There’s an online message board I spend a fair amount of time on. Some of the other users have very clever and interesting handles/screen names/whatever you call them. My favorite nom de forum is one I read for several years as “Expano Mapcase.” It made no sense to me; I just liked the way it sounded. Then, one day, I noticed that it was, in fact, spelled “Exapno Mapcase,” which is harder to pronounce but much more intriguing.
I should mention that I am a big fan of the Marx Brothers. I have no idea how many times I’ve seen Duck Soup or Horsefeathers or A Night at the Opera or A Day at the Races. Heck, I’ve even seen Go West and The Big Store. I think the characters the brothers created are phenomenal, and their (the brothers, that is) performance skills are unmatched, but I also appreciate the astonishing work turned in by their various writers — a couple of whom, such as S.J Perelman (even though he only worked on two of their films), received at least some of the recognition they were due.
Most people know nothing of St. Cyril, and those who do know something probably have it wrong.
(Trust me, this is all going to pull together in the end, and you will be amazed, as well as enlightened and entertained.)
As the story usually goes, Cyril was a Greek Bishop who went to Russia to convert the pagan Slavs to Christianity. And that’s mostly wrong.
The Truth About Cyril
The Khazars were a Turkic — not Slavic — people who lived in part of what is now Russia, as well as parts of what are now the Ukraine (yes, I said “the;” don’t argue with me), Azerbaijan (so ably discussed by faithful reader Doug_H in the comments to last weekend’s post), Khazakstan (yes, the Khazaks are descendants of the Khazars), Georgia, Turkey, etc., etc., etc. They converted from paganism to Judaism in the 700s, and by 850 or so, some of them were ready to take what I guess seemed to them like the next logical step. So they wrote to Constantinople and asked the Church to send someone who could help them convert to Christianity.
The Church sent two priests, Cyril and his brother Methodius. The brothers learned to speak Khazar, they converted a lot of Khazars, and pretty much everyone considered their mission a success.
So in 863, the brothers were sent to Moravia. The Moravians — unlike the Khazars — were, in fact, Slavs, but they didn’t live anywhere near Russia (Moravia is the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic), and they were already Christians. But they wanted some serious priests to help them with their services and such, so they wrote to Constantinople, and the Church sent Cyril and Methodius.
Following the system that had worked with the Khazars, the brothers learned the Moravians’ language, which is called Slavonic. They helped the priests conduct services is Slavonic. And then they decided to translate the Bible and some other writings into Slavonic.
The problem was that Slavonic was purely a spoken language. It had no written form. So before he could translate anything, Cyril had to make up an alphabet that contained a letter for each of the sounds that existed in Slavonic. So he did, and then he and his brother translated a bunch of stuff into Slavonic.
The problem with this was that back then, lay people weren’t supposed to read the Bible, only priests were. And they were supposed to read it in Latin. When the Pope heard what the brothers had done, he summoned them to Rome, presumably to give them both a good talking to.
Fortunately, by the time they had made their way from Moravia to Rome, that Pope had died and a new one had been sworn in. The new Pope talked to the brothers for a while and decided they were cool. In fact, he made them bishops. Cyril died pretty much right after that, in Rome, but Methodius went back north to do bishopy things.
Those of you who know that there is an alphabet out there called “Cyrillic” are probably thinking, “Aha! That must be the alphabet Cyril invented.”
While Cyril did learn to speak Slavonic, his accent must have been terrible, because some of the sounds his letters made were awfully Greek, and some of the actual Slavonic sounds had no letters in Cyril’s alphabet.
So, to recap: Cyril and his brother converted a bunch of people who weren’t Slavs, worked with some Slavs who were already Christians, and invented an alphabet that nobody uses any more.
But a group of Cyril’s followers in Bulgaria used his alphabet as the basis for a different alphabet that actually did cover all the sounds in Bulgarian and other slavic languages. And that alphabet, which has been tweaked a couple of times over the centuries, is what we call Cyrillic. I guess that’s easier than calling it “Cyril’s Followers in Bulgariaic.” Me, I wish Cyril’s brother had gotten a bit more credit, because then the alphabet would be called “Methodian,” which sounds cooler than “Cyrillic.”
The Cyrillic Alphabet
Actually, there are a bunch of Cyrillic alphabets, including Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Serbian. I’m going to be dealing with the Russian one here, as it’s the one I know best — and by “best” I mean “at least a tiny bit.”
The Russian alphabet has 33 letters, although two of them aren’t really letters, they’re kinda like diacriticals. This is what it looks like in capital letters:
А, Б, В, Г, Д, Е, Ё, Ж, З, И, Й, К, Л, М, Н, О, П, Р, С, Т, У, Ф, Х, Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Ъ, Ы, Ь, Э. Ю, Я
And this is what it looks like in lower-case letters:
а, б, в, г, д, е, ё, ж, з, и, й, к, л, м, н, о, п, р, с, т, у, ф, х, ц, ч, ш, щ, ъ, ы, ь, э. ю, я
Yes, with the exception of б, е, and ё, all the small letters look just like their capital counterparts, only … y’know … smaller.
These Letters Make the Same Sounds as the Letters in The English Alphabet that They Look Like
C (s, but not k)
These Letters Make Different Sounds from Those of the Letters in The English Alphabet that They Look Like
X (kh — that German, hocking-a-loogie sound)
These Letters Probably Make the Same Sounds as the Letters in The Greek Alphabet that They Look Like, But I Don’t Know Because I Don’t Read Greek
Г (g — hard, not soft like j)
These Letters Don’t Look Like Anything You’ve Ever Seen Before
Ж (zh — kind of like /j/, only softer)
Й (kind of ee, but deep in the back of your throat, like gulping)
Л (l — i.e., L)
These Letters Don’t Make Sounds
Ъ — makes the vowel before it harder
Ь — makes the vowel before it softer
I’ve travelled in Russia and the Ukraine — it was so long ago, they were still part of the same country— and both use the alphabet I just showed you. Learning how to pronounce those letters is not hard, and believe me, it makes traveling somewhere you don’t speak the language much, much easier. I don’t think that I would have been able to get anywhere if I hadn’t been able to tell that, for example, when the guidebook tells you to get off the metro at the Smolenskaya station, you’re looking for a sign that says СМОЛЕНСКАЯ, so don’t get off at the stop marked ФИЛEBCKИЙ ПAPK, because that’s Filevsky Park.
Or more precisely, I would have been able to get … somewhere, but I would never have been able to get back to my hotel again.
Coming Full Circle
You know who else travelled in the Soviet Union? Harpo Marx. In the fall of 1933, he set off on a solo comedy tour of Russia and points Sovieter. (His account of the tour in his autobiography, Harpo Speaks, is delightful.) When he saw his name on the Russian posters, like the one to the right there, he decided it looked like “Exapno Mapcase,” which he used as a sort of a nom de plume now and again after that.