Glory To Ukraine!
Image ©2024 ABS Screenshot from sidebar of Wikipedia article Cyrillic Script listing nations that use Cyrillic
Nations That Use Cyrillic Script

What Is Cyrillic, Anyway?

It’s the script that the Ukrainian language is written in, but more generally, Cyrillic script is a writing system based on Greek Uncial that is used to write many different languages across Eurasia, including Slavic, Turkic, Mongolic, Uralic, Caucasian and Iranic languages.

With the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union in 2007, Cyrillic became the third official script of EU, following Latin and Greek.

Like Latin and Greek, it is alphabetic; that is, it consists of a standard set of letters, each of which represents a single sound (phoneme) rather than having letters represent syllables or entire words.

As of 2019, about 250 million people in Eurasia write their national languages using Cyrillic script. It is the official script of seven sovereign states (Belarus, Bulgaria, Kyrgyzstan, North Macedonia, russia, Ukraine, and Tajikistan) and the co-official script of as many more.

Image ©2024 ABS Public Domain world map showing frequency of Cyrillic script use in various countries
Worldwide Distribution Of Cyrillic Script Use

Why is Cyrillic script based on the Greek rather than the Latin alphabet?

Remember the schism that resulted in the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox Church in the east? One of the most obvious differences between the two churches is that important church documents such as the Bible use the newer Roman (Latin) letters in the Roman Catholic Church, but in the Orthodox church those same documents are still in Greek, as they were originally written down.

That’s why Cyrillic script is based on Greek letters, specifically on Greek Uncial (a font written entirely with capital letters), rather than the Roman letters familiar to people outside of Eurasia. Cyrillic was developed by monks of the Orthodox Church and scholars who wrote in Greek, so they naturally turned to Greek letters when they created the new script.

Image ©2024 ABS Description
Text In Greek Uncial

Many Cyrillic script letters look like Greek letters, although some of them have been assigned different sounds than they would represent in Greek. There also are a few letters unique to the script, to represent sounds not found in Greek.

What is the origin of Cyrillic script?

In the year 863 the Byzantine Emperor Michael III and the Patriarch of Constantinople Photius sent two monks, brothers from Thessalonica named Cyril and Methodius, to Great Moravia (now a part of the Czech Republic) to spread Christianity there. When they arrived in Moravia, they realized that there was a problem in carrying out their mission.

Image ©2024 ABS Cyril and Methodius, from a fresco in the Troyan monastery
Cyril and Methodius

They found that the local Slavic language, and indeed all the Slavic languages, had never had written forms. Furthermore, some of the sounds in those languages couldn’t easily be written with Greek or Latin letters. Before they could translate the various church documents into Slavic, the two brothers would need to create an alphabet with which to write them.

You can guess at the rest of the story. The two brothers created Cyrillic script, which later was named for one of them. WRONG!

It’s a lot more complicated than that. The two brothers created an alphabet called Glagolitic script (although the name sounded to me like someone choking, actually it comes from a Neo-Latin word meaning… “word” or “utterance”) that doesn’t look very much like Cyrillic, as you can see from the example.

Image ©2024 ABS Two examples of Glagolitic script, rounded letters from Bulgaria and an angular South Slavic alphabet.
Two Examples of Glagolitic Script

The two brothers transcribed their church documents, using their Glagolitic script, into what became known as Old Church Slavonic, successfully evangelized the Slavs, and later both were canonized as saints for their efforts. Glagolitic script was also a success. It spread to many cultures in that part of the world, and was used alongside of Latin in the Kingdom of Croatia until the 14th century.

But, where does Cyrillic script come in? Have patience, we’re getting to that, and we’re almost there. I warned you that it’s a bit complicated!

Image ©2024 ABS Ruins and one column from the town of Preslav, from the Wikipedia article on Preslav Literary School.
Ruins of Preslav Today

After the deaths of Cyril and Methodius, their disciples attempted to continue their work, but they were expelled from Moravia.

They moved to the First Bulgarian Empire, where they joined the Preslav Literary School. The school had been established in 886 in Pliska, the Bulgarian capital at that time, but in 893 the school was moved from Pliska, the old capital, to the new capital, Veliki (Big or Great) Preslav. The Preslav school soon became the most important literary and cultural center of the empire, and of all Slavic culture.

The school attracted many prominent scholars of the period. It was a center for translation (mostly of Byzantine works), poetry, painting, and painted ceramics as well as a source of new written works. In this thriving academic environment, the former disciples of Cyril and Methodius along with other scholars developed the Cyrillic script, using the letter shapes from Greek Uncial plus some of the Glagolitic letters, and naming the script for Saint Cyril.

Image ©2024 ABS Medieval rock monastery near the village of Krepcha, Opaka region, Bulgaria where the oldest known Cyrillic inscription was found.
Site of the oldest Cyrillic inscription

It soon displaced Glagolitic script in the immediate area, although Glagolitic script was still used in many other localities for centuries, often along with Cyrillic and Latin scripts. Not surprisingly, the oldest Cyrillic inscriptions have been found in the area around Preslav, including many in nearby monasteries.

The spread of Cyrillic script, and its modern forms

In basing Cyrillic script on Greek Uncial, the former disciples and the scholars were using the latest thing in alphabets. In the past, font styles had been angular, with each letter requiring several strokes of the pen. The writing surface, often papyrus, was not very flexible or smooth. But new, smoother, and more flexible writing surfaces were coming into use: parchment, and its smoother, higher quality cousin, vellum.

Greek Uncial took advantage of these new materials by introducing letters that could be written with one sweeping stroke, because they included something new, namely curves. Many of these new-style Greek letters were included in Cyrillic script. So Cyrillic script, like Greek Uncial, was very modern for its time, and could be written faster and more easily than previous scripts.

Perhaps that accounts for the speed at which it spread, and its popularity. Although Preslav was captured by the Byzantine Emperor and burnt in 972, Cyrillic script had already come to the Kievan Rus’ (a principality centered on the city that became modern Kyiv), where it was adapted to write the local Old East Slavic language.

Image ©2024 ABS Cyrillic alphabet printed in 1574 in Lviv by Ivan Fyodorov
Page From Ruthenian Language Textbook

This led to an indigenous East Slavic literary language used in secular writings alongside the Old Slavonic liturgical works. The example page is a Cyrillic alphabet from the first Ruthenian (the adjective form of Rus’) language textbook, published in Lviv by Ivan Fyodorov in 1574.

Image ©2024 ABS Screenshots of Ukrainian, Macedonian, and Montenegrin Cyrillic alphabets from the Wikipedia article Cyrillic alphabets.
Ukrainian, Macedonian, and Motenegrin Cyrillic alphabets

Cyrillic changed as it was adapted to each different Slavic language. Although it was created specifically to transcribe liturgical works into the Slavic languages, Cyrillic quickly was taken up to write secular works in those languages as well. Compare the modern alphabets of Ukrainian, Macedonian, and Montenegrin Cyrillic. To accomodate the different sounds in these three Slavic languages, some letters appear in each that are unique to that language.

Image ©2024 ABS Screenshot of Kazakh and Kyrgyz Cyrillic alphabets.
Two Turkic Cyrillic alphabets

Cyrillic script was so useful that some non-Slavic languages adapted it to their use. Take a look at the other example of modern Cyrillic alphabets. These two languages are in the Turkic group; Kazakh (spoken in Kazakhstan, of course) and Kyrgyz (spoken in Kyrgyzstan, obviously), but they are written using Cyrillic script.

One more thing

But, what about the two saintly brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who almost invented Cyrillic script? Things worked out very well for them. First, both were canonized as saints, and given their own feast day, which is celebrated on February 14 in the Roman Catholic church and on May 11 in the Eastern Orthodox church.

Image ©2024 ABS Procession celebrating the Feast Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Novosibirsk in 2009.
Procession On The Feast Day of Saints Cyril and Methodius.

They are still highly regarded in both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches, were given the prestigeous title “Apostles to the Slavs”, and in 1980 were declared “Patrons of Europe”. They are commemorated in Lutheran churches, they have a Lesser Festival in the Church of England, and there are many secular monuments to the pair.

Somehow it warms my heart to think that, after more than 1,000 years, these two brothers are still remembered and honored for bringing literacy to the Slavs.

Image ©2022 ABS Ukraine flag colors lineLinksImage ©2022 ABS Ukraine flag colors line

Cyrillic Script post.pdf. PDF file including all the text, illustrations, and references from this post.

Cyrillic Script article. Very informative and interesting Wikipedia article about Cyrillic Script, including its use worldwide, its origin, description, and definition.

Cyril and Methodius article. Interesting Wikipedia article about Cyril and Methodius, two brothers who first created an alphabet, Glagolitic script, with which to write Slavic languages. This article also covers their time in Rome and Methodius’ life after the death of Cyril.

Preslav Literary School article. Wikipedia article about the Preslav Literary School, the cultural center of the First Bulgarian Empire.

Image ©2022 ABS Ukraine flag colors lineGraphics CreditsImage ©2022 ABS Ukraine flag colors line

List of nations that use Cyrillic Script. Screenshot of a portion of the sidebar of the Cyrillic Script article (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikipedia. URL:

Cyrillic alphabet world distribution.svg by SkyBon (2008) (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

Example of Greek Uncial from Codex Harleianus 5787, Lectionary 152 (Gregory-Aland), Author unknown (9th Century) (Public Domain)via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

Cyril and Methodius, painted by Zahari Zogra (1848) (Public Domain), fresco in a Troyan Monastery, via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

Two examples of Glagolitic script. Above: an example of a round (Bulgarian) Glagolitic alphabet from the 11th century. Fragment from “Kiev leaflets”. Below: An example of an angular (South Slavic) Glagolitic alphabet. Fragment from the “rhyming gospel” (CC 0 1.0) via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

Ruins of Veliki Preslav photo by Izvora (2010) (Public Domain) Ruins at the location of Veliki Preslav via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

Site of oldest known Cyrillic inscriptions by Vl. Stoykov (Date Unknown) (Public Domain) Medieval rock monastery near the village of Krepcha, Opaka region, Bulgaria via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

Cyrillic alphabet printed by Ivan Fyodorov (1574) (Public Domain) A page from Azbuka, the first Ruthenian language textbook. Printed by Ivan Fyodorov in Lviv in 1574. The page features the Cyrillic alphabet via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

Cyrillic Slavic alphabets Screenshots from the article “Cyrillic alphabets” (Last edited 5-9-24) (CC BY SA 4.0) via Wikipedia. URL:

Cyrillic Turkic alphabets Screenshots from the article “Cyrillic alphabets” (Last edited 5-9-24) (CC BY SA 4.0) via Wikipedia. URL:

Procession on the feast day of Saints Cyril and Methodius by Testus (2009) (CC BY SA 3.0 Unported) Photo of a cross Procession in Novosibirsk via Wikimedia Commons. URL:

Image ©2022 ABS Ukraine flag colors lineBibliographyImage ©2022 ABS Ukraine flag colors line

These are the articles I read in order to write this post. In some cases, I have simplified information so that what I wrote is not fully congruent with the information in the articles. For example, I always referred to one of the brothers as “Cyril”, but for most of his life his name was Constantine. He took the name “Cyril” toward the end of his life, when he became a monk. But that complication didn’t have anything to do with Cyrillic script, so I left it out.

Of course, there is always a possibility of some error in an encyclopedia article, but I’m not pretending that this page is a scholarly dissertation; it’s just an interesting story about Cyrillic script.

I have provided direct links to the three most interesting articles, plus a link enabling you to download the entire post in PDF format. For the rest, note that the URL is included in each of these citations.

  1. “Alphabet,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  2. “Cyril and Methodius,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  3. “Cyrillic Alphabets,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  4. “Cyrillic Script,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  5. “Early Cyrillic Alphabet,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  6. “Glagolitic Script,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  7. “Old East Slavic,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  8. “Preslav Literary School,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  9. “Ukrainian Alphabet,” by Wikipedia contributors, article from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
  10. “Uncial Script,” by Wikipedia contributors, article fromWikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL:
May 17th, 2024 at 6:30 am


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