86 Russian Domain: Cultural Geography – Cyrillic Alphabet


Language is a vital part of culture and thus of cultural geography.  As geographers study the world, knowledge of foreign languages can be helpful.


For native English speakers, learning other languages that feature Latin-based alphabets is not necessarily easy, but at least does include familiarity with the script.  Some Latin-based languages do have letters that are not in the English language alphabet. For instance, Norwegian and Danish language includes the letters æ, ø, and å.

Typically, English speakers find certain foreign languages more challenging when they do not feature a Latin-based alphabet. Definitely, character-based languages such as Chinese and Japanese may be difficult for Americans to learn. Arabic offers letters such as ي.  Here let us consider the Cyrillic alphabet, common in Slavic languages, though not in all.

The Cyrillic alphabet is named for St. Cyril. Along with his brother Methodius, Cyril was a Christian missionary who worked among Slavic peoples. Significantly, in the 9th century the brothers created the Glagolitic script to help with translation of religious books.  Their disciples helped establish this alphabet in the Bulgarian empire, where it was edited to become the Cyrillic alphabet and adopted by the ruler Simeon I in 893.

The alphabet was incorporated into the related Russian language and evolved somewhat over the centuries.  Some letters were dropped completely from the list. Others, like the so-called hard sign ъ, found less common use. Tsar Peter the Great actively sought to bring European elements into Russian society and prompted reform of the Cyrillic alphabet, including some drift toward a more Latin appearance for some letters. Variation in the script between different Slavic languages developed.

Russia’s form of the Cyrillic alphabet features 33 letters.  Note that there are slight variations of the Cyrillic alphabet, for instance in Ukrainian. For a visual explanation, watch this short video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJz8RrKEHlw. In any case, some Cyrillic letters match their Latin counterparts in form and pronunciation.  For instance, the letter k is the same in English as in Russian, as is true for the vowel a.

Other Cyrillic Russian letters appear to match Latin letters, but are pronounced differently.  For example, the Cyrillic letter c is pronounced like the Latin letter s. The Cyrillic letter p is pronounced as a rolled r.

Still other Cyrillic Russian letters do not have Latin partners at all.  These letters create interesting versions for transliteration, the process of spelling a foreign word to match its pronunciation but not to reflect its meaning. So, the Cyrillic letter щ is transliterated as the letters shch, while the letter ж is spelled zh.  In American marketing, sometimes the letter я is used to be a trendy letter r, such as in the company name Toys я Us.  However, in Russian this letter я is pronounced and transliterated as ya (or sometimes as ia ).  One consequence of these Cyrillic letters matching multiple Latin letters is that some Russian words appear much shorter in Russian than when spelled in English.  Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s last name is Xpyщёв in Russian. Chechnya, a troublesome republic of Russia, is spelled чeчня in Russian.

Some Cyrillic letters show influence from other lands certainly including Greece, like the letter ф which is the same as the Greek letter, sounded in English as ph or f.

An oddity in the Cyrillic is the so-called soft sign ь.  This letter sort of isn’t a letter, for it has no sound.  Instead the soft sign ь softens the pronunciation of the letter that comes before it.  A common example is the letter т which is pronounced as a soft т when combined as ть. Typically, these combinations occur at the end of syllables or at the end of words. The Russian administrative region область is an example of this soft т at the end of a word.  Similarly, the Russian word tsar is spelled царь.  The word tsar offers a lesson in transliteration, as the correct choice for the letter ц is ts, while a trendy but poorer American approach is cz, creating the word czar.

During the years of the Soviet Union, government policy toward language and more broadly toward culture was Russification. Given that the Russian Republic (the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic or RSFSR (PCфCP)) was overwhelmingly the largest portion of the land mass and that Russians were the majority of the country’s population, the government actively promoted Russian language and culture as the normative approach throughout the country.  Russian language was taught everywhere.  Given the distinctive alphabets in Armenia and in Georgia, these republics were allowed to use their own languages, though Russian was taught there too.  Although the Turkic languages of Central Asia used Arabic-based or Latin-based alphabets, these were converted into Cyrillic scripts.  The breakup of the Soviet Union brought an end to Russification and prompted gradual linguistic reforms away from Cyrillic.  For instance, in Uzbekistan in 2021, the Uzbek national language will complete a reform to a fully Latin alphabet.  The same will be true for the Kazakh language in 2025. Languages of the native republics of contemporary Russia often still use the Cyrillic script adopted during Soviet days. This is true for Tatar, Mari, Bashkir, and many other languages in Russia.


Photograph of Citibank sign in Cyrillic script in Moscow, Russia.
Citibank. Photo by Bruno Girin on Flickr.

As key Russian cities become more Western, an odd trend is the transliteration of English words or brand names into Cyrillic script on store signs and billboards.  Citibank to the left.




Overall, the Cyrillic alphabet is the natural script for Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Belarussian, Macedonian, and Serbian languages.

Did You Know?

Note this Moscow photo from sheepman on Flickr – https://tinyurl.com/CyrillicButNotRussianWords.  Here this sign has the Russian word for restaurant above two non-Russian words that are the transliterations for the words billiards and bowling.


Soviet era propaganda poster showing astronaut and worker.
Photo by Jorge Láscar on Flickr.

Here is a poster from Soviet days.  The USSR or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was written as CCCP in Cyrillic, standing for Союз Советских Социалистических Республик.

The poster sends the message of “Glory to heroic October!”  References to October recall the October Revolution of 1917 that ended Tsarist rule in Russia. Curiously, this poster uses the Ukrainian word Жовтень for October (as expressed in the dative case); apparently, the poster was used in the Ukrainian Republic of the Soviet Union.

Curiously, in the early days of the Soviet Union, there was a government project examining the possibility of shifting from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Latin alphabet. Stalin canceled the project in 1930.


Check Your Understanding


Cited and additional bibliography:

Girin, Bruno. 2009. Citibank. https://tinyurl.com/citibcyr. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Láscar, Jorge. 2012. CCCP (Soviet) Poster, 1963. https://tinyurl.com/yc6ozmnn. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).


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The Western World: Daily Readings on Geography Copyright © 2020 by Joel Quam and Scott Campbell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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