I wanted to bring to your attention this interesting piece about the history of the Russian alphabet. The author is Georgy Manaev.
The piece is in English, so you don’t really need me to translate or summarize anything, but here is my review anyhow.
Talking Point #1: Cyrillic was created to bring the lands of Rus under the Orthodox umbrella
We all know the story how the Macedonian monks Cyrill and Methodius devised an alphabet for the Slavic peoples, so that the latter could learn to read the Bible. C & M were expert linguists of their time, they understood the concepts of Scientific Linguistics, the theories of Phonology and so on; were also, happily, bi-lingual themselves, fluent in both Greek and Slavic. Therefore, they were in a good place to invent an alphabet for the Slavs. Their invention, by the way (=Glagolitic) looks nothing like the modern Cyrillic alphabet! Which is one of Manaev’s man points, namely that the alphabet has evolved quite a lot over time. This is an important point, because there are still a few ignorami out there who believe that the current Russian alphabet was somehow hounded down by God himself and can never be touched. Loyal Avalanche readers will recall this 7-part series of posts which I wrote roughly two years ago on the subject (hooking to the then-current topic of a Ukrainian news channel).
My ignorant sparring partner “Otto” has since disappeared into the mists of obscurity, but no doubt still believing fervently in his own personally invented Theory of Isomorphic Linguistics. In which the Cyrillic alphabet is the only possible means of expressing Slavic sounds. (Polish and Czech notwithstanding.) Oh, and by the way, forget everything you learned in that General Linguistics 101 class: See, the main partition of the world’s languages is between the “Asiatic” and the “European” groups of languages. And only “Asian” mouthparts are physically capable of uttering palatal consonants such as /ts/ and /ch/. Just take a look in the Chinese phone book if you don’t believe me! And lots of other insane (not to mention quasi-racist) fallacies, as well! Bye bye, Otto, you will not be missed.
Back to the world of sanity: The first graphic in Manaev’s piece shows Cyrillic “handwriting” of the 17th century, which brings up the issue of cursive. Now, I suspect that I am probably a member of the last generation which had to learn Russian cursive. In this digital age, cursive in any alphabet is simply obsolete, and good riddance! Who has the time to learn what amounts to an extra alphabet when children have so little free time, and so many other more important topics to master? Besides, people don’t write any more by hand. They tap on a keyboard or thumb a text message into their phone.
Talking Point #2: Peter the Great simplified Cyrillic to fuel trade with Europe
This is très intéressant, as Peter himself might have said. Peter was a genius in many ways, but without his autocratic way of getting things done, his genial alphabet reform would never have been implemented. According to Manaev, the Reform was accomplished in 1712: “The Tsar himself redesigned 32 letters and many of their forms were approximated to Latin ones so they could be easily modeled by type designers in Europe. Peter scrapped many superfluous superscript signs and insisted on capital letters at the start of sentences. Arabic numerals were also introduced instead of the alphabetic numerals used before.” Bravo, Peter! Now, if only the Chinese had such a genial and determined ruler, they could have scrapped their nightmare of an alphabet centuries ago! Or at least relegated it to an elective course in ancient calligraphy.
Talking Point #3: The Bolshevik’s 1918 Orthographic Reform combatted illiteracy
Even a good alphabet can be improved on. And bravo to the Bolsheviks for taking on the new, and necessary Orthographic Reform. Once again, it took a Revolution to make even such minimal changes. If you don’t believe me, then sit back and ponder, why Americans still count in feet and yards, instead of meters. And why the nightmare of an English alphabet resists reform, even though the language and the alphabet have become so very divergent that English-speaking children must waste years of precious time learning to read and spell. All those wasted hours studying for the school Spelling Bee! Hours that could have been spent learning, say, a musical instrument. Seriously, who has time for this s**t any more?
And, by the way, for those people who simply hate Bolsheviks because they were Commies: The Bolsheviks were not Linguists themselves, nor scientists on the whole; but they were smart enough to respect people who were. Indeed, to respect any “intelligent” who knew what he was talking about, in his own field of specialty. As Manaev points out, the reform plan had been devised in 1904 “by the Russian Empire’s finest linguists”. The value added by the Bolshies was simply to do what those finest linguists were incapable of doing on their own: Push the plan through! “The reform was rubber-stamped [haha! pun] and the Russian alphabet with 33 letters we know today was born. To implement the new linguistic rules Bolshevik officers simply confiscated old letter sets from printing houses.”
And that, my friends, is (sometimes) the only way you can ever really get things done! Just via ruthless efficiency, not unlike the Spanish Inquisition, except here in the cause of more, rather than less, Enlightenment.
Talking Point #4: Disseminating the Russian language in other communist states
So, the Commies also take a lot of rap for “Russifying” other peoples. Shipping out a lot of Cyrillic printing presses, and so on. But seriously, if you were living in the Soviet Union during those years, or actually anywhere in Eastern Europe, then it really helped your career to learn Russian. And even nowadays, with the Russian Empire in decline, it’s still an important world-class language.
According to Manaev, the Russian orthography underwent its last major reform in 1956. I didn’t even know about that one, so this is interesting news. I can personally think of a few other refinements that might be useful for reforming the Russian alphabet as it stands today. Like, maybe we should stop spelling the masculine genitive singular ending as –ого and start spelling as –ово the way it is pronounced? [Just a humble suggestion….]
Manaev ends his piece by pointing out that the Cyrillic alphabet (in its Russian form) is very widely used in the world today. English comes first, of course, with 54% of the content found on the internet; but Russian Cyrillic is still very important, accounting for 6%. And millions of people throughout the world use Cyrillic to read and write. It is a robust and evolving, not to mention beautiful, alphabet!