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Related to Cyrillic: Cyrillic alphabet, Cyrillic letters


alphabet [Gr. alpha-beta, like Eng. ABC], system of writing, theoretically having a one-for-one relation between character (or letter) and phoneme (see phonetics). Few alphabets have achieved the ideal exactness. A system of writing is called a syllabary when one character represents a syllable rather than a phoneme; such is the kana, used in Japanese to supplement the originally Chinese characters normally used. The precursors of the alphabet were the iconographic and ideographic writing of ancient man, such as wall paintings, cuneiform, and the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians. The alphabet of modern Western Europe is the Roman alphabet, the base of most alphabets used for the newly written languages of Africa and America, as well as for scientific alphabets. Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and many languages of the former Soviet Union are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, an augmented Greek alphabet. Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic all have their own alphabets. The most important writing of India is the Devanagari, an alphabet with syllabic features; this, invented probably for Sanskrit, is the source of a number of Asian scripts. The Roman is derived from the Greek, perhaps by way of Etruria, and the Greeks had imitated the Phoenician alphabet. The exact steps are unknown, but the Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, and Devanagari systems are based ultimately on signs of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. This writing was not alphabetic, but in the phonogram it bore the germ of phonemic writing; thus the sign “bear” might (to use an English analogy) mean also the sound b, and “dog” d. A similar development created the Persian cuneiform syllabary. Two European alphabets of the late Roman era were the runes and the ogham. An exotic modern system is the Cherokee syllabary created by Sequoyah, suggested by, but not based on, the Roman alphabet. Another was the short-lived Mormon Deseret alphabet.


See S. Mercer, The Origin of Writing and Our Alphabet (1959); D. Diringer, The Alphabet (2 vol., 3d ed. 1968); O. Ogg, The 26 Letters (rev. ed. 1971); C. Grafton, Historic Alphabets and Initials (1977); A. Gaur, A History of Writing (1984); D. Sacks, Language Visible (2003).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the two Slavic alphabets. It was named for the ninth-century Slavic educator Cyril (called Constantine before he became a monk), who in 863 created the first Slavic alphabet and, with the help of his brother Methodius, translated the text of the Christian church service from Greek into Slavic. The earliest Cyrillic monuments probably date from the time of the earliest Glagolitic monuments.The most ancient Cyrillic works are the Old Bulgarian Mostich inscription (tenth century), the inscription of Tsar Samuil (993), and the inscription of Ivan-Vladislav (1016); and the 11th-century manuscripts Savvina Kniga, the Codex Suprasliensis, and the Enin Book of the Apostles; as well as the more numerous East Slavic works, including such particularly valuable dated manuscripts as the Ostromir Gospel (1056–57), the Sviatoslav Missals (1073 and 1076), the Service Book of Days (1095, 1096 and 1097), and the beresto writings, which are documents of everyday correspondence.

There are a number of hypotheses concerning the origin of the Cyrillic alphabet. Most scholars, relying on the Moravian-Pannonian and Ohrid Glagolitic traditions associated with the activity of Cyril and Methodius, on the great age of many Glagolitic monuments, and on the 11th-century Novgorod monument, in which Glagolitic writing is called Cyrillic, have concluded that Cyril created the Glagolitic alphabet and that the Cyrillic alphabet was compiled in eastern Bulgaria in the late ninth century (in Preslav) to make the Slavic writing system more similar to the ceremonial Byzantine system.

The ancient Cyrillic alphabet (see Table 1) contained 24 Greek uncials and the following specially created letters that were not in the Greek alphabet but were needed to represent the corresponding Slavic sounds: (There were also some other letters whose original shape has not been definitively established.) Until the 11th and 12th centuries, the Cyrillic and Glagolitic alphabets paralleled each other, but Cyrillic later became the prevailing alphabet. The composition and shape of the Cyrillic letters have changed. In the 14th century the original uncials began to be replaced by half uncials, which were the basis for the first Russian typefaces. Beginning in the late 14th century, cursive script became widespread in business and everyday correspondence, and the ornamental ligature script was used in book titles. In 1708–10, Peter I replaced the half uncials with the Civil typeface, which was similar to the modern alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet was the basis for the alphabets of not only the southern and eastern Slavs but also of most of the peoples of the USSR, as well as of the Mongolian alphabet (by way of Russian).


Georgiev, E. Slavianskaia pis’mennost’do Kirilla i Mefodiia. Sofia, 1952.
Likhachev, D. S. Vozniknovenie russkoi literatury. Moscow-Leningrad, 1952.
Cherepnin, L. V. Russkaia paleografiia. Moscow, 1956.
Istrin, V. A. 1100 let slavianskoi azbuki. Moscow, 1963.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


denoting or relating to the alphabet derived from that of the Greeks, supposedly by Saint Cyril, for the writing of Slavonic languages: now used primarily for Russian, Bulgarian, and the Serbian dialect of Serbo-Croat
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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