Early Cyrillic alphabet

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Early Cyrillic alphabet
Early Cyrillic sample.svg
Early Cyrillic alphabet.svg
Script type
Time period
from circa 893 in Bulgaria[1]
LanguagesOld Church Slavonic, Church Slavonic, old versions of many Slavic languages
Related scripts
Parent systems
Egyptian hieroglyphs[2]
Sister systems
Latin alphabet
Coptic alphabet
Armenian alphabet
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Cyrs, 221 Edit this on Wikidata, ​Cyrillic (Old Church Slavonic variant)
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

The Early Cyrillic alphabet, also called classical Cyrillic or paleo-Cyrillic, is a writing system that was developed in the First Bulgarian Empire during the late 9th century[3][4][5] on the basis of the Greek alphabet[6][7][8] for the Slavic peoples living near the Byzantine Empire in South East and Central Europe.[9] It was used by Slavic peoples in South East, Central and Eastern Europe.[9]

It was developed in the Preslav Literary School in the capital city of the First Bulgarian Empire in order to write the Old Church Slavonic language.[10][11] The modern Cyrillic script is still used primarily for some Slavic languages (such as Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Russian and Ukrainian), and for East European and Asian languages that have experienced a great amount of Russian cultural influence.

Among some of the traditionally culturally influential countries using Cyrillic script are Bulgaria, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine.


The Cyrillic alphabet on birch bark document № 591 from ancient Novgorod (Russia). Dated to 1025–1050 AD.
A more complete early Cyrillic abecedary (on the top half of the left side), this one written by the boy Onfim between 1240 and 1260 AD (birch bark document № 199).

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.[12]

The Glagolitic alphabet was created by the monk Saint Cyril, possibly with the aid of his brother Saint Methodius, around 863.[12] Cyrillic, on the other hand, was a creation of Cyril's students in the 890s at the Preslav Literary School as a more suitable script for church books, based on uncial Greek but retaining some Glagolitic letters for sounds not present in Greek.[13] An alternative hypothesis proposes that it emerged in the border regions of Greek proselytization to the Slavs before it was codified and adapted by some systematizer among the Slavs; the oldest Cyrillic manuscripts look very similar to 9th and 10th century Greek uncial manuscripts,[12] and the majority of uncial Cyrillic letters were identical to their Greek uncial counterparts.[1] One possibility is that this systematization of Cyrillic was undertaken at the Council of Preslav in 893, when the Old Church Slavonic liturgy was adopted by the First Bulgarian Empire.[1]

The Cyrillic alphabet was very well suited for the writing of Old Church Slavic, generally following a principle of "one letter for one significant sound", with some arbitrary or phonotactically-based exceptions.[12] Particularly, this principle is violated by certain vowel letters, which represent [j] plus the vowel if they are not preceded by a consonant.[12] It is also violated by a significant failure to distinguish between /ji/ and /jĭ/ orthographically.[12] 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.[13] Letters served as numerals as well as phonetic signs; the values of the numerals were directly borrowed from their Greek-letter analogues.[12] Letters without Greek equivalents mostly had no numeral values, whereas one letter, koppa, had only a numeric value with no phonetic value.[12]

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 the Great introduced the civil script (Russian: гражданский шрифт, romanizedgraždanskiy šrift, or гражданка, graždanka), in contrast to the prevailing church typeface, (Russian: церковнославя́нский шрифт, romanizedcerkovnoslavjanskiy šrift) in 1708. (The two forms are sometimes distinguished as paleo-Cyrillic and neo-Cyrillic.) Some letters and breathing marks which were used only 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 remain in use only in Church Slavonic.

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


Image Unicode Name
Translit. international system[12][14] Translit. ALA-LC[15] IPA Numeric value Origin Meaning of name Notes
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Azu.svg А а азъ azŭ [azŭ] a a [a] 1 Greek alpha Α I
Early Cyrillic letter Buky.svg Б б боукꙑ buky [bukɯ] b b [b] Greek beta in Thera form Greek Beta 10.svg letters
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Vedi.svg В в вѣдѣ vědě [vædæ] v v [v] 2 Greek beta Β know
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Glagol.svg Г г глаголи glagoli [ɡlaɡoli] g g [ɡ][12] 3 Greek gamma Γ speak When marked with a palatalization mark, this letter is pronounced [ɟ]; this occurs only rarely, and only in borrowings.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Dobro.svg Д д добро dobro [dobro] d d [d] 4 Greek delta Δ good
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Est.svg Є є єстъ estŭ [jɛstŭ] e e [ɛ] 5 Greek epsilon Ε is Pronounced [jɛ] (was used interchangeably with ѥ) when not preceded by a consonant.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Zhivete.svg Ж ж живѣтє živěte [ʒivætɛ] ž zh [ʒ] Glagolitic zhivete live
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Zelo.svg Ѕ ѕ / Ꙃ ꙃ ѕѣло dzělo [dzælo] dz/ʒ ż [dz] 6 Greek stigma Ϛ very The form had the phonetic value [dz] and no numeral value, whereas the form ѕ was used only as a numeral and had no phonetic value.[12] Since the 12th century, ѕ came to be used instead of .[16][17] In many manuscripts з is used instead, suggesting lenition had taken place.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Zemlia.svg З з / Ꙁ ꙁ зємл҄ꙗ zemlja [zɛmʎa] z z [z] 7 Greek zeta Ζ earth The first form developed into the second.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Izhe.svg И и ижє iže [jiʒɛ] i и=i, й=ĭ [i] 8 Greek eta Η which Pronounced [ji] or [jĭ] when not preceded by a consonant and not the particle ‹i› ("and"); the orthography does not distinguish between [ji] and [jĭ].[12] Speculatively, this letter might have originally been intended to represent [i] and [ji].[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Izhei.svg І і / Ї ї и i [i] i ī [i] 10 Greek iota Ι and Pronounced [ji] or [jĭ] when not preceded by a consonant and not the particle ‹i› ("and"); the orthography does not distinguish between [ji] and [jĭ].[12] Speculatively, this letter might have originally been intended to represent [jĭ].[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Dje.svg Ꙉ ꙉ ꙉерв djerv [dʑɛrv], [tɕɛrv] ǵ ǵ [dʑ], [tɕ] Glagolitic djerv ? Used chiefly in early Bosnian-Serbo-Croatian texts, or as a transliteration of Glagolitic in modern editions of Old Church Slavonic texts.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Kako.svg К к како kako [kako] k k [k] 20 Greek kappa Κ as When marked with a palatalization mark, this letter is pronounced [c]; this occurs only rarely, and only in borrowings.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Ludi.svg Л л людиѥ ljudije [ʎudijɛ] l l [l]; sometimes [ʎ][12] 30 Greek lambda Λ people When marked with a palatalization mark or followed by a palatalizing vowel (ю, ѭ, or , and sometimes ѣ), this letter is pronounced [ʎ]; some manuscripts do not mark palatalization, in which case it must be inferred from context.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Myslete.svg М м мꙑслитє myslite [mɯslitɛ] m m [m] 40 Greek mu Μ think
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Nash.svg Н н нашь našĭ [naʃĭ] n n [n]; sometimes [ɲ][12] 50 Greek nu Ν ours When marked with a palatalization mark or followed by a palatalizing vowel (ю, ѭ, or , and sometimes ѣ), this letter is pronounced [ɲ]; some manuscripts do not mark palatalization, in which case it must be inferred from context.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Onu.svg О о онъ onŭ [onŭ] o o [o] 70 Greek omicron Ο he/it
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Pokoi.svg П п покои pokoi [pokojĭ] p p [p] 80 Greek pi Π peace/calm
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Rtsi.svg Р р рьци rĭci [rĭtsi] r r [r]; sometimes [rʲ][12] 100 Greek rho Ρ say When marked with a palatalization mark or followed by a palatalizing vowel (ю or ѭ), this letter is pronounced [rʲ]; some manuscripts do not mark palatalization, in which case it must be inferred from context.[12] This palatalization was lost rather early in South Slavic speech.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Slovo.svg С с слово slovo [slovo] s s [s] 200 Greek lunate sigma Ϲ word/speech
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Tverdo.svg Т т тврьдо tvrĭdo [tvrĭdo] t t [t] 300 Greek tau Τ hard/surely
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Uk.svg Оу оу / Ꙋ ꙋ оукъ ukŭ [ukŭ] u оу=u, ꙋ=ū [u] 400 Greek omicron-upsilon ΟΥ / Ꙋ learning The first form developed into the second, a vertical ligature. A less common alternative form was a digraph with izhitsa: Оѵ оѵ.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Fert.svg Ф ф фрьтъ frĭtŭ [frrĭtŭ] f f [f] or possibly [p][12] 500 Greek phi Φ This letter was not needed for Slavic but used to transcribe Greek Φ and Latin ph and f.[12] It was probably, but not certainly, pronounced as [f] rather than [p]; however, in some cases it has been found as a transcription of Greek π.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Kher.svg Х х хѣръ xěrŭ [xærŭ] ch/x kh [x] 600 Greek chi Χ When marked with a palatalization mark, this letter is pronounced [ç]; this occurs only rarely, and only in borrowings.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Omega.svg Ѡ ѡ отъ otŭ [otŭ] o/v ѡ=ō, ѿ=ō͡t [o] 800 Greek omega ω from This letter was rarely used, mostly appearing in the interjection "oh", in the preposition ‹otŭ›, in Greek transcription, and as a decorative capital.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Tsi.svg Ц ц ци ci [tsi] c t͡s [ts] 900 Glagolitic tsi
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Cherv.svg Ч ч чрьвь črĭvĭ [tʃrĭvĭ] č ch [tʃ] 90 Glagolitic cherv worm This letter replaced koppa as the numeral for 90 after about 1300.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Sha.svg Ш ш ша ša [ʃa] š sh [ʃ] Glagolitic sha
Early Cyrillic letter Shta.svg Щ щ ща šta [ʃta] št sht [ʃt] Glagolitic shta This letter varied in pronunciation from region to region; it may have originally represented the reflexes of [tʲ].[12] It was sometimes replaced by the digraph шт.[12] Pronounced [ʃtʃ] in Old East Slavic. Later analyzed as a Ш-Т ligature by folk etymology, but neither the Cyrillic nor the Glagolitic glyph originated as such a ligature.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Back-Yer.svg Ъ ъ ѥръ jerŭ [jɛrŭ] ъ/ŭ ″, omit at end of a word [ŭ] or [ʊ][12] Glagolitic yer[1] After č, š, ž, c, dz, št, and žd, this letter was pronounced identically to ь instead of its normal pronunciation.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Yery.svg Ꙑ ꙑ ѥрꙑ jery [jɛrɯ] y ы=ȳ, ꙑ=y, [ɯ] or [ɯji] or [ɯjĭ][12] Ъ + І ligature. Ꙑ was the more common form; rarely, a third form, ы, appears.[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Yer.svg Ь ь ѥрь jerĭ [jɛrĭ] ь/ĭ [ĭ] or [ɪ][12] Glagolitic yerj[1]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Yat.svg Ѣ ѣ ѣть ětĭ [jætĭ] ě ě [æ][12] Glagolitic yat[1] In western South Slavic dialects of Old Church Slavonic, this letter had a more closed pronunciation, perhaps [ɛ] or [e].[12] This letter was written only after a consonant; in all other positions, was used instead.[12] An exceptional document is Pages of Undolski, where ѣ is used instead of . Therefore, judging from the modern-day dispute in Bulgarian, it could've been used, depending on dialect, to represent [ja] in some cases, and [ɛ] in others.[citation needed]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Iotated-A.svg Ꙗ ꙗ ja [ja] ja i͡a [ja] І-А ligature This letter was probably not present in the original Cyrillic alphabet.[1]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Iotated-E.svg Ѥ ѥ ѥ je [jɛ] je i͡e [jɛ] І-Є ligature This letter was probably not present in the original Cyrillic alphabet.[1]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Yu.svg Ю ю ю ju [ju] ju i͡u [ju] І-ОУ ligature, dropping У There was no [jo] sound in early Slavic, so І-ОУ did not need to be distinguished from І-О. After č, š, ž, c, dz, št, and žd, this letter was pronounced [u], without iotation.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Big-Yus.svg Ѫ ѫ ѫсъ ǫsŭ [ɔ̃sŭ] ǫ ǫ [ɔ̃] Glagolitic ons Called юсъ большой (big yus) in Russian.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Iotated-Big-Yus.svg Ѭ ѭ ѭсъ jǫsŭ [jɔ̃sŭ] i͡ǫ [jɔ̃] І-Ѫ ligature After č, š, ž, c, dz, št, and žd, this letter was pronounced [ɔ̃], without iotation. Called юсъ большой йотированный (iotated big yus) in Russian.
Early Cyrillic letter Yusu Maliy.svg Ѧ ѧ ѧсъ ęsŭ [jɛ̃sŭ] ę ę [ɛ̃] 900 Glagolitic ens Pronounced [jɛ̃] when not preceded by a consonant.[12] Called юсъ малый (little yus) in Russian.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Iotated-Lesser-Yus.svg Ѩ ѩ ѩсъ jęsŭ [jɛ̃sŭ] i͡ę [jɛ̃] І-Ѧ ligature This letter does not exist in the oldest (South Slavic) Cyrillic manuscripts, but only in East Slavic ones.[12] It was probably not present in the original Cyrillic alphabet.[1] Called юсъ малый йотированный (iotated little yus) in Russian.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Ksi.svg Ѯ ѯ ѯи ksi [ksi] ks k͡s [ks] 60 Greek xi Ξ These two letters were not needed for Slavic but were used to transcribe Greek and as numerals.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Psi.svg Ѱ ѱ ѱи psi [psi] ps p͡s [ps] 700 Greek psi Ψ
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Fita.svg Ѳ ѳ фита fita [fita] t/f/th [t], or possibly [θ] 9 Greek theta Θ This letter was not needed for Slavic but was used to transcribe Greek and as a numeral. It seems to have been generally pronounced [t], as the oldest texts sometimes replace instances of it with т.[12] Normal Old Church Slavonic pronunciation probably did not have a phone [θ].[12]
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Izhitsa.svg Ѵ ѵ ижица ižica [jiʒitsa] i,ü ѷ=ẏ, ѵ=v̇ [i], [y], [v] 400 Greek upsilon Υ small yoke This letter was used to transcribe Greek upsilon and as a numeral. It also formed part of the digraph оѵ.
Early-Cyrillic-letter-Koppa.svg Ҁ ҁ копа kopa [kopa] q no sound value 90 Greek koppa Ϙ This letter had no phonetic value, and was used only as a numeral. After about 1300, it was replaced as a numeral by črĭvĭ.[12]

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

Sometimes the Greek letters that were used in Cyrillic mainly for their numeric value are transcribed with the corresponding Greek letters for accuracy: ѳ = θ, ѯ = ξ, ѱ = ψ, ѵ = υ, and ѡ = ω.[14]

Numerals, diacritics and punctuation[edit]

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; usually this was accompanied by a dot on either side of the letter.[12] In numerals, the ones place was to the left of the tens place, the reverse of the order used in modern Arabic numerals.[12] Thousands are formed using a special symbol, ҂ (U+0482), which was attached to the lower left corner of the numeral.[12] Many fonts display this symbol incorrectly as being in line with the letters instead of subscripted below and to the left of them.

Titlos were also used to form abbreviations, especially of nomina sacra; this was done by writing the first and last letter of the abbreviated word along with the word's grammatical endings, then placing a titlo above it.[12] Later manuscripts made increasing use of a different style of abbreviation, in which some of the left-out letters were superscripted above the abbreviation and covered with a pokrytie diacritic.[12]

Several diacritics, adopted from Polytonic Greek orthography, were also used, but were seemingly redundant[12] (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+0300)
а́  oksia (acute accent), indicating a stressed syllable (Unicode U+0301)
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 systems in early Cyrillic manuscripts were primitive: there was no space between words and no upper and lower case, and punctuation marks were used inconsistently in all manuscripts.[12]

·  ano teleia (U+0387), a middle dot used to separate phrases, words, or parts of words[12]
.  Full stop, used in the same way[12]
։  Armenian full stop (U+0589), resembling a colon, used in the same way[12]
  Georgian paragraph separator (U+10FB), used to mark off larger divisions
  triangular colon (U+2056, added in Unicode 4.1), used to mark off larger divisions
  diamond colon (U+2058, added in Unicode 4.1), used to mark off larger divisions
  quintuple colon (U+2059, added in Unicode 4.1), used to mark off larger divisions
;  Greek question mark (U+037E), similar to a semicolon

Some of these marks are also used in Glagolitic script.

Used only in modern texts

,  comma (U+002C)
.  full stop (U+002E)
!  exclamation mark (U+0021)


Old Bulgarian examples[edit]

Medieval Greek Uncial manuscripts from which early Cyrillic letter forms take their shapes[edit]

Early Cyrillic manuscripts[edit]

See also[edit]

Media related to early Cyrillic alphabet at Wikimedia Commons


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Auty, R. Handbook of Old Church Slavonic, Part II: Texts and Glossary. 1977.
  2. ^ Himelfarb, Elizabeth J. "First Alphabet Found in Egypt", Archaeology 53, Issue 1 (Jan./Feb. 2000): 21.
  3. ^ Dvornik, Francis (1956). The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization. Boston: American Academy of Arts and Sciences. p. 179. The Psalter and the Book of Prophets were adapted or "modernized" with special regard to their use in Bulgarian churches, and it was in this school that glagolitic writing was replaced by the so-called Cyrillic writing, which was more akin to the Greek uncial, simplified matters considerably and is still used by the Orthodox Slavs.
  4. ^ Florin Curta (2006). Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500–1250. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks. Cambridge University Press. pp. 221–222. ISBN 978-0-521-81539-0. Cyrillic preslav.
  5. ^ J. M. Hussey, Andrew Louth (2010). "The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire". Oxford History of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-0-19-161488-0.
  6. ^ Mauricio Borrero, "Russia", p. 123
  7. ^ World Cultures Through Art Activities, Dindy Robinson, p. 115
  8. ^ Handbook of Scripts and Alphabets, George L. Campbell, p. 42
  9. ^ a b "Cyrillic alphabet". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 16 May. 2012
  10. ^ The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, Oxford History of the Christian Church, J. M. Hussey, Andrew Louth, Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN 0191614882, p. 100.
  11. ^ Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 500–1250, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks, Florin Curta, Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 0521815398, pp. 221–222.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf Lunt, Horace Gray (2001). Old Church Slavonic Grammar. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016284-9.
  13. ^ a b Cubberley 1994
  14. ^ a b Matthews, W. K. (1952). "The Latinisation of Cyrillic Characters". The Slavonic and East European Review. 30 (75): 531–548. ISSN 0037-6795. JSTOR 4204350.
  15. ^ "Church Slavic (ALA-LC Romanization Tables)" (PDF). The Library of Congress. 2011. Retrieved November 18, 2020.
  16. ^ Памятники Старославянскаго языка / Е. Ѳ. Карскій. — СПб. : Типографія Императорской Академіи наукъ, 1904. — Т. I, с. 14. — Репринт
  17. ^ http://www.ruslang.ru/doc/lingistoch/1964/02-simonov.pdf


External links[edit]