The Cyrillic script is a writing system used by over 250 million people in over 50 different languages.
After Latin and Greek, Cyrillic is the third official script of the European Union.
The most widely spoken languages that use the script are Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Czech, Bulgarian, Belarusian, Kazakh, Kirghiz and Macedonian. Each has its own unique version incorporating uses and pronunciations specific to its needs.
In this article, we dig into the history of the Cyrillic script. Find out how it has been adapted for different uses over the years and why this is important in localization.
A brief history of the Cyrillic script
Over the centuries, the Cyrillic script has been adapted in different ways by a large range of Slavic and non-Slavic languages.
Its early origins lie in the Glagolitic script, which was created by two brothers, Cyril and Methodius. This was brought to the First Bulgarian Empire around 886, where it was officially accepted by Boris the First.
A simplified version was soon developed by scholars and named the Cyrillic script in honour of Cyril. In 893, Cyrillic was made the official alphabet of Bulgaria.
Many monks learnt to write using Cyrillic, helping to spread the script – and Christianity – throughout Europe.
Its spread can also be attributed to the fact that the Bulgarian Empire was the largest empire on the Balkan peninsula at that time. This allowed the Cyrillic script to easily reach neighbouring countries like Russia and Serbia.
The basics of Cyrillic script formation
The Cyrillic script draws from the Greek uncial script as well as the older Glagolitic alphabet. Ligatures – where two letters or symbols are combined to create a new letter or symbol – were an important part of the formation of the Cyrillic script.
Some of these are still in use today. For example, ш (Sha) is a letter of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic script which is used in every variation of the Cyrillic alphabet for Slavic and non-Slavic languages. It commonly represents the pronunciation of “sh” in sheep.
Using the Cyrillic script for localization
Wondering how this is all relevant for your localization efforts? This short history lesson teaches us about the complexities of a writing system that has been heavily adapted over many centuries for a range of different languages.
While many common letters are shared by most of the national languages with a Cyrillic alphabet, there are exceptions and additions to each language.
Different countries are passionate about using their writing system as a means of preserving their national identity and individuality. For this reason, it’s critical that you pay attention to the unique ways that the script has been adapted in the country you’re localizing to.
Cyrillic encoding systems
Cyrillic letters, including national and historical alphabets, are encoded across several blocks within Unicode version 13.0.
Other character encoding systems for Cyrillic include:
- CP866 – Microsoft’s 8-bit Cyrillic character encoding for use in MS-DOS
- ISO/IEC 8859-5 – International Organization for Standardization’s 8-bit Cyrillic character encoding
For a comprehensive list of other encoding standards for specific languages, see Wikipedia’s section on computer encoding for Cyrillic scripts. It covers a variety of languages like Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian.
What you need to know about Cyrillic type design
When it comes to type design, Cyrillic typefaces have traditionally been made according to Russian standards, which is now the default.
Again, remember that not all Cyrillic languages use exactly the same characters as Russia. This is particularly notable with Bulgarian and Serbian Cyrillic, which have some distinct differences from the standard Russian. This makes finding and using local alternatives especially important.
In Microsoft Windows, the Segoe UI user interface font offers complete support for the archaic Cyrillic letters since Windows 8.
The Cyrillic script is always evolving
The Cyrillic script has a long and complex history, but it’s something that is still evolving. Letters are continually being added and removed from the many different Cyrillic alphabets.
Do your research before localizing your app or website so that you’re clear about the nuances of the specific Cyrillic language and alphabet you’re using.
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