The Cyrillic letter 'т', when italicized, looks like a Latin 'm'. This is illustrated in the image below. The first row is the Cyrillic letter 'т', the second is the Cyrillic letter 'м', and the third is the Latin letter 'm':

Cyrillic Т, Cyrillic М, Latin M

As with most Cyrillic letters, the Cyrillic lowercase 'м' looks like a small capital 'М' in both normal and italic type. The ones that do not look the same at least resemble the uppercase form, as with 'и' and 'и'.

However, for some reason an italic 'т' ('т') looks like a Latin 'm', so that the letter forms seem unrelated. It also seems that it tends be written this way in handwriting. Why is this the case? Is this for historical reasons? A lot of documents say that this is how it is, but I have not found any that explain why.

  • This actually varies by language. Some other languages written in the Cyrillic script just use a slanted form of the regular shape, I believe Serbian is one of them. Also there are some other letters which change shape in italics and some languages such as Bulgarian which use some variant shapes even when not in italics. – hippietrail Dec 15 '12 at 7:44
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    Serbian (when written in Cyrillic) and Macedonian have really different italic forms of б, г, п, and т. I decided not to write about that in my answer, because this site deals with Russian. As for Bulgarian, I don't think it uses some special forms, it uses the same forms as Russian. @hippietrail – Yellow Sky Dec 15 '12 at 8:05
  • Yes with Bulgarian it's more just style, for instance instead of the usual shape for л it's often ʌ, even on official things like roadsigns. There's a couple of others too, but I agree it's getting a bit off topic (-; – hippietrail Dec 15 '12 at 11:49
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    Only in school you must write lowercase 'т' as 'm'. As adult, you are free to handwrite lowercase 'т' as 'т' and uppercase 'T' as 'T' (not as bottom-up 'Ш'). It is also faster and more re – Andrei Dec 21 '12 at 19:23
  • I think M as better, because new T into cyrillic comes in future. Cyrillic lowercase: a6bгдежzийклмhопрсmyфtxμчwщъыьэюя – user1872 Jul 24 '13 at 11:09

This is for historical reasons, and the form of the Russian italic ‘т’ is, actually, related to both ‘т’ and Latin ‘m’. Before the invention of printing the typical handwriting style used for writing books in Russia was полуустав, in which the shape of ‘T’ was like this:

Halfustav cyrillic T letter

As you can see, it had long serifs going down from the horizontal bar, and they very often reached the line on which the letters stand, making ‘т’ look like ‘ш’ turned upside down. When book printing began in Russia, the first movable types copied this полуустав. In 1708 Peter the Great commanded a reform of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, eliminating several letters and changing the shapes of the printed letters so that they look more like the Dutch Antiqua of that time, he chose the shapes himself (Peter spent some time in the Netherlands and liked everything Dutch). This reformed alphabet is called “гражданский шрифт” (civil script/font). Now the Russian alphabet looked like this (the 4 lines at the top are upper-case letters, the rest is lower case.):

enter image description here

It seemed quite natural for Peter that ‘m’ is the closest Antiqua shape to an upside-down ‘ш’. There's a detailed article in Russian about the reform. This shape of the letters was used during all the 18th century and the first third of the 19th, only the shape of ‘з’ was used rather early instead of Peter’s “s”, also ‘и’ and ‘й’ were reintroduced. Later, the modern shape of a lower-case ‘т’ was used, but in italics and handwriting we still use the shape that was introduced by Peter the Great and continues the tradition of handwritten books.

  • Great answer! Any explanation for capital Т style from @AntonZujev's answer? – default locale Dec 14 '12 at 12:28
  • The explanation is the same, an upside-down 'Ш', or call it a lower-case 'т' with a flourish. – Yellow Sky Dec 14 '12 at 19:45
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    I'd like to add, this 'm' shape of 'т' has a name, 'трёхногая "т"' (three-legged 'т'). – Yellow Sky Dec 14 '12 at 22:35

Well, if you look at how we are taught to write in the early days of school, you'll notice that the italicized capital "Т" does resemble its lowercase variant.

The letter in question is in the fifth row, third from the left

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    A good point! @Anton Zujev – Yellow Sky Dec 14 '12 at 9:20
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    Another good point is that this is how we handwrote in 1st grade, but this is not how we handwrite when we are adults. When I handwrite, I write uppercase T as 'T' and lowecase 'т' as 'т' , not as 'm'. – Andrei Dec 21 '12 at 19:16
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    @Andrei, yes, but I believe we write it differently only because this way it is easier to write and doesn't look as bulky as the proper "Т". – Anton Zujev Dec 22 '12 at 21:16
  • @Andrei how do you write capital Г then? – Anixx Jul 25 '13 at 5:45
  • If you write the T as T and the 'т' as 'т', don't you have an image as the on upper tho compare that? – Jaime Apr 26 '15 at 21:39

While I believe that both answers provided actually answer your question, there is still some information you may find relevant to the issue.

First, the fact that the modern Russian T is homoglyphic to the Latin T should not confuse you. @yellowsky has provided an image of T as it had been shaped earlier, before Peter I's reforms. Actually, this is almost the end of the evolution of this letter.

Here's a quote from Wikipedia:

В славянской письменности буква Т имела несколько разновидностей начертания: наряду с обычным т-образным рано возникло трёхногое m-образное; в старопечатных украинских книгах обнаруживается тенденция к орфографическому разграничению этих начертаний (впрочем, до полностью формализованного и обязательного правила не дошедшая). А именно, т писали в начале слов, а m — в середине; но если слово было не славянским, а заимствованным, то и в середине слова ставили т. Сверх того существовало и «высокое» начертание этой буквы, похожее на цифру «7»

Short summary: the three-legged shape happily existed and even co-existed with the one-legged form. In old Ukrainian books one can find that the т-form had been used in initial positions, while m - in the middle of words (except loan-words).

Going even further, there is some evidence that Cyrillic script was at least heavily influenced by (if not a direct ancestor of) the Glagolitic alphabet, and here's what Glagolitic t looked like: Shape of Glagolitic letter "t"

In the Macedonian language, for example, the letter T is still written as:

Macedonian letter T

See, it is basically an inverted form (compared to Russian) with an additional line above - in order to look different from ш.

So, actually this three-leggedness is quite common in Cyrillic scripts and quite an old story.

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    Elder people in Russia also sometimes write this letter (non-capital) with a line above. – Anixx Sep 27 '13 at 13:54

Hm, Cyril and Method were sent to the barbarians up north because they were caught in the act, they weren't really brothers :-). The Glagolitic of Cyril (dedicated to Method) was full of penis and balls symbols, and definitively not the main basis for modern Cyrillic.

After discovering the symbolism, the 5 disciples of Cyril and Method then designed a completely new alphabet with the help of my great-great-great(repeat) grandfather Boris de Groot (Tsar Boris the Great) that was very much based on Greek writing samples. Boris, a great guy, had actually sent some men to free the 5 disciples from a prison in Moravia I believe, and gave them shelter, paper and design supervision.

Cyrillic was invented in what is now Bulgaria, which is a neighbor of Greece. I visited a monastery in Bulgaria some years ago where I was allowed to see piles of handwritten 9th century books, and that early Cyrillic looks really very much like Greek. And the T had very long hands on its arm bungling all the way down, looking like an M.

Some years later my younger great-great-great(repeat) grandfather, Peter de Groot, (Tsar Peter the Great, who lived in Holland for some time and accidentally got my great-great-great(repeat) grandmother pregnant, who could then use the Dutch form of his name thereafter) who was also a type designer (it runs in the family) reformed the Cyrillic alphabet, but couldn't finish it al the way because he had to go to war with Sweden, which was successful because of propaganda with the new typeface, that was cut by and printed by the Dutch printing office from the family of that great-great-great grandmother, the press and printers were actually shipped to St. Petersburg to work locally.

So Peter was a fan of the n-shaped п, the ɡ-shaped д, and the m-shaped т, and I am a fan of Peter and try to promote such shapes whenever I can. These ɡ-n-m forms and others are officially the preferred shapes in Bulgaria today, but also in many other locales that use the Cyrillic alphabet.

I've even spotted a lot of "Bulgarian" shapes in Russia, even more so in the nineties, although conservative Russian typographers from Moscow derogatively call this "local fashion" nowadays :-).

  • I'm not even trying to value the answer, but this is not an answer at all. – shabunc Apr 22 '20 at 18:22
  • Well, real history is often more juicy than what the government wants you to believe. I studied early Cyrillic manuscripts in Rilski Monastery (Рилски манастир) which lies between Thessaloniki (birth place of Cyril) and Sofia. They are stored in a high security track. The early Cyrillic text is full of Greek-like glyphs, triangular Д like Delta, Л like Lambda, з like zeta, a real ω omega with a small T atop, х like chi with descender, п like pi, Г like Gamma, a psi-shape and even the final sigma-shape, etc. And new Cyrillic shapes for Slavic sounds, but nothing that looks like Glagolitic... – user14417 Apr 22 '20 at 20:19
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    it's not about government it's not about beliefs, historical correctness, origin of the alphabet or anything else. it's about your post does not answers the question provided. – shabunc Apr 22 '20 at 20:21
  • Then you might need to read again, I wrote that in the earliest Cyrillic manuscripts the T had very long hands on its arm bungling all the way down, looking like an M. Sorry if that was not clear. And I want to argue that the Т (кириллица) Wikipedia page you refer to is full of bullshit, and that Cyrillic, and the Cyrillic T are definitely not ancestors of Glagolitic. I think neither is the Macedonian shape related to the Glagolitic scrotum-T, but has the line for disambiguation, just like Germans write a horizontal line on the u to differentiate if from the almost identically written n-shape. – user14417 Apr 22 '20 at 21:52
  • I mean Cyrillic was ancestor to Glagolitic in the sense of writing a language obviously, but not in the sense of shapes. I look at shapes. – user14417 Apr 22 '20 at 21:55

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