on the map) named Wiching banned the script and jailed 200 followers of Methodius for committing heresy and translating Roman liturgical script to Old Church Slavonic using Glagolitic script. At the time, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek were the only official languages approved by the Pope and Church.
May 24th is celebrated in Bulgaria as the day of two saints: St. Cyril and St. Methodius for the work they did to preserve the Bulgarian culture and language.
This meant a new opportunity for Boris I. The students who were expelled from Great Moravia brought the Glagolitic script to the First Bulgarian Empire and it was accepted officially by Boris the First.
Two of those students, Clement and Naum, founded literary schools to teach in Slavonic: Preslav Literary School and the Ohrid Literary School.
Here, they created a simplified version of the Glagolitic script that they named, in honor of Cyril, Cyrillic.
These literary schools were also where hundreds of monks would learn to write using Cyrillic to spread the script and Christianity throughout Europe.
In 893, Cyrillic was made the official alphabet of Bulgaria.
However, in 885 the Pope had banned Glagolitic script to enforce the Latin alphabet. This is why in Catholic Slavic countries like Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic use the Latin alphabet, while Orthodox Slavic countries, who spoke in Old Church Slavonic, use the Cyrillic script.
As the Bulgarian Empire was the largest empire on the Balkan peninsula at the time, the Cyrillic script spread to many neighboring tribes and countries like Russia and Serbia. At the time, Russia extended to as far as Alaska, so the Cyrillic script is still used today with many Inuits and Eskimos.
Cyrillic Script Formation
Ligatures were a huge aspect of the formation of the Cyrillic script. A ligature is when two letters or symbols combine to create one new letter or symbol.
Yeri (Ы) was originally a ligature of Yer and I (Ъ + І = Ы)
Iotation was indicated by ligatures formed with the letter І: Ꙗ, Ѥ, Ю, Ѩ, Ѭ.
Some letters, like ⟨ш⟩, ⟨ц⟩, ⟨ч⟩, ⟨ъ⟩, ⟨ь⟩, ⟨ѣ⟩ that had unique sounds from Greek were said to be derived from the Hebrew script. Such as, the Cyrillic ш (sha) from the Hebrew ש (shin).
Russian has undergone multiple major changes with the Cyrillic script, such as Peter the Great’s adaptations in the 18th century, and the 1918 reform after the Russian Revolution.
The Cyrillic script has been adopted and changed through centuries, and is now unique to each countries’ uses and pronunciations for it.
- Boris I of Bulgaria changed Bulgaria from Pagan to Christian
- Christian texts needed to be written and translated in Old Slavonic
- Glagolitic script was created by St. Cyril and St. Methodius for liturgy in Great Moravia
- Glagolitic script and the saints were banned for heresy (Liturgy was reserved for Latin/Greek/Hebrew)
- Students of Cyril and Methodius formed the Cyrillic script in Bulgaria under Boris I
- Glagolitic script + Greek alphabet = Cyrillic script
- Letters that look alike in Roman and Cyrillic that have different pronunciations are “Greek-ized” or simplified Glagolitic letters that didn’t have a letter in the Greek alphabet with a corresponding pronunciation
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