Cyrillic Alphabet
Кирилли́ческий Алфабит

Some notes on the Cyrillic alphabet, as encoded by the standard iso-8859-6.

Russian alphabet Росский Алфабит

АБВГДЕЖЗИЙКЛМНОПРСТУФХЦЧШЩЪЫЬЭЮЯ
абвгдежзийклмнопрстуфхцчшщъыьэюя

also

Ё
ё

Ukrainian letters

ЃЄІЇ
ѓєії

Belarusian letters

ЅЎ
ѕў

Serbian letters

ЂЈЉЊЋЏ
ђјљњћџ

Macedonian letters

Ќ
ќ

More symbols in 8859-6

№ §


typed
form
Russian
name
name
sound
std.
translit.
А ааaha
Б ббэbehb
В ввэvehv
Г ггэgehg
Д ддэdehd
Е ееyehe
Ё ёёyohynot usually included in alphabet
Ж жжэzhehzh
З ззэzehz
И ииeeiee as in “feet”
Й йи краткоеee krahtkoyehishort ee, as in “boy”
К ккаkahk
Л лэльehll
М мэмehmm
Н нэнehnn
О ооooas in “box”
П ппэpehp
Р рэрehrr
С сэсehss
Т ттэteht
У ууoou
Ф фэфehff
Х ххаkhahkh
Ц ццэtsehts
Ч ччеchyehch
Ш шшаshahsh
Щ щщаshchyahshch
Ъ ътвёрдый знакtvyordy zyahk-hard sign
Ы ыыiyshort i
Ь ьмагкий знакmyakhkey zyahk'soft sign
Э ээ (оборотное)eh eshort e, as in “bet”
Ю ююyooiu
Я яяyaia

Origins

860 ADGlagolitic script invented by Cyril and Methodus. It is very stylized, based loosely on Greek.
c.870Cyrillic invented by Cyril’s students, including Clement, under the Bulgarian tsar Simeon (and so fits Bulgarian best).
1700Peter the Great added lower-case letters, adjusted forms of others.
1918Bolsheviks abolished dotted-i (і), fitah (theta), ishitsa (v), and yatz, and reduced the use of the hard sign.

Greek letters

Cyrillic was developed in a time when the Greek-speaking Byzantine empire was a much stronger influence than the older Latin-speaking Roman empire. For this reason, most Cyrillic letters derive from Greek, and specifically, from Byzantine styles of the letters.

Of course, there was already a perfectly good “s” in Greek, the letter sigma. One small form of this letter looks just like the Latin “s”. The letter С however derives from the “lunate” form of the Greek sigma being used at the time Cyrillic was developed. (Coptic uses a similar letter, called “seema”, for the “s” sound.)

Typographic Misfortunes

Some of the small letters are printed quite differently in the italic form, especially, г, и, and т (this may or may not be apparent to you depending on whether your Russian font has a proper italic version):

абвгдежзийклмнопрстуфхцчшщъыьэюя
абвгдежзийклмнопрстуфхцчшщъыьэюя

I think these are more examples of propagation of a poor choice. The strangest is т, which is written with three vertical lines to distinguish it from the capital Г.

The situation gets much worse in the cursive. This can be blamed on Peter the Great. The small cursive letter Д

Аcapital alpha
Бsmall beta
Вcapital beta (note in Greek, the sound is also like v)
Гcapital gamma
Дstylized capital delta
Еcapital epsilon (small version is a Latin e)
Зsmall zeta
Иstylized small eta
Кkappa
Лstylized capital lambda
Мcapital mu (cursive uses small mu)
Нstylized small nu
Оomicron
Пpi
С“lunate” sigma
Тtau (cursive weird: has three vertical lines)
Уlatinized capital upsilon
Фphi
Хchi
Эa backwards small epsilon

“Backwards” letters

Иis a very stylized small Greek letter eta
Эis just that: a backwards Greek letter epsilon (called Э оборотиоэ)
Яis a ligature of the letters I and A, but the design is Peter the Great’s—previously the letter had taken the form Ѧ.

Semetic letters

Ц Hebrew letter “sadhe”.
Ш Hebrew or Arabic letter “shin”; Coptic “shai”.
Щ

Slavic letters

Ж
Ч

Ligatures

Щ ligature of Cyrillic Ш and Ч
Ю ligature of I and O
Я ligature of I and A
Ы ligature of hard sign Ъ and I

The best things

There are many cool aspects to the Cyrillic alphabet—some of the funny letters are the best parts.

First, the writing is mostly phonetic.

English, and many other European alphabets, ought to have letters like Ч and Ш for “ch” and “sh”. The insistence of representing those sounds with combinations of Latin letters was an act of cowardice.

Maybe the letter Ж wouldn’t be so useful for English where the “zhe” sound is relatively rare (only in words of French origin), but for Slavic languages, it is a brilliant invention.

Orthographic Misfortunes

On the other hand, some unfortunate choices were made. I will learn to live with them, but first let me get this off my chest.

The use of Н for the “n” sound. It’s a stylized Greek small letter nu, but there’s no Greek history of writing it this way, and it precludes the normal Greek way of writing eta. Why not just use the Greek “N”?

Perhaps if the use of the Greek letter eta hadn’t precluded by writing Н for the “n” sound, they wouldn’t have had to resort to Э for a short “e” sound.

The effect of the hard and soft signs Ъ and Ь would have been much better represented using a system of accent marks. These letters were inherited from the Glagolitic alphabet, but their forms there were very different.

I see no good excuse for making a whole new letter Ы. It’s supposed to be a ligature of Ъ and i — Old Church Slavonic used several such ligatures. A simple iota-like sign would have sufficed for modern use.

The use of the capital Greek letter beta for the “v” sound, I consider unfortunate, considering that another form of the same ancient letter have In modern Greek, the letter beta “Β” has a sound like that, but Greek has no native “b” sound. In Latin, the situation was reversed (the specialized form V of U was introduced later to represent the “v” sound). There are precedents in Greek and other languages for using the digamma (which looked like “F”) for this sound. The Latin “V” would also have been a possibility. Why not V? Maybe it could be confused with У, but that confusion has always been the story with V and U.

Of course, there was already a perfectly good “s” in Greek, the letter sigma. One small form of this letter looks just like the Latin “s”. The letter С however derives from the “lunate” form of the Greek sigma being used at the time Cyrillic was developed. (Coptic uses a similar letter, called “seema”, for the “s” sound.)

Typographic Misfortunes

Some of the small letters are printed quite differently in the italic form, especially, г, и, and т (this may or may not be apparent to you depending on whether your Russian font has a proper italic version):

абвгдежзийклмнопрстуфхцчшщъыьэюя
абвгдежзийклмнопрстуфхцчшщъыьэюя

I think these are more examples of propagation of a poor choice. The strangest is т, which is written with three vertical lines to distinguish it from the capital Г.

The situation gets much worse in the cursive. This can be blamed on Peter the Great. The small cursive letter Д is written as a small cursive English g, Л is written like a cursive English n, and Г is written like a cursive English i without a dot.

The result is that many Russian cursive letters consist of either bumps or spikes, which have to be distinguished by a system of little downstrokes.