Russian Language Blog

Are There Too Many Letters in Russian Alphabet? Posted by on Sep 27, 2010 in History, language

What’s this, you ask? Well, this is Russian alphabet. Or rather, this was the old Russian alphabet used in times of Peter the Great. Letters in blue have been discarded by 1800. Letters in red were killed off or exiled in 1918. The remaining 33 letters form the present-day Russian alphabet.

When I was little, someone explained to me that there was a reason Russian alphabet had 33 letters. There was a letter for each tooth (32) and one letter – «я» – for the tongue. And since «я – последняя буква алфавита» [«я» is the last letter of the alphabet], it’s best to «держать язык за зубами» [keep one’s tongue behind one’s teeth].

Do you remember David Roberts who, back in August guest posted his “200-ruble question“? This time David talks about some of the fairy recent (historically speaking) changes Russian alphabet went through. I knew the explanation I was given as a child had no historical merit.

By the end of the 19th century the Russian alphabet was down to 36 letters. Two of these, q and υ, had become rare, but «і» and «ѣ» were very common. The «твёрдый знакъ»  [hard sign] was much more common than nowadays: if a word ended in a hard consonant this had to be indicated by «ъ». For example:

«Бѣдный блѣдный бѣлый бѣсъ,

Убѣжалъ съ обѣдомъ въ лѣсъ»

[Poor pale white demon

Ran off to the forest with the dinner]

When we see «съ» and «въ» written like this we begin to see how Russian comes to have single letter prepositions that cannot be pronounced on their own – «с» [with], «в» [in] and «к» [to]. They all used to be followed by «ъ», so they were two-letter words, and «ъ» used to be a vowel in its own right, with a sound rather like the second “e” in Manchester (or, if you prefer, the “e” in Liverpool or the second “a” in Wallasey). In other Slav languages «ъ» still retains this sound, e.g. «Българя».

Proposals to reform the alphabet had already been drawn up before WW1 but were not implemented until after the October revolution. The letters «і» and «ѣ» were discarded, «и» and «е» being used in their place, and the use of «ъ» after final hard consonants was dropped. In the present system we know that if the final consonant isn’t followed by the «мягкий знак ь» [the soft sign] it must be hard.

The reformed alphabet was seen to some extent by emigré “White” Russian populations as the work of the hated Bolsheviks. The Russian emigré newspaper «Русская Мысль» [Russian Thought] established in France was always anti-communist, and as late as 1948 the paper was still not using the reformed alphabet.


However, they were not staying completely with the old system either. An article from a 1948 issue, that was reproduced in a 2010 issue retains the old letters «і» and «ѣ» in profusion, but «ъ» is not used at the end of words. Maybe they felt that using «і» and «ѣ» was enough to make an anti-Bolshevik statement and they saw the advantages of saving ink by doing without «ъ». Looking at the old text we can begin to work out some of the rules for using «і» and «ѣ».

  • Wherever we now find «и» followed by another vowel, «і» was used instead of «и».
  • Nouns that now end with «е» in the prepositional used to end in «ѣ»

There are other differences in the text. Genitive endings in «-аго» where we write «-ого», and «-ея» where we now use «-ее (её)».

Some time between 1948 and 1988 (when I first came across this newspaper) «Русская Мысль» finally killed off «і» and «ѣ». Was this by way of a grudging gesture to Gorbachev’s efforts at liberalization, or did it happen earlier, perhaps stimulated by the temporary thaw in the era of Krushchev?

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  1. Steve:

    Interesting posting, I didn’t know all that!

    Looking at some of these deleted letters, especially the blue ones, as a beginner in Russian, I don’t mourn their demise.

  2. Ryan:

    As far as rules for using «ѣ» go, I think there really weren’t any. I took a term of Old Church Slavonic, which generally uses «ѣ» “properly”, and I’m doing History of Russian now. The professor supplied a list of words that used «ѣ» in pre-reform orthography, and I have to say that Russians just started putting «ѣ» in random places. Делать, for instance, was spelled with e in the oldest Cyrillic OCS texts, and in the oldest Glagolitic texts too. Yet it’s on the list of words with «ѣ».

  3. JoAnne:

    Very interesting post! I’ve always known there were more and different letters but knew nothing of the interesting history behind some of them and why they were changed. But I have to say I’m glad they changed them! I can’t imagine trying to remember more than the 33 letters that are used now!

  4. David:

    There was an error in copying the fonts between documents. The two very rarely used letters by the end of the 19th century were θ (like greek theta) and ν, not q and υ.

    Regarding ѣ and е, I surmise that they probably represented genuinely different sounds, in the dominant dialect of the time, so two letters were deemed necessary. I’ve read somewhere that in some modern dialects there is still a difference between the “ѣ pronunciation” and the “е pronunciation” of sounds represented by the modern e. We get the same in English – Manchester vowels, Liverpool vowels, Birmingham vowels and London vowels are, to English ears, all very different from each other. But pronunciation patterns change over time, and maybe by 1918 ѣ and е were pretty well identical in the dominant dialect.

    Although Russian now has only 33 letters, its worth learning a few more, because once you’ve got a reasonable grasp of Russian, they will help you get the gist of other Slavonic languages when you try to read them. So it’s worth knowing that і is still alive and well in Ukrainian, together with a double dotted version ї. Serbian doesn’t have the мягкий знак ь on its own, but it occurs fused onto other consonants, so we have: Ђ (=Дь), Љ, Њ (these two are obvious) and Ћ (=Tь). Serbian also has J (= English Y) and Џ (= English J). In lower case these letters are
    ђ љ њ ћ ј џ.

  5. Yelena:

    David, thanks for another great post! Sorry some images didn’t come through… On the positive side – your last comment really made me interested in reviewing all those “discarded” Russian letters.

  6. John Cameron:

    If anybody wishes to see an example of the Pre-Bolshevik Russian Cyrillic Alphabet,
    David Lean’s film version of Doctor Zhivago
    has shop fronts and protest banners bearing the four letters of the alphabet which were removed after the the Tsarist Period and also
    all masculine nouns at that time ended in a
    hard sign( tvyordij znak ) ;in Bulgarian and Serbian the hard sign still functions as a semi-vowel and modern Ukrainian retains the “i” letter.

  7. Barry:

    If you count the letters that are left omitting the coloured ones that were dropped, you get 31 letters. It seems you missed a couple that are currently used. including the one that looks like the english “e” but with two dots above the letter. It follows the “e” (yeh) in the current alphabet.

  8. Barry:

    My miscount. There are 32 left, but the letter I mentioned previously is still missing.