Cyrillic script spread throughout the East and South Slavic territories, being adopted for writing local languages, such as the Old East Slavic. Its adaptation to local languages produced a number of Cyrillic alphabets, discussed hereafter.
Yeri (Ы) was originally a ligature of Yer and I (Ъ + I = Ы). Iotation was indicated by ligatures formed with the letter I: Ꙗ (not ancestor of modern Ya, Я, which is derived from Ѧ), Ѥ, Ю (ligature of I and ОУ), Ѩ, Ѭ. Many letters had variant forms and commonly used ligatures, for example И = І = Ї, Ѡ = Ѻ, ѠТ = Ѿ.
The letters also had numeric values, based not on Cyrillic alphabetical order, but inherited from the letters' Greek ancestors.
The early Cyrillic alphabet is difficult to represent on computers. Many of the letterforms differed from modern Cyrillic, varied a great deal in manuscripts, and changed over time. Few fonts include adequate glyphs to reproduce the alphabet. In accordance with Unicode policy, the standard does not include letterform variations or ligatures found in manuscript sources unless they can be shown to conform to the Unicode definition of a character.
The Unicode 5.1 standard, released on 4 April 2008, greatly improves computer support for the early Cyrillic and the modern Church Slavonic language. In Microsoft Windows, Segoe UI is notable for having complete support for the archaic Cyrillic letters since Windows 8.
The development of Cyrillic typography passed directly from the medieval stage to the late Baroque, without a Renaissance phase as in Western Europe. Late Medieval Cyrillic letters (still found on many icon inscriptions today) show a marked tendency to be very tall and narrow, with strokes often shared between adjacent letters.
Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia, mandated the use of westernized letter forms in the early 18th century. Over time, these were largely adopted in the other languages that use the script. Thus, unlike the majority of modern Greek fonts that retained their own set of design principles for lower-case letters (such as the placement of serifs, the shapes of stroke ends, and stroke-thickness rules, although Greek capital letters do use Latin design principles), modern Cyrillic fonts are much the same as modern Latin fonts of the same font family. The development of some Cyrillic computer typefaces from Latin ones has also contributed to the visual Latinization of Cyrillic type.
Cyrillic uppercase and lowercase letter forms are not as differentiated as in Latin typography. Upright Cyrillic lowercase letters are essentially small capitals (with exceptions: Cyrillic 〈а〉, 〈е〉, 〈р〉, and 〈у〉 adopted Western lowercase shapes, lowercase 〈ф〉 is typically designed under the influence of Latin 〈p〉, lowercase 〈б〉 is a traditional handwritten form), although a good-quality Cyrillic typeface will still include separate small-caps glyphs.
Comparison of printed and hand-written letters (Ge, De, I, I kratkoye, Em, Te and Tse; top row is set in Georgia font, bottom in Kisty CY).
Cyrillic fonts, as well as Latin ones, have roman and italic types (practically all popular modern fonts include parallel sets of Latin and Cyrillic letters, where many glyphs, uppercase as well as lowercase, are simply shared by both). However, the native font terminology in Slavic languages (for example, in Russian) does not use the words "roman" and "italic" in this sense. Instead, the nomenclature follows German naming patterns:
Roman type is called pryamoy shrift ("upright type")—compare with Normalschrift ("regular type") in German
Italic type is called kursiv ("cursive") or kursivniy shrift ("cursive type")—from the German word Kursive, meaning italic typefaces and not cursive writing
Cursive handwriting is rukopisniy shrift ("hand-written type") in Russian—in German: Kurrentschrift or Laufschrift, both meaning literally ‘running type’
Similarly to Latin fonts, italic and cursive types of many Cyrillic letters (typically lowercase; uppercase only for hand-written or stylish types) are very different from their upright roman types. In certain cases, the correspondence between uppercase and lowercase glyphs does not coincide in Latin and Cyrillic fonts: for example, italic Cyrillic 〈т〉 is the lowercase counterpart of 〈Т〉 not of 〈М〉.
Cyrillic letters in roman type (left) compared to the italic type of Russian (center) and that of Standard Serbian and Macedonian (right)
As in Latin typography, a sans-serif face may have a mechanically sloped oblique type (naklonniy shrift—"sloped", or "slanted type") instead of italic.
A boldfaced type is called poluzhirniy shrift ("semi-bold type"), because there existed fully boldfaced shapes that have been out of use since the beginning of the 20th century.
A bold italic combination (bold slanted) does not exist for all font families.
In Standard Serbian, as well as in Macedonian, some italic and cursive letters are different from those used in other languages. These letter shapes are often used in upright fonts as well, especially for advertisements, road signs, inscriptions, posters and the like, less so in newspapers or books. The Cyrillic lowercase 〈б〉 has a slightly different design both in the roman and italic types, which is similar to the lowercase Greek letter delta, 〈δ〉.
The following table shows the differences between the upright and italic Cyrillic letters of the Russian alphabet. Italic forms significantly different from their upright analogues, or especially confusing to users of a Latin alphabet, are highlighted.
Because the script was conceived and popularised by the followers of Cyril and Methodius, rather than by Cyril and Methodius themselves, its name denotes homage rather than authorship. The name "Cyrillic" often confuses people who are not familiar with the script's history, because it does not identify a country of origin (in contrast to the "Greek alphabet"). Some call it the "Russian alphabet" because Russian is the most populous and influential alphabet based on the script. Some Bulgarian intellectuals, notably Stefan Tsanev, have expressed concern over this, and have suggested that the Cyrillic script be called the "Bulgarian alphabet" instead, for the sake of historical accuracy.
In Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Russian, the Cyrillic script is also known as azbuka, derived from the old names of the first two letters of most Cyrillic alphabets (just as the term alphabet came from the first two Greek letters alpha and beta).
A page from Azbuka, the first Russian textbook, printed by Ivan Fyodorov in 1574. This page features the Cyrillic alphabet.
The Cyrillic script was created in the First Bulgarian Empire and is derived from the Greek uncial script letters, augmented by ligatures and consonants from the older Glagolitic alphabet for sounds not found in Greek. Tradition holds that Cyrillic and Glagolitic were formalized either by the two Bulgarian brothers, whose birth names are Tsurho and Strahota, born in Thessaloniki, Saints Cyril and Methodius who brought Christianity to the southern Slavs, or by their disciples. Paul Cubberley posits that although Cyril may have codified and expanded Glagolitic, it was his students in the First Bulgarian Empire that developed Cyrillic from the Greek letters in the 890s as a more suitable script for church books. Later Cyrillic spread among other Slavic peoples: Russians, Serbs and others, as well as among non-Slavic Vlachs and Moldavians.
Cyrillic and Glagolitic were used for the Church Slavonic language, especially the Old Church Slavonic variant. Hence expressions such as "И is the tenth Cyrillic letter" typically refer to the order of the Church Slavonic alphabet; not every Cyrillic alphabet uses every letter available in the script.
The Cyrillic script came to dominate Glagolitic in the 12th century. The literature produced in the Old Bulgarian language soon spread north and became the lingua franca of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, where it came to also be known as Old Church Slavonic. The alphabet used for the modern Church Slavonic language in Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic rites still resembles early Cyrillic. However, over the course of the following millennium, Cyrillic adapted to changes in spoken language, developed regional variations to suit the features of national languages, and was subjected to academic reform and political decrees. Today, many languages in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and northern Eurasia are written in Cyrillic alphabets.
Relationship to other writing systems
Map showing the expansion of the use of Latin alphabet in areas of former Yugoslavia.
A number of languages written in a Cyrillic alphabet have also been written in a Latin alphabet, such as Azerbaijani, Uzbek and Romanian (in Republic of Moldova in 1989, in Romania throughout the 19th century). After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, some of the former republics officially shifted from Cyrillic to Latin. The transition is complete in most of Moldova (except Transnistria, where Moldovan Cyrillic is official), Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, but Uzbekistan still uses both systems. The Russian government has mandated that Cyrillic must be used for all public communications in all federal subjects of Russia, to promote closer ties across the federation. This act was controversial for speakers of many Slavic languages; for others, such as Chechen and Ingush speakers, the law had political ramifications. For example, the separatist Chechen government mandated a Latin script (which, in fact, is noted by observers such as Johanna Nichols to be a much better representation of the language), and is still used by many Chechens. Those in the diaspora especially refuse to use the Chechen Cyrillic alphabet, which they associate with Russian imperialism.
Map of European countries by script of national language.
Alphabets in Europe
Greek & Latin
Latin & Cyrillic
Serbia uses both the Cyrillic and Latin scripts. Cyrillic is nominally the only official script for Standard Serbian according to the Serbian constitution, but Serbia chooses not to legislate the issue further. In practice the scripts are equal, with Latin being used more often in less official capacity.
The Zhuang alphabet, used between the 1950s and 1980s in portions of the People's Republic of China, used a mixture of Latin, phonetic, numeral-based, and Cyrillic letters. The non-Latin letters, including Cyrillic, were removed from the alphabet in 1982 and replaced with Latin letters that closely resembled the letters they replaced.
In Unicode 6.0, letters of Cyrillic, including national and historical alphabets, are represented by four blocks:
Cyrillic Supplement U+0500–U+052F
Cyrillic Extended-A U+2DE0–U+2DFF
Cyrillic Extended-B U+A640–U+A69F
Two more Cyrillic(-derived) characters are U+1D2B and U+1D78.
The characters in the range U+0400 to U+045F are basically the characters from ISO 8859-5 moved upward by 864 positions. The characters in the range U+0460 to U+0489 are historic letters, not used now. The characters in the range U+048A to U+052F are additional letters for various languages that are written with Cyrillic script.
Unicode as a general rule does not include accented Cyrillic letters. Few exceptions are:
combinations that are considered as separate letters of respective alphabets, like Й, Ў, Ё, Ї, Ѓ, Ќ (as well as many letters of non-Slavic alphabets);
two most frequent combinations orthographically required to distinguish homonyms in Bulgarian and Macedonian: Ѐ, Ѝ;
few Old and New Church Slavonic combinations: Ѷ, Ѿ, Ѽ.
To indicate stressed or long vowels, combining diacritical marks can be used after the respective letter (for example, U+0301◌́combining acute accent: ы́ э́ ю́ я́ etc.).
Unicode 5.1, released on 4 April 2008, introduces major changes to the Cyrillic blocks. Revisions to the existing Cyrillic blocks, and the addition of Cyrillic Extended A (2DE0...2DFF) and Cyrillic Extended B (A640...A69F), significantly improve support for the early Cyrillic alphabet, Abkhaz, Aleut, Chuvash, Kurdish, and Mordvin.
Punctuation for Cyrillic text is similar to that used in European Latin-alphabet languages.
CP866 – 8-bit Cyrillic character encoding established by Microsoft for use in MS-DOS also known as GOST-alternative. Cyrillic characters go in their native order, with a "window" for pseudographic characters.
KOI8-R – 8-bit native Russian character encoding. Invented in the USSR for use on Soviet clones of American IBM and DEC computers. The Cyrillic characters go in the order of their Latin counterparts, which allowed the text to remain readable after transmission via a 7-bit line that removed the most significant bit from each byte — the result became a very rough, but readable, Latin transliteration of Cyrillic. Standard encoding of early 90s for Unix systems and the first Russian Internet encoding.
KOI8-U – KOI8-R with addition of Ukrainian letters.
Windows-1251 – 8-bit Cyrillic character encoding established by Microsoft for use in Microsoft Windows. The simplest 8-bit Cyrillic encoding — 32 capital chars in native order at 0xc0–0xdf, 32 usual chars at 0xe0–0xff, with rarely used "YO" characters somewhere else. No pseudographics. Former standard encoding in some GNU/Linux distributions for Belarusian and Bulgarian, but currently displaced by UTF-8.
Each language has its own standard keyboard layout, adopted from typewriters. With the flexibility of computer input methods, there are also transliterating or phonetic/homophonic keyboard layouts made for typists who are more familiar with other layouts, like the common English qwerty keyboard. When practical Cyrillic keyboard layouts or fonts are not available, computer users sometimes use transliteration or look-alike "volapuk" encoding to type languages that are normally written with the Cyrillic alphabet.
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Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001–05, s.v. "Cyril and Methodius, Saints"; Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Incorporated, Warren E. Preece – 1972, p.846, s.v., "Cyril and Methodius, Saints" and "Eastern Orthodoxy, Missions ancient and modern"; Encyclopedia of World Cultures, David H. Levinson, 1991, p.239, s.v., "Social Science"; Eric M. Meyers, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, p.151, 1997; Lunt, Slavic Review, June 1964, p. 216; Roman Jakobson, Crucial problems of Cyrillo-Methodian Studies; Leonid Ivan Strakhovsky, A Handbook of Slavic Studies, p.98; V.Bogdanovich, History of the ancient Serbian literature, Belgrade, 1980, p.119
Bringhurst (2002) writes "in Cyrillic, the difference between normal lower case and small caps is more subtle than it is in the Latin or Greek alphabets,..." (p 32) and "in most Cyrillic faces, the lower case is close in color and shape to Latin small caps" (p 107).
Name ital'yanskiy shrift (Italian font) in Russian refers to a particular font family JPG, whereas rimskiy shrift (roman font) is just a synonym for Latin font, Latin alphabet.
Serbian Cyrillic Letters BE, GHE, DE, PE, TE, Janko Stamenovic (collection of selected commented answers received in Unicode mailing list (firstname.lastname@example.org) between 29.12.1999 and 17.01.2000).
"Orthodox Language Texts", Retrieved 2011-06-20
Tsanev, Stefan. Български хроники, том 4 (Bulgarian Chronicles, Volume 4), Sofia, 2009, p.165
^ Paul Cubberley (1996) "The Slavic Alphabets". In Daniels and Bright, eds. The World's Writing Systems. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001–05, s.v. "Cyril and Methodius, Saints"; Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Incorporated, Warren E. Preece – 1972, p.846, s.v., "Cyril and Methodius, Saints" and "Eastern Orthodoxy, Missions ancient and modern"; Encyclopedia of World Cultures, David H. Levinson, 1991, p.239, s.v., "Social Science"; Eric M. Meyers, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, p.151, 1997; Lunt, Slavic Review, June, 1964, p. 216; Roman Jakobson, Crucial problems of Cyrillo-Methodian Studies; Leonid Ivan Strakhovsky, A Handbook of Slavic Studies, p.98; V. Bogdanovich, History of the ancient Serbian literature, Belgrade, 1980, p.119
The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition. 2001–05, O.Ed. Saints Cyril and Methodius "Cyril and Methodius, Saints) 869 and 884, respectively, “Greek missionaries, brothers, called Apostles to the Slavs and fathers of Slavonic literature."
Encyclopædia Britannica, Major alphabets of the world, Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets, 2008, O.Ed. "The two early Slavic alphabets, the Cyrillic and the Glagolitic, were invented by St. Cyril, or Constantine (c. 827–869), and St. Methodii (c. 825–884). These men from Thessaloniki who became apostles to the southern Slavs, whom they converted to Christianity."
Kazhdan, Alexander P. (1991). The Oxford dictionary of Byzantium. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 507. ISBN 0-19-504652-8. "Constantine (Cyril) and his brother Methodius were the sons of the droungarios Leo and Maria, who may have been a Slav."
"On the relationship of old Church Slavonic to the written language of early Rus'" Horace G. Lunt; Russian Linguistics, Volume 11, Numbers 2–3 / January, 1987
Schenker, Alexander (1995). The Dawn of Slavic. Yale University Press. pp. 185–186, 189–190.
Lunt, Horace. Old Church Slavonic Grammar. Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 3–4.
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Benjamin W. Fortson. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, p. 374