Basic Competency in Cyrillic – the EU’s Third Official Alphabet

With the 2007 accession of Bulgaria to the European Union (EU), Cyrillic became another official alphabet in the EU, alongside the most widespread Latin (Roman) script and the Greek alphabet, largely limited to Cyprus and Greece themselves.

The EU is increasingly a common space of economy, social relations culture, research and politics. In Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece population at large acquires a high competence in the Latin script in order to be able to read road signs with place names and other basic notices elsewhere in Europe, and also to learn other European languages. In other EU countries, especially the old Fifteen, a basic knowledge of the Greek script, allowing for reading road signs with place names and basic notices is widespread.

The Euro banknote with the name of the currency in the three scripts: Latin, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets
The Cyrillic acronym of the European Central Bank in Bulgarian

The same is not true of Cyrillic, although its utility is not exclusively limited to Bulgaria, unlike in the case of the Greek alphabet officially used only in Cyprus and Greece. Cyrillic is an official or co-official script in the post-Yugoslav of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, which may become members of the EU in the coming decade. What is more, this alphabet is the sole official script across the EU’s eastern border, in Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.


Hence, for practical reasons of communication, tourism and general orientation, achieving a basic competency in Cyrillic, potentially, is of a greater utility than that in the Greek script. The latter alphabet has 12 million users, while Cyrillic well over 200 million.



It is Easy to Acquire Cyrillic


Mastering the Greek alphabet does not face the user of the Latin script with too many difficulties, because the Latin alphabet developed directly from the Greek one in the 7th century BCE in what today is southern Italy. Thus, many similarities remain.


Cyrillic originated from the Greek alphabet, as well, at the turn of the 10th century CE on the territories of today’s Bulgaria and Macedonia. Hence, both scripts are quite similar to each other.


In addition to that, at the beginning of the 18th century, the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, decreed the introduction of a new type of Cyrillic (Grazhdanka, or ‘civil script’) modelled on the Antiqua typeface of the Latin script. Today Antiqua is the standard version of the Latin script, while Grazhdanka in the case of Cyrillic.


Please, compare the word ‘alphabet’ given in the three scripts below.


Greek:                         Αλφάβητο [alfavito]

Cyrillic (Russian[1]):         Алфавит [alfavit]

Latin:                           Alphabet


Last but not least, unlike in English, French or Irish, in languages written in Cyrillic there is a close correspondence between letters and sounds (phonemes). Thus, mastering the Cyrillic alphabet alone allows one to pronounce reasonably correctly words in Bulgarian, Russian or Serbian for that matter.



The Course


The course should be advertised and open, first of all, to Trinity students and staff, and after that to general public at large. If there were a great interest in it, the Bulgarian Lector could be assisted by volunteers from the newly founded Russian Society.


With the intensive use of materials, 8 to 10 hours (meaning 4 to 5 weekly meetings) of such a course should be enough to achieve a basic competency in Cyrillic. Thus, the course could be made into a rolling one that would be repeated cyclically throughout the academic year.



Method and Materials


Participants should be taught how to write and read Cyrillic letters, because these are interlinked processes. It is hard to learn only to read letters in a new script. Writing serves as a prop to learning quicker and better how to recognize and read unfamiliar letters.


Perhaps, for the sake of economy the course should be limited to the printed version of Cyrillic. Introducing the Cyrillic cursive (hand) would require the prolonging of the course to at least 15 hours. (Alternatively, learning of the cursive and other more advanced details could be imparted in a follow-up intermediate course of competency in Cyrillic.)


Last but not least, participants should be supplied with a pronunciation table of at least the Bulgarian and Russian versions of Cyrillic. Although it would be helpful (for comparison and a future reference) to include also other versions of Cyrillic: Belarusian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Serbian, or Ukrainian.


Such a table would let the participant notice some, relatively small, graphic differences between these versions of Cyrillic and similarly small differences between how given letters are pronounced in Cyrillic-based languages. Pronunciation should be supplied in an English-based transliteration(s), a simplified IPA notation, and in an approximate English-based notation.



Follow-up Activities


The course should be a good platform to promote the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies, the SLLCS and Trinity College itself. The courses could be inaugurated by an event co-organized with the Bulgarian Embassy. In addition, throughout the year, as a cultural complement of the courses, on a biweekly basis, ambassadors of states where Cyrillic is an official script (Belarus, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Ukraine), or lecturers sponsored by the respective Embassies, could deliver lectures on significant issues in their respective countries. An exhibition on Cyrillic and/or states where Cyrillic is the leading script could be considered, as well.


Last but not least, should an interest justified that, learning of the cursive and other more advanced details of Cyrillic could be imparted in further intermediate and advanced courses of competency in Cyrillic.

22 April 2010, Dublin

[1] I do not use the Bulgarian word ‘alphabet’ in this comparison, as it is etymologically different – Азбука [azbuka]