One of the most common questions I’ve been asked about living in Macedonia was how I coped with everything being written in Cyrillic. Well, actually, more often that not people asked me about things being written in Russian, or complained, when I wrote place names in the local language in email or IM, that they can’t read Russian – which is kind of like noting that in California all the signs are in French.

In Macedonia, of course, it’s even more egregious to call it Russian, as the alphabet actually originated here. I actually didn’t know that prior to this year, but it certainly helps explain why it’s so close to Greek.

Having studied both Mathematics and Theology at university level, I had enough Greek background to find Cyrillic relatively easy to pick up, but anyone who has picked up a smattering of the Greek alphabet is already 50% of the way to being about to transliterate effectively.

НОВОFor me the hardest parts are glyphs that look the same in Cyrillic and Latin, but represent different letters. It’s much easier to learn what the unfamiliar characters look like than to train your brain to understand why so many shop windows and advertising hoardings are proudly proclaiming “НОВО!”

So here’s the 5 minute guide that’ll get you 90% of the way:

  • Р: This is not a P – it’s an R, from the Greek rho. A ‘P’ is actually П (pi).
  • С: This is actually an S. It apparently evolved from a Sigma, but it’s much easier to remember that the old СССР isn’t “CCCP”, but “SSSR”, which makes a lot more sense, really.
  • В: This is a V. This is fairly common in other languages too, including Hebrew: lots of the names in the Bible aren’t really pronounced the way you were probably taught in Sunday School…
  • Н: This is an N. I used to get confused between it and И, which is an I, but now I just remember all those aforementioned НОВО signs.
  • У: This is a U. This one is easy for any fans of Тату.
  • Ј: This is a Y. Actually it’s not – it’s a J. But it’s a soft J, like in lots of European languages that tend to confuse English speakers anyway, so it’s easier to think of it as a Y.
  • Х: Again, thinking in Greek makes this easier. It’s a Chi. In practice it’s a little complicated as sometimes it’s a ‘CH’ and sometimes just an ‘H’. But it’s usually obvious from context, and even if you’re not sure you’ll be a lot closer than treating it as an X.

All the other characters that look like English (АKЕMOT) are all what you’d expect, so once you stop falsely transliterating the lookalikes, you’re well on your way.

  • Ф is like the greek Phi, and is usually just transliterated as ‘F’, although sometimes ‘PH’ might work slightly better.
  • Г is a G, but tricks people who only know Gamma as γ and aren’t familiar with its capital form.
  • Д, thanks to Borat, now confuses people. To me it’s always been obviously a D, just written a little differently. For my part I got confused when I first saw a movie poster for “300“, as I was living in Estonia at the time and assumed the poster was in Russian, where З is a Z (not to be mistaken for Э which is a short E, but they don’t have that character in Macedonian so it’s not so confusing here).
  • Л, according to my keyboard and most websites, is an L. But it’s hardly ever written like that (in Macedonia, anyway) usually it’s more like an upside-down V. Unicode doesn’t have such a symbol in the standard Cyrillic range, so I’m not sure what sign-makers use in its place (the closest I can find is U+2227: ∧, but it’s not quite right). A garage near my apartment is still proudly displaying an old ∧А∆А sign (which looks much more effective with proper typography).

Occasionally you’ll come across a few other strange characters that you’ll have to learn later, but this subset will get you remarkably far.

Curiously, Macedonian doesn’t include one of the iconic characters regularly used in faux-Russian: Я (ya). This is a very common letter in Russian as it’s also the word for the first person pronoun (“I”), but doesn’t exist in Macedonian at all. This is why the capital city is spelled Скопје whereas the neighbouring capital, which is pronounced very similarly, is written София.

Within a few weeks of moving to Скопје I was able to transliterate most street signs etc fairly quickly, which helped in finding my way around. And even without being able to translate, lots of words are rather obvious once you’ve converted the letters. This sometimes goes awry though: the first time I took a slug from a carton of Млеко to discover that even though it looked like a milk carton, and ‘mleko’ sounds close enough to ‘milk’, I was actually drinking yoghurt.

е-ВаучериAnd I still can’t see the T-Mobile ‘е-Ваучери’ signs without thinking that there’s some sort of hook-up with eBay…

“But I can’t read Russian!”

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