Krassen Krestev: Bulgarian Cyrillic, identity in progress

Krassen Krestev presented a detailed and comprehensive review of the Bulgarian Cyrillic script. He talked about its origin, development, and — most excitingly — gave a detailed analysis of Bulgarian Cyrillic’s properties in typesetting.

Krestev during his talk inside the TYPO-Typelab. © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype)

The Cyrillic script was born in Bulgaria in the middle of the 9th century. Ustav (uncial) — the first version of the Cyrillic alphabet — was largely based on Greek uncial letters. Five centuries later, when Bulgaria became part of the Ottoman Empire, the development of the Cyrillic script continued in Russia. By that time Poluustav (semi-uncial) replaced Ustav and lasted until the beginning of the 18th century when Peter the Great introduced the so called Civil Type — a revised Cyrillic script inspired by Latin letter shapes. Civil Type formed the basis for the contemporary Russian Cyrillic script. Bulgarian Cyrillic, however, is still following the logic of handwritten Cyrillic shapes: both historical and modern ones.

In the 20th century Bulgarian Cyrillic got a second wind in Bulgaria, largely due to Boris Angelushev (Борис Ангелушев,1902–1966), a notorious Bulgarian graphic artist and book designer. He mostly used handwritten Cyrillic shapes in his lettering for both book and magazine covers, which inspired other Bulgarian designers. Angelushev initiated a very distinct style of Bulgarian type and created a unique flavor of Bulgarian graphic design. His work during 40s and 50s greatly influenced Vasil Yonchev (Васил Йончев), a typography professor at the National Academy of Art in Sofia, who conceptualized the model of Bulgarian Cyrillic and started educating the next generations of designers about it.


Uppercase: Bulgarian versus Russian Cyrillic

Krassen went on to explain the differences between Russian and Bulgarian Cyrillic. There are not too many discrepancies between Bulgarian and Russian uppercase characters: only Ф, Л and Д.

Construction of the letter Ф in Bulgarian and Russian Cyrillic. © Aleksandra Samulenkova

In Russian Cyrillic, the oval of Ф is usually designed smaller (shorter) compared to the one of the O, so the letter visually fits the height of the other capital letters. The oval of the Bulgarian Ф, however, must be optically as tall as the O — that way its counter shapes will be in better balance with those of the other letters. The vertical stroke is just “sticking out” at the bottom as well as at the top of the line.

Both Л and Д in Russian Cyrillic are always designed in the same style — having either triangular or rectangular shapes (the latter is preferable nowadays). Bulgarian designers, however, prefer the triangular Л but do not insist on a matching Д — it can also be rectangular.

Letters Д and Л in Bulgarian and Russian Cyrillic. © Aleksandra Samulenkova


Lowercase: thrilling statistics

“The difference between Russian and Bulgarian uppercase is peanuts compared to the differences in lowercase”, Krassen warned us. And he immediately proved his point.

Lowercase: Latin, Bulgarian and Russian Cyrillic. © Aleksandra Samulenkova

To begin with, out of 30 Russian Cyrillic lowercase characters, 24 have the same construction as the uppercase, while in Bulgarian Cyrillic only 8 letters share their construction between cases. Another fact: as much as 13 Bulgarian lowercase characters are identical with Latin lowercase letters. In Russian Cyrillic they are only 7.

That is already quite a bit of food for thought when analyzing both Bulgarian and Russian typesetting.

Krassen went further. In his neatly visualized statistics he demonstrated how different the very basic elements of the Bulgarian and Russian scripts are, and how the frequencies of these elements influence the reader’s experience.

There are significantly more horizontal elements in Russian Cyrillic (21 out of 30 letters contain such elements) than in Bulgarian Cyrillic (6 out 30) or in Latin (5 out of 26). Taken into account that quite a few Russian letters consist of more than one horizontal… That brings Bulgarian Cyrillic closer to Latin and makes the script look less rigid than Russian Cyrillic.

The amount of vertical elements in Bulgarian Cyrillic (20 out of 30 letters contain them) is slightly higher than in Latin (17 out of 26) but still, there are fewer verticals than in Russian Cyrillic (23 out of 30).

Krassen Krestev

Krassen Krestev

Graphic Designer (Dubai)

Krassen Krestev is a graduate of the TypeMedia course at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. He also holds degrees from the graphic design post-graduate course of St. Joost Academy in Breda, as well as from the illustration and book design department of the National Academy of Art in Sofia. He’s professional interests range from formation and transformation of identities to creation of symbols and signs, type design with an emphasis on Cyrillic, and micro and macro typography. He is currently a coordinator of the graphic design course of studies at the American University in Dubai and runs his graphic design consultancy ImageContext.

This might be interesting: while the total amount of diagonal elements is about the same in all three scripts, Russian Cyrillic contains many more ascending diagonals than Bulgarian Cyrillic or Latin.

Bulgarian Cyrillic contains the highest amount of characters containing ovals or curved elements: 22 letters out of 30. In Latin, one can find only 14 letters like that. In Russian Cyrillic: 13. Krassen mentioned that he only took in to account those curves which span at least 1/4 of an oval.

Quite a few ascenders and descenders in Bulgarian Cyrillic consist of curves, and there is even one round shape that is closed. That makes these “sticking out” elements more powerful, but the x-height, in turn, becomes slightly less obvious. The block of text set in Bulgarian looks more homogenous since the lines are not as separated from each other compared to Russian Cyrillic.

The higher amount of ascenders and descenders in Bulgarian, as well as their more expressive shapes make the word silhouettes more dynamic and therefore better recognizable for the reader.

Comparing texts with the same amount of characters set in Latin, Bulgarian Cyrillic and Russian Cyrillic, one can see that Latin is the most “economical” of the three. No wonder: in Latin there are more letters with only one stem than in either Cyrillic script. Text set in Bulgarian Cyrillic will most likely be longer than the same text set in Russian Cyrillic. This can be explained easily: the Russian shape of the letter т (a very common consonant), mimics the construction of the Capital Т, but in Bulgarian Cyrillic the wide handwritten m-shape is preferred. 

Shape of the letter т. © Sebastian Weiß (Monotype)

Close to the end of his talk, Krassen suggested that the features of Bulgarian Cyrillic allow it to become a bridge between Latin and Russian Cyrillic. Script is identity, and Bulgarian Cyrillic is an identity in progress: there are opportunities for development.