Why Are Russian Letters Backwards? (Cyrillic Looks Weird)

avatarMille Larsen
3 mins read

So, what's up with the backwards letters in Russian writing?

You probably came here wondering about the И's and the Я's you often see in languages written with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Well, they're neither backwards, nor N's and R's.

The alphabet used for writing Russian (as well as Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and a lot of other languages) is called Cyrillic after St. Cyril, one of the two brothers who invented it at the end of the 9th century. (Along with his brother St. Methodius).

It didn't develop from the Latin alphabet that we use for writing English, but rather, it came from the Greek alphabet which is also the closest ancestor of our alphabet.

  • "И" is actually pronounced "I" and it's got nothing to do with "N". It came from the Greek letter "Η" (called Eta) but the horizontal stroke was turned counter-clockwise resulting in the "И" letter.
  • "N" in our alphabet came from another Greek letter, "N" (called "Nu") which interestingly has the lower-case form "ν".
  • "Я" has nothing to do with "R". The "Я" is pronounced much like our "Y". It's actually a letter that evolved from an older Cyrillic letter "ѧ" which eventually lost one of its "legs" and started being drawn in a more rounded way, which ended up in the stylized form "Я".
  • "R" in the Latin alphabet came from the Greek "Ρ" (Called "Rho"). It gradually came to be written with a leg drawn to the right, but in the Greek and Cyrillic variant, "R" is still written as "P".

And that's basically it!

The "backward" letters in the Cyrillic script used for writing Russian aren't backward at all but are actually entirely different letters who simply looked up looking like letters from the Latin alphabet.

It's interesting, however, that they do appear so similar, and I think that it's clear that both typefaces have inspired one another in their history in order to turn out so stylistically similar.

Other letters in the Cyrillic alphabet do correspond to Latin letters despite being slightly different. These can be explained by the common Greek roots of the two scripts, which in many cases have given us similar results.

The sometimes strange similarity between the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets have been a source for a lot of creativity in popular culture. In memes, marketing, and various less-than-formal publication, Cyrillic letters are used for writing English (incorrectly) in order to stylistically (and ironically) to hint at a "Slavic" connection.

This writing style is sometimes referred to as "Faux Cyrillic" and has given us linguistical gems such as the word "ЯUSSIAИ" or the band-name "KoЯn".

While Slavic languages like Russian are generally challenging for English speakers, you shouldn't let the foreign alphabet hold you back from learning it. In reality, the alphabet is very similar to the Latin one, and it can easily be learned in an afternoon.