Russian Alphabet

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Russian Alphabet


a series of special graphic symbols, or letters (a, Ϭ, B, r, д, and so on), that represent the sounds of Russian speech and constitute the written and printed form of Russian, the national language of the USSR.

The modern Russian alphabet contains 33 letters. Of these, 20 letters represent consonants: Ϭ[b], Π[p], B[V], Φ[f], д[d], T[t], 3[z], c[s], Ж[3], III[ʃ], ч[ţʆ], II[ts], III[ʆţʆ], r[g], K[k], X[x], M[m], H[n], л[1], and p[r]. Ten letters represent vowel sounds. Six of these letters are used mainly to represent vowels: a[a], э[e], o[o], ы[ɨ], ϰ[i], and y[u]. The letters я, e, ë, and ю do not simply represent vowels but indicate either combinations of the sound [j] followed by a vowel, as in яMa [jamə] (“pit”), exa Tb [jexəƫ] (“to drive”), ëлka[jolkə] (“fir”), and юный[junɨj] (“young”), or [a], [o], [e], and [u] after soft consonants, as in ΠяTb [p̧æƫ] (“five”), люk[ļuk] (“hatch”), and лëд [ļot] (“ice”). The letter й(i kratkoe, or “short i”) represents a nonsyllabic [i] and, in some cases, a consonant [j]. The letters ъ (tverdyi znak, or “hard sign”) and ь (miagkii znak, or “soft sign”) do not represent separate, independent sounds. The ь indicates a softening of a preceding consonant, as in KOH [kon] (“kitty” in a game of chance) versus KOHь[koŋ] (“horse”). The ь functions as a “separating” sign.

In composition and in the basic shapes of the letters, the modern Russian alphabet derives from the Cyrillic alphabet. It came into use after a reform by Peter I that, first, changed the shapes of the letters so as to make the letters more like the printed Latin alphabet and, second, abolished several obsolete

letters. The letters dropped were omega, ot, ius bol’shoi, ksi, psi, and iotized a and e. Also dropped were stress accents, marks to indicate aspiration (intensity), and signs of abbreviation (titly). The letter я, which was derived from Ѧ, became established in place of Ѧ and ѩ. The letter y came to replace ɣ, a letter known as uk. In the second half of the 18th century the letter э was introduced, followed somewhat later by ë. These changes were caused by the need to adapt the Church Slavonic typeface for secular, or civil (grazhdanskie), publications—hence the term “civil typeface” (grazhdanka), one of the names of the modern Russian alphabet.

The Russian alphabet was reformed by the decree of the People’s Commissariat for Education of Dec. 23, 1917, which was confirmed by the decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of Oct. 10, 1918. This reform eliminated the letters iat’, fita, i desiatirichnoe, and izhitsa from the alphabet.

The Russian alphabet serves as the basis for the alphabets of many languages of the USSR. In addition, the modern Russian civil alphabet became the basis of the alphabets now used in the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the Mongolian People’s Republic.


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