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On the Pleasures of the Cyrillic Alphabet

I do not remember a time when I could not read the letters. My (younger) sister has a memory of the two of us, on either side of our mother on the couch, the children’s Reader “Marusia” (Маруся) on her lap, following her along, reading out loud together like a trio of cantors at church.

Дзвони дзвонять бам-бам-бам, Чи до школи, чи до церкви, час-час-час…The bells are ringing, ding-dang-dong, To school or to church, it’s time-time-time.

I knew how to make the sounds of each letter (Ukrainian vowels,unlike the Russian, are pronounced without variation) and I knew there were “false friends” that lurked among them: В was not “b” but “v” and Н was not “h” but “n.” But what I revelled in were the letters that arrived from another calligraphic imagination altogether. Д or “d,” Я, not a backwards R but “Ya,” Б or “b.” Further on into the Cyrillic ABCs (in Ukrainian there are 32 letters), I relished the shaping of Ш or “sh,” Щ or “shch as in fresh cheese,” Ч or “ch,” Ц or “ts,” and, most fun of all, Ж, or “zh.”

See, you can read Cyrillic too.

The fact that in Ukrainian you needed only one letter where in English – or, God help us, Polish – you needed at least two in Latin letters to make the same sound (Щ = szcz in Polish) eventually confirmed for me the wisdom of the ancestors in choosing such an efficient representation of the sounds of most Slavic speech. As a result I can read – but not necessarily understand – Russian, Belarusian, Serbian, Macedonian, Montenegrin and Bulgarian. This is handy for figuring out newspaper headlines or street names or where a bus is going. Or, in a museum cafe in Sofia, I read that the “vegetarian menu” is offered in Bulgarian as “Lenten.”

I loved drawing the letters, curlicues and whorls and slanted strokes in the cursive, long before the letters arranged themselves into discrete sound clusters and then words. So for me the written Ukrainian language was first a design, such as one could trace on an embroidered cushion. Pleasing, like the swirl of my own name written on the flyleaf of the Reader on mum’s lap: Мирося Косташ. I don’t think I thought of these letters as exotic. Private, yes, belonging to this homely place in the pool of light under the lampshade or, later, belonging to the church, including its basement (Saturday and Sunday schools) where none but hyphenated-Canadians would gather to study on weekends. Even before I could read them, I had seen the letters all my life, again in that private space of my father’s newspaper from Winnipeg, Український Голос or “Ukrainian Voice” and on the fragile airmail letters that came all the way from relatives in Джурів, Dzhuriv, in the УРСР, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. And in a crabbed kind of cuneiform (to my childish eye) on the icons in the church.

And when I went to Greece the first time, I discovered I could read that too, or make a stab at it: shop signs, bus stations, icons. Once I had sounded out the letters (and thanks also to all those “Greeks” i.e. fraternities at the university with their  ΦΔΚ and ΣΑΜ emblazoned above their porches), I was already a foot in the door of Greek script. Γ = Г, Δ = Д, Φ = Ф, Λ = Л, Π = П….easy-peasy.

(In this respect, at least, I was not as naive as the American writer, Mary Norris, who wrote recently in the New Yorker “on the pleasures of a different alphabet,” the Greek in her case. “It had never occurred to me,” she writes, “that a person could become literate in a language that was written in a different alphabet.” I do admit that I am transfixed by the obvious literacy of a person reading right to left in the pages of an Arabic book or in vertical columns of Mandarin.)

And when I went to church in Greece, I had a field day: Ecclesia! Theotokos! Episkop! Liturgia! Khristos! And then learned the exact same vocabulary in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Just so, we Ukrainian-Canadian Orthodox are instructed to refer, in English, to an eparchy (Greek) and not to a diocese (Latin), to Divine Liturgy (Liturgia), not Mass, to the Mother of God (Theotokos) rather than to the Virgin Mary. This is no mere whimsy: our Orthodox Christianity is the fruit of missions among the Slavs of emissaries from Greek-speaking Constantinople, not Latin Rome. So when the need arose for a vocabulary of Christian terms and concepts that had no Slavonic equivalent, Greek was adopted holus-bolus. For example, the names of the priest’s vestments in English: Phelonion (robe),  Epitrahilion (stole), and Epimanikia (cuffs). Or translated into tormented (to me, trying to memorize the Creed, for instance) neologisms for ” Who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified” come up with five- and seven-syllabic words. 

I could read these words, i.e. sound them out, in my Children’s Prayer Book but, until the Church decided to publish bilingual editions of the Liturgical books we used, I hadn’t the foggiest idea what a lot of the words meant. Rivnopokloniaiemyi, anyone? I memorized The Nicene Creed as a child, one ghastly sound group after another, but I had no idea what I was professing “to believe” until I read the English text. (Whether I then “believed,” is another issue.)

According to Mary Norris, “the English alphabet is descended, via the Latin, from the Greek alphabet, which, according to Herodotus, was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet. Well, that’s interesting:  that all those languages written in Latin letters (Czech, English, Turkish) should have the same root as Cyrillic letters? It seems I have been labouring under the illusion of the utter strangeness of the one to the other. And for this I account the story of how the Cyrillic alphabet came to be.

If you, dear Reader, have ever paused to wonder why this particular European alphabet is called “Cyrillic,” you could logically assume that it is attributed to the divine work of St Cyril (“Apostle to the Slavs” together with his brother, St Methodius) of whom you will have heard in order even to pose the question. They were 8th century monks and theologians from Thessalonica in northern Greece who were sent by the Byzantine emperor, Michael III in Constantinople, on a mission to Slavic Great Moravia, at the request of Prince Rastislav. The Prince requested translations of Scripture and Psalters into Slavonic and an alphabet in which to do so. The first attempt at the alphabet was not in fact Cyrillic but Glagolitic (it looks like this: Ⰳⰾⰰⰳⱁⰾⰹⱌⰰ) and nothing came of it. Rastislav’s successor did not support their work and the Slavonic Liturgy was briefly deemed heretical.

But all was not lost. Although the disciples of Cyril and Methodius were expelled from Moravia, they were welcomed by Boris, ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire, who gave them a scriptorium in Ohrid (Macedonia in former Yugoslavia) in which to work out a new, improved alphabet that would be called the Cyrillic in honour of their masters. And this one stuck. According to Wikipedia, Cyrillic is derived from the Greek capital letters script, augmented by letters from the older Glagolitic alphabet, including additional letters  for Old Slavonic sounds not found in Greek. There you have it. From Ohrid to Kyiv to…Edmonton.

Imagine,then, my aggrieved astonishment, on a visit to Venice, to hear a British travel guide address his group waiting to enter St Mark’s Basilica: “Strange as it may seem, you will see Greek in this Christian church.” Note to tour guides: San Marco is known architecturally as an example of eleventh-century Italo-Byzantine style and the mosaics in the main porch are in “a fairly pure Byzantine style.” In fact, to quote the official website of the Basilica, “essentially Byzantine in its architecture, the Basilica finds in the mosaics its natural integrating element.” And that’s where you will read that troublesome Greek.

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John-Paul Himkajames romanowYvonne PanchukTonyDMyrna Recent comment authors

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Ksenia M
Ksenia M

Nice! How little our teachers/religious/elders understood us children. Albeit valid, their primary concern was to preserve the culture that was under real threat behind the Iron Curtain — or, equally valid, it was a beloved, familiar milieu that they simply wanted to share. So much of what you beautifully describe could have been explained at the time; it would have put our culture in its rightful, venerable context, and made us feel less ghettoized into the bargain.


Great article on the topic of the Cyrillic alphabet. When I studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute back in the 80s they mentioned exclusively St. Cyril and St. Methodius. It’s interesting to know that there is a little more to the story as there always seems to be with anything Russian. I can say that ever since those first lessons I’ve been captivated with the Russian language. I was fortunate to live and work in Moscow and St. Petersburg as an interpreter and to vacation in both cities with my father and stepmother. My last visit was 2005, but… Read more »

Yvonne Panchuk
Yvonne Panchuk

Hi, Myrna, I enjoyed this very much. Yes, we attended Ukrainian school on Saturdays to learn to read the alphabet. I am so intrigued by Ohrid. It is one place I’d like to visit one day. You totally caught the flavour of learning and using Cyrillic. Well done!

james romanow
james romanow

This is brilliant! thanks!

John-Paul Himka
John-Paul Himka

I just want to point out Cyril’s important role. What he did was to break apart the phonetic system of Slavic speech and give a letter to each sound. His invented letters were replaced with more familiar Greek letters in Ohrid, but he was the person who designed the template.

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