Early Cyrillic alphabet

Early Cyrillic alphabet
Early Cyrillic alphabet
Type Alphabet
Languages Old Church Slavonic, Church Slavonic, old versions of many Slavic languages
Time period from circa 940
Parent systems
Phoenician alphabet
Sister systems Latin alphabet
Coptic alphabet
ISO 15924 Cyrs, 221
Unicode range U+0400 to U+04FF
U+0500 to U+052F
U+2DE0 to U+2DFF
U+A640 to U+A69F
Note: This page may contain IPA phonetic symbols.

The Early Cyrillic alphabet is a writing system developed in the First Bulgarian Empire in the 9th or 10th century to write the Old Church Slavonic liturgical language. The modern Cyrillic script is still used primarily for Slavic languages, and for Asian languages that were under Russian cultural influence during the 20th century.




The earliest form of manuscript Cyrillic, known as ustav, was based on Greek uncial script, augmented by ligatures and by letters from the Glagolitic alphabet for consonants not found in Greek. There was no distinction of capital and lowercase letters, though manuscript letters were rendered larger for emphasis, or in various decorative initial and nameplate forms.[1]

Tradition holds that the two Slavic scripts, Glagolitic and Cyrillic, were invented by two brothers, the monks Saint Methodius and Saint Cyril, in the 860s. However, Glagolitic appears to be older, and Cyrillic later. It appears that Glagolitic may have predated the introduction of Christianity, and was only formalized by St Cyril and expanded by him to cover non-Greek sounds, possibly under commission of Boris I when Christianity was made the official state religion in 864. Cyrillic, on the other hand, may have been a creation of Cyril's students, perhaps at the Preslav Literary School, who derived it from a more 'dignified' Greek in the 890s as a more suitable script for church books, though retaining Cyril's non-Greek additions from Glagolitic.[1]

Since its creation, the Cyrillic script has adapted to changes in spoken language and developed regional variations to suit the features of national languages. It has been the subject of academic reforms and political decrees. Variations of the Cyrillic script are used to write languages throughout Eastern Europe and Asia.

The form of the Russian alphabet underwent a change when Tsar Peter I of Russia introduced the Civil Script (Russian: гражданскій шрифтъ, graždanskij šrift, or граждaнкa, graždanka, in contrast to the prevailing Church Typeface, Russian: церковнославя́нский шрифтъ, cerkovnoslavjanskij šrift) in 1708. Some letters and breathing marks which were only used for historical reasons were dropped. Medieval letterforms used in typesetting were harmonized with Latin typesetting practices, exchanging medieval forms for Baroque ones, and skipping the western European Renaissance developments. The reform subsequently influenced Cyrillic orthographies for most other languages. Today, the early orthography and typesetting standards only remain in use in Church Slavonic.

A comprehensive repertoire of early Cyrillic characters is included in the Unicode 5.1 standard, published on April 4, 2008. These characters and their distinctive letterforms are represented in specialized computer fonts for Slavistics.


Image Unicode Name
Trans. IPA Origin Notes
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Azu.svg А а азъ azŭ [azŭ] a [a] Greek alpha Α "I"
Early Cyrillic letter Buky.svg Б б боукы buky [buky], [bukŭi] b [b] Derived from В below? "letters"
Early Cyrillic letter Viedi.png В в вѣдѣ vědě [vædæ] v [v] Greek beta Β "know"
Early Cyrillic letter Glagoli.png Г г глаголи glagoli [ɡlaɡoli] g [ɡ] Greek gamma Γ "speak"
Early Cyrillic letter Dobro.png Д д добро dobro [dobro] d [d] Greek delta Δ "good"
Early Cyrillic letter Yesti.png Є є єсть estĭ [ɛstĭ] e [ɛ] Greek epsilon Ε "am" or "is" – present tense from "to be"
Early Cyrillic letter Zhiviete.png Ж ж живѣтє živěte [ʒivætɛ] ž, zh [ʒ] Glagolitic zhivete "live"
Early Cyrillic letter Dzelo.png Ѕ ѕ / Ꙃ ꙃ ѕѣло dzělo [dzælo] dz [dz] Greek stigma Ϛ (a sigma-tau ligature) "very"
Early Cyrillic letter Zemlia.png З з / Ꙁ ꙁ земля zemlja [zemlja] z [z] Greek zeta Ζ The first form developed into the second. "earth"
Early Cyrillic letter Izhe.png И и ижє iže [iʒɛ] i [i] Greek eta Η "which"
Early Cyrillic letter I.png І і / Ї ї и/ижеи i/ižei [i, iʒɛi] i, I [i] Greek iota Ι "and"
Early Cyrillic letter Kako.png К к како kako [kako] k [k] Greek kappa Κ "as"
Early Cyrillic letter Liudiye.png Л л людиѥ ljudije [ljudijɛ] l [l] Greek lambda Λ "people"
Early Cyrillic letter Myslite.png М м мыслитє myslite [myslitɛ]~[mŭislitɛ] m [m] Greek mu Μ "think"
Early Cyrillic letter Nashi.png Н н нашь našĭ [naʃĭ] n [n] Greek nu Ν "ours"
Early Cyrillic letter Onu.png О о онъ onŭ [onŭ] o [o] Greek omicron Ο "he" or "it"
Early Cyrillic letter Pokoi.png П п покои pokoi [pokoj] p [p] Greek pi Π "peaceful state"
Early Cyrillic letter Ritsi.png Р р рьци rĭci [rĭtsi] r [r] Greek rho Ρ "say"
Early Cyrillic letter Slovo.png С с слово slovo [slovo] s [s] Greek lunate sigma Ϲ "word" or "speech"
Early Cyrillic letter Tvrido.png Т т тврьдо tvrdo [tvr̥do] t [t] Greek tau Τ "hard" or "surely"
Early Cyrillic letter Uku.png Оу оу / Ꙋ ꙋ оукъ ukŭ [ukŭ] u [u] Greek omicron-upsilon ΟΥ / Ꙋ The first form developed into the second, a vertical ligature. "learning"
Early Cyrillic letter Fritu.png Ф ф фрьтъ frtŭ [fr̤̥tŭ] f [f] Greek phi Φ
Early Cyrillic letter Khieru.png Х х хѣръ xěrŭ [xærŭ] kh [x] Greek chi Χ
Early Cyrillic letter Otu.png Ѡ ѡ отъ otŭ [otŭ] ō, w [oː] Greek omega ω "from"
Early Cyrillic letter Tsi.png Ц ц ци ci [tsi] c [ts] Glagolitic tsi
Early Cyrillic letter Chrivi.png Ч ч чрьвь črvĭ [tʃr̤̥vĭ] č, ch [tʃ] Glagolitic cherv "worm"
Early Cyrillic letter Sha.png Ш ш ша ša [ʃa] š, sh [ʃ] Glagolitic sha
Early Cyrillic letter Shta.png Щ щ шта šta [ʃta] št, sht [ʃt] Glagolitic shta Later analyzed as a Ш-Т ligature by folk etymology
Early Cyrillic letter Yeru.png Ъ ъ ѥръ jerŭ [jɛrŭ] ŭ, u: [ŭ] Glagolitic yer
Early Cyrillic letter Yery.png Ꙑ ꙑ ѥры jery [jɛry] y [y], or possibly [ŭi] ЪI or ЪИ ligature
Early Cyrillic letter Yeri.png Ь ь ѥрь jerĭ [jɛrĭ] ĭ, i: [ĭ] Glagolitic yerj
Early Cyrillic letter Yati.png Ѣ ѣ ять jatĭ [jatĭ] ě [æ] Glagolitic yat Ⱑ ?
Early Cyrillic letter Ya.png Ꙗ ꙗ я ja [ja] ja [ia] I-А ligature
Early Cyrillic letter Ye.png Ѥ ѥ ѥ je: [jɛ] je [iɛ] І-Є ligature
Early Cyrillic letter Yu.png Ю ю ю ju [ju] ju [iu] I-ОУ ligature, dropping У There was no [jo] sound in early Slavic, so I-ОУ did not need to be distinguished from I-О.
Early Cyrillic letter Yusu Maliy.png Ѧ ѧ ѧсъ ęsŭ [ɛ̃sŭ] ę, ẽ [ɛ̃] Glagolitic ens Called юсъ малый (little yus) in Russian.
Early Cyrillic letter Yusu Maliy Yotirovaniy.png Ѩ ѩ ѩсъ jęsŭ [jɛ̃sŭ] ję, jẽ [jɛ̃] I-Ѧ ligature Called юсъ малый йотированный (iotated little yus) in Russian.
Early Cyrillic letter Yusu Bolshiy.png Ѫ ѫ ѫсъ ǫsŭ [ɔ̃sŭ] ǫ, õ [ɔ̃] Glagolitic ons Called юсъ большой (big yus) in Russian.
Early Cyrillic letter Yusu Bolshiy Yotirovaniy.png Ѭ ѭ ѭсъ jǫsŭ [jɔ̃sŭ] jǫ, jõ [jɔ̃] I-Ѫ ligature Called юсъ большой йотированный (iotated big yus) in Russian.
Early Cyrillic letter Ksi.png Ѯ ѯ кси ksi [ksi] ks [ks] Greek xi Ξ These last four letters were not needed for Slavic but used to transcribe Greek and as numerals.
Early Cyrillic letter Psi.png Ѱ ѱ пси psi [psi] ps [ps] Greek psi Ψ
Early Cyrillic letter Fita.png Ѳ ѳ фита fita [fita] θ, th, T, F [t]~[θ]~[f] Greek theta Θ
Early Cyrillic letter Izhitsa.png Ѵ ѵ ижица ižica [iʒitsa] ü, v [ɪ], [y], [v] Greek upsilon Υ

In addition to the basic letters, there were a number of scribal variations, combining ligatures, and regionalisms used, all of which varied over time.

Numerals, diacritics and punctuation

Each letter had a numeric value also, inherited from the corresponding Greek letter. A titlo over a sequence of letters indicated their use as a number. See Cyrillic numerals, Titlo.

Several diacritics, adopted from Polytonic Greek orthography, were also used (these may not appear correctly in all web browsers; they are supposed to be directly above the letter, not off to its upper right):

ӓ  trema, diaeresis (U+0308)
а̀  varia (grave accent), indicating stress on the last syllable (U+0340)
а́  oksia (acute accent), indicating a stressed syllable (Unicode U+0341)
а҃  titlo, indicating abbreviations, or letters used as numerals (U+0483)
а҄  kamora (circumflex accent), indicating palatalization[citation needed] (U+0484); in later Church Slavonic, it disambiguates plurals from homophonous singulars.
а҅  dasia or dasy pneuma, rough breathing mark (U+0485)
а҆  psili, zvatel'tse, or psilon pneuma, soft breathing mark (U+0486). Signals a word-initial vowel, at least in later Church Slavonic.
а҆̀  Combined zvatel'tse and varia is called apostrof.
а҆́  Combined zvatel'tse and oksia is called iso.

Punctuation marks:

·  ano teleia (U+0387), a middle dot used as a word separator
,  comma (U+002C)
.  full stop (U+002E)
։  Armenian full stop (U+0589), resembling a colon
  Georgian paragraph separator (U+10FB)
  triangular colon (U+2056, added in Unicode 4.1)
  diamond colon (U+2058, added in Unicode 4.1)
  quintuple colon (U+2059, added in Unicode 4.1)
;  Greek question mark (U+037E), similar to a semicolon
!  exclamation mark (U+0021)

See also

Media related to early Cyrillic alphabet at Wikimedia Commons


  1. ^ a b Cubberley 1994


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