Interesting Stuff About the Russian Alphabet

Dear Readers:

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).

Otto’s theories had no legs to walk on.

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?

English spelling is wildly out of sync with the actual Phonology.

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.

Russian kids start learning to read at an early age.

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!

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16 Responses to Interesting Stuff About the Russian Alphabet

  1. Peter says:

    I have been lurking reading your blog for more than a year now… and this article is fascinating.
    I don’t know much (or any for that matter) Russian apart from the absolute basics and couldn’t hold or understand a conversation if my life depended on it, but this is an excellent article and Cyrillic (and the Russian language in general) is the only language and Alphabet I’ve ever been interested in learning.
    Time to ‘dust of my New Years Resolution’ and actually do it.
    Thank you for this post. I’d love to read more along the same theme.

    Peter (an English speaker and soon to be tourist of Russia)


  2. vandermerwe says:

    “In which the Cyrillic alphabet is the only possible means of expressing Slavic sounds. (Polish and Czech notwithstanding.) ”

    It is not the only possible but in a way better suited to the demands of Slavic languages than Latin. Polish is a good example here, it gets very complicated with various, frequently very similar, sounds described by different letter combinations, being confusing not only to the foreigners but also native speakers.


    • yalensis says:

      Thanks for comment, vandermerwe. It’s a good point, and I agree that the Poles would have been better served by adopting the Cyrillic alphabet. Or, if they had to use the Latin alphabet, at the least, the Czech-type alphabet devised by Jan Hus, which uses diacritic marks instead of double letters.

      In addition to the cultural and religious religions why the Poles picked the alphabet they did, they may have also been guided by practical reasons, for example the kinds of type faces and printing presses they had. Hence the double letters like /sz/ instead of just /Š/ for example.

      Having said that, the Polish alphabet is actually not bad at all. Despite the double letters (which are confusing), but once you master that, Polish is actually easy to learn (I am talking about reading, not speaking, of course!), as it is almost 100% phonemic. For example, I don’t speak Polish at all beyond a few words, but I can read Polish and with not bad pronunciation (according to a Polish friend of mine), since the spelling corresponds to the pronunciation almost 100%, once you learn which combination of letters represents which phoneme.

      The point I have always tried to make (and very key in my polemics with “Otto”) is that we scientists need to de-couple alphabets from their emotional, cultural, religious, and historical baggage (which is impossible, of course!) and start looking at them from a purely clinical and scientific point of view. The point being, to increase mass literacy, get children learning to read more quickly, and even make it easier for adults to learn to read another language. For example, it would be impossible for me, at this stage in my life, to learn to read Chinese, since I simply don’t have the time to memorize thousands of characters in the Chinese alphabet! Hence, if the Chinese want to win me over, then they would really need to reform their alphabet and make it phonemic. Just sayin’…


      • Mikhail says:

        Well, let’s suppose you don’t have time to memorize all those Chinese characters, but anyway if you intend to learn any foreign language you still have to find the time to study grammar and memorize thousands of words. Does it make any difference? As to convert Chinese to phonetic writing system, such system already exists. It is called pinyin and is widely used in learning Chinese. If you want to read and write in Chinese in a purely phonetic manner you can use pinyin. However the Chinese language itself resists phonetization. The problem is that due to homonimy it is nearly impossible to understand an isolated word by ear. It only can be comprehended in a context among other words. You can also add regional variants, which complicate the situation. In a written (with Chinese characters) text this problem does not exist. Actually it can be written in another dialect (there are dozens of them in Chinese) and still be understood. Furthermore the literary language is different from spoken one. In other words – the way one talks, one doesn’t write and vice versa. Frankly, you are not the first person who tried to turn Chinese phonetic, but the Chinese characters still are and will remain the best writing system for Chinese in the foreseeable future.


      • Mikhail says:

        And trust me, the Chinese characters is not the most difficult part in learning Chinese!


        • yalensis says:

          Really, Mikhail? What could possibly be more difficult than memorizing those Chinese hieroglyphs, LOL!
          Okay, I admit I don’t know a word of Chinese. But I studied General Linguistics, and I can’t believe that Chinese could be so very different from all the other languages in the world, that they must keep their archaic script!
          And granted, that “Chinese” is actually several languages, not just one.
          In which case, each separate language needs its own alphabet.
          That’s the way it works. Just like Russian and Ukrainian.

          Okay, so I googled “Chinese phonology”, and I got this wiki page on Mandarin phonology. So, there are 19 consonants and 5 vowels, plus some tones. Big deal. They could devise an alphabet with 24 letters plus some diacritics for the tones, and Voilà.
          What am I missing? You haven’t convinced me. I mean, we are talking about a human language, not about Martians or Jupiterians, no?


          • yalensis says:

            P.S., if homonyms are truly an issue (I believe you on that one), then an extra character or subscript could be added at the end of the word.
            For example, if English alphabet was made more phonemic, then “night” and “knight” would be spelled exactly the same. Homonyms. If the meaning wasn’t clear from the context, then a subscript would be added: /nait-1/ = “what follows “daylight” and /nait-2/ = “a guy in a helmet with a lance”. Or something like that….


            • Mikhail says:

              Note, that in some cases the number of homonyms may be pretty high – about several dozens. How many diacritics would you provide? Wouldn’t you end up with a system resembling Hanzi (hieroglyphs), which you disapprove?
              As I said before, a purely phonetic writing system for Chinese already exists. It includes diacritics for tones. But it doesn’t help much. Reading a text written in pinyin turns into guessing and solving puzzles. There’s also one interesting aspect regarding Chinese literature – Chinese authors (especially belonging to old school) construct their texts having in mind reading (which is logical), not reciting aloud, so they tend to use more homonyms than usual, making the text almost incomprehensible when read aloud. Before 20 century literary Chinese was a separate language (Wenyan). Even today it has its usage, on a limited scale. Traditionally in Chinese the gap between written and spoken language is wider than for most other languages. That’s the reason why a full-fledged writing system for Chinese cannot be purely phonetic, without causing ambiguity.
              BTW, learning Hanzi is not that hard as it may seem. First because they are not purely ideographic. In fact they are phono-ideographic, that is similar characters are very likely, but not necessarily, to be pronounced alike.


          • Jen says:

            The reason that the Sinosphere hangs onto all those thousands of characters – most of which aren’t used in everyday discourse, by the way – is historical / cultural: no matter where you are in China, whether you speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese or Shanghainese, you can still read the written language (if it is in traditional characters rather than the simplified version of the characters which I think is biased towards Mandarin) because the written language more or less exists independently of the spoken languages. Also the written language gives access to Chinese-language speakers to their history and the cultures, attitudes and values associated with that history to an extent that is probably not possible with English-language speakers, who can only go back 500 years (to William Shakespeare’s time more or less) before they need translations of entire texts.

            I think these days if you are learning to read and write in Mandarin, you would be reading and writing in Pinyin first and then you would move over to the simplified characters. There would be no need to know the full traditional script unless you want to read and understand historical texts.


            • yalensis says:

              Interesting. Thanks to both Mikhail and Jen for comments.
              The whole notion of a written language that is separate from a spoken language is sort of alien to me. I suspect, however, that English is becoming that too – LOL!


              • yalensis says:

                P.S. – okay, so I did my 10-second research on Chinese homonyms. Okay, I get it, that actual phonemic and morphophonemic homonyms are a real issue.
                So, here is my question for Chinese speakers and linguists:
                If these homonyms are so pervasive, then how do speakers even understand each other in everyday life?

                Try to imagine a more primitive world (maybe after The Apocalypse) in which there is no writing and only the spoken word. How can Chinese speakers actually understand what each other are saying without volumes of explanatory context?
                And if they can’t, they maybe it’s time they ditched their language and started speaking Esperanto, or something?


              • Ryan Ward says:

                “And if they can’t, they maybe it’s time they ditched their language and started speaking Esperanto, or something?”

                A ha! We’ve finally exposed you! Your linguistic Trotskyist endgame of having the whole world speaking Esperanto is plain for all the world to see! Next you’ll be trying to convince us that there’s really no such thing as an “Asiatic” language. *scoff*


              • yalensis says:

                Oh, Ryan, you are a Worthy Adversary, indeed, since you can read my thoughts! But I will break you… heh heh…


  3. David Johnson says:

    I enjoy your work and frequently use it in Johnson’s Russia List
    David Johnson


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