How did the Cyrillic alphabet originate? – SWR . knowledge

Cyrillic alphabet: developed in the Balkans for the Slavic languages

With few exceptions, the Cyrillic alphabet is the script in which Slavic languages ​​are written – from Montenegro to Russia. Developed specifically for these languages ​​with their characteristics, it has its roots in the Balkans.

The Cyrillic alphabet is obviously similar to the Greek alphabet, but it is completely different. Some Hebrew letters also flowed in, and then for us, who are accustomed to the Latin script, there are such strange letters as Cyrillic Я (pronounced similarly to German j), which sounds like the letter R.

Cyril of Salonica discussed the characteristics of Slavic languages

The name Cyrill in the name “Cyrillic alphabet”: means Cyril of Salonika. This was an important missionary in the ninth century. He was born in Thessaloniki, which today belongs to Greece. At that time the city was the second largest city in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople. Cyril’s mother tongue was Greek, and he studied classical sciences, but also many other languages ​​such as Latin, Gothic and Hebrew. He had a brother, Way. The two brothers traveled a lot and did missionary work. They greatly contributed to the acceptance of the Christian faith by the Slavic peoples; That was Christianity in its Greek-Byzantine form, that is, orthodoxy.

Learn Cyril Hebrew in Cherson

One of his trips took Cyril to the Khazar Empire, whose upper class converted to Judaism. The Khazar Empire stretched over a large area north-east of the Black Sea, part of which today belongs to Ukraine and another part to Russia. Geography was in a pincer mode: in the west Byzantine Christians, in the south the expanding Islam, the adoption of Judaism was a neutral status.

To prepare for his mission to the Jewish Khazars, Cyril spent several months in Cherson, northern Crimea (one of the most contested cities in the Ukraine War of 2022), learning Hebrew there.

Working on a new “Slavic” line

After returning from the Khazars (whom he could not change) he returned to Constantinople and again devoted himself to linguistics. Cyril realized that the Slavic languages ​​had some peculiarities that neither the Greek nor the Latin letters did justice. So he invented a new one. But he also wanted to give the Slavic peoples their own script to emphasize their own personality.

The glagolitic script was the forerunner of the Cyrillic alphabet

This script was not the Cyrillic alphabet as in use today, but an earlier one, the Glagolitic script. It was very wide, with over 40 characters, and sometimes quite ornate. This script was first used in parts of the Balkans as far as Moravia, that is, in what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

For the development of the Glagolitic script, Cyril used mainly Greek letters. But when he stumbled with Slavic sounds, he mingled with Hebrew and some from the Caucasian, Georgian and Armenian writing systems.

The Glagolitic script was the basis for the actual Cyrillic script, which appeared according to the current situation only a hundred years later, long after the death of Cyril, but also in the Balkans, presumably in Bulgaria. The Cyrillic alphabet adopted a larger number of Greek letters, but also some letters from the Glagolitic alphabet. During the reign of the Russian Emperor Peter the Great, the text was somewhat reformed and simplified. Hence, individual countries developed their own variants.

This story explains why the alphabet came out the way it looks, why it’s reminiscent of Greek but is so different, and why letters derived from the Hebrew alphabet can still be found in the Cyrillic alphabet today: it’s “Z”. (ц), which comes from the Hebrew “zadeh” (צ) or “she” (ш), which goes back to the Hebrew shin (ש).

The letters “inverted as a mirror” are clearly a coincidence

As a Western European, one sometimes wonders why some characters are written in reverse. But these are coincidences. For example, Russian и (i) looks like an inverted N.

And Я, which looks like an inverted mirror R, has nothing to do with R at all. Instead, it was formed from two ancient Cyrillic letters with I and A superimposed – the letter A with three legs, so to speak. Peter the Great simplified this letter in the letter R.

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