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Cyrillic alphabets

24th of May – Day of the Cyrillic and Slavic alphabet

To the ordinary man it may seem a day like all others, but in many countries this is a very special date, one on which the Slavonic literature and culture are celebrated. For us, this is the best occasion to remember the extraordinary lives and work of the Holy brothers Cyril and Methodius – the fathers of the Slavic Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets.

The two brothers were born as Constantine and Michael in the beginning of the 9-th century in Thessalonica in present-day Greece. They were of a noble origin – their father was Leo, a Byzantine army commander and their mother was Maria, presumably of Slavic origin. They got very good education for their time and especially Cyril who studied in the University of Magnaura in Constantinople. His exceptional talent and skills did not go unnoticed and he was sent to state missions to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil and to the Khazar Khaganate. After his return to Constantinople Cyril became a professor of philosophy while Methodius – then a monastery abbot, played a significant role in the Byzantine Empire’s political and social life.

But it was their last state mission that brought them fame and, eventually, immortality. In 862 AD Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia requested from the Byzantine Emperor that missionaries be sent to baptize his Slavic subjects. The two brothers were sent a year later. They quickly realized that in order to accomplish this mission they had to translate The Bible into the language that is now known as Old Church Slavonic. For this purpose they created the Glagolitic alphabet – the first to be used for Slavonic manuscripts. It was designed to suit the specific phonetics of the Slavic language. However, their work soon raised concerns among the German clergy and they were summoned to Rome. There, in the Pope’s presence, they brilliantly pleaded for their cause and gained the support of the Vatican’s high clergy.

Unfortunately, this was the last significant deed in the life of Constantine – Cyril. He died on the 14th of February 869. In his absence, Methodius continued his work until his death in 885. With this great figure gone, the German clergy saw the opportunity to regain what it had lost. The Slavic liturgy was forbidden and Cyril and Methodius’ disciples were expelled from Moravia and Panonia. They fled to the First Bulgarian Empire where they were warmly welcomed by the Bulgarian tzar Boris I, who quickly realized the importance of the new alphabet in his struggle to restrain the Byzantine cultural influence in his state. Cyril and Methodius’ disciples – Clement, Naum, Angelarius, Sava and possibly Gorazd, were given the best possible means to develop their work and soon the early Cyrillic alphabet appeared, as a direct descendant of the Glagolitic. Through the years that followed, the Cyrillic script proved very popular and was spread among many Slavic and later even non Slavic states.




It is common belief that both scripts were derived directly from the Greek alphabet. Of the 41 Glagolitic letters known today, 24 had originated from the graphemes of the Greek Small Alphabet. There were two major forms – the original one that was more rounded in order to have more beautiful, calligraphic appearance of the texts, and the stiffer, more angular Croatian variant, more suited for everyday use. There were only one type of letters – with no capital and lowercase ones. Every letter had its name and numeric value.

Its successor – the Cyrillic alphabet was also based on the Greek uncial script with additional letters and ligatures from the Glagolitic for the Slavonic sounds not found in Greek. Initially, both alphabets shared many common features such as the lack of capital letters, their names and numerical values etc. Both scripts co-existed till the XII century when the Glagolitic was gradually replaced by the Cyrillic.

Modern Cyrillic has substantial differences from the ancient one. In the XVIII century the Russian tzar Peter the Great introduced westernized letter forms that were adopted in other languages too. Thus modern Cyrillic typefaces are similar to the Latin fonts of the same family.

To realize the importance of the work of the Holy brothers Cyril and Methodius, we just need to look at the spread of the Cyrillic alphabet today – more than 12 centuries later. Cyrillic is used by more than 252 million people and 12 states as their official alphabet, making it one of the most used writing systems in the world- facts that demonstrate that the legacy of the Holy brothers will not be forgotten in the centuries to come.

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