Extended Cyrillic: Mari

A language with three dialects, each with its own alphabet

July 5, 2024

This piece is a part of our large series focusing on the languages that are not discussed nearly as much as they should be. This list includes languages with their own unique scripts, such as Georgian or Armenian, as well as languages using extended Cyrillic and Latin. We’re preparing this series using research on extended Cyrillic which we conducted in partnership with Type Journal.

You can find more content on the subject on our Instagram As some members of our team are living in Russia we have to follow the Russian law. According to the law, every time we post links to Instagram or Facebook we have to mention the fact that these socials belong to Meta, which was recognized as extremist by the Ministry of Justice if the Russian Federation under the hashtag #tt_extended.

About the language

The Mari language (formerly known as Cheremiss) is a Finno-Ugric language, official in the Mari El Republic. It is also spoken at the foot of the Ural Mountains. There are now three standard varieties: Hill Mari, Meadow Mari, Northwestern Mari.

Today the Meadow Mari dialect — the one spoken in the republic’s capital — is used in some TV and radio shows. It is also used as a language of instruction in several elementary schools and studied as a separate subject in high and middle school.

Wikipedia features two separate pages, in Meadow Mari and Hill Mari. Yandex Translate software covers both dialects (calling the former just Mari though).

Despite the fact that Mari is (seemingly) actively used, UNESCO lists it as an endangered language.

First grammar

Back in the old times, Mari used geometrical signs, tishte. These symbols were utilised until the 1930s to record property or debt.

1 Tishte signs

In the 18th century, European and Russian scholars wrote down Mari words and texts. In 1705, Nicolaes Witsen published the Lord’s Prayer in Hill Mari in his book titled ‘Noord en Oost Tartarye’ (North and East Tartaria). The prayer was written down using the Latin alphabet.

In 1775, the Archbishop of Kazan Veniamin wrote a book named The Work on the Grammar of the Cheremiss Language. The book addressed the Meadow Mari language, but used some Hill Mari words as well. The archbishop opted for the Russian alphabet to record Mari words by adding the letter g, to represent the sound [ŋ], and the letter , to represent the sound [ö]. The publication of this book is often regarded as a moment of the arrival of Mari written language.

2 Work on the Grammar of the Cheremiss Language by the Archbishop of Kazan Veniamin

In 1837, priest Andrey Albinsky wrote another book on Mari grammar where he presented a new Mari alphabet. It featured all the letters of the Russian alphabet of that time (except for Ѳѳ), as well as the digraphs ôô, ââ, ûû and tetragraphs iôiô, iûiû.

3 Mari Grammar by Andrey Albinsky

First media

The first Hill Mari ABC book was published in 1867; 1870 is the year when the first Meadow Mari ABC book was issued. Both publications used the Russian alphabet with a number of extra letters. The letters Фф, Хх, Цц, Щщ were mostly used in the words adopted from Russian. Educational literature published after 1889 also sometimes used the letter Ыы with breve.

4 First Meadow Mari ABC book

The first issue of the annual publication named Marla Calendar, which didn’t not feature letters intended for Russian loanwords, was published in 1907. It used five additional letters to represent Mari sounds. The Calendar’s alphabet was the one used by poet Sergey Chavain who in 1909 published a collection of stories and poems From the Past of the Mari People (Марий калыкын тошто годсо илышыже), the first ever fiction book in Mari. The same alphabet was utilised by the publishers of the newspaper Voina Uver — that is, the War News, — the first issue of which was published in 1915.

5 «Marla Calendar, 1909

6 The White Epic Hero (Акпатыр) book by Sergey Chavain, 1935

7 The Roads (Элнет) book by Sergey Chavain, 1936

The amount of books printed in Mari increased after 1917. They were being published in various cities and targeted speakers of different dialects as their audience — the alphabets in those publications were also different. The projects to create a unified Mari alphabet and literary language were discussed at teachers’ conventions. Eventually, one of such conferences resolved to develop two literary standard forms, Hill Mari and Meadow Mari. Modern alphabets and spelling rules for these languages were adopted in 1938.

8 One Summer Night (Ик кеҥеж йӱдым) book by Sergey Muzurov, 1986 (in Meadow Mari)

14 A Star Is Burning (Шӱдыр-влак йӱлат) book by Vasily Sapaev, 1976 (in Meadow Mari)

15 In a White Village (Ошлансолаште) book by Felix Mayorov, 1993 (in Hill Mari)

16 The River Flows, but the Shore Remains (Вӱдшӧ йога — серже кодеш) book by Vasily Yuskern 1976 (in Meadow Mari)

The third dialect

Written language for Northwestern Mari, which is spoken outside the Republic of Mari El, was not developed until 1995. The first book that featured this alphabet was the Mare ABC Book. The Northwestern Mari alphabet contains the letters from both Meadow Mari and Hill Mari and uses special letters for the sounds that exist only in this variety of the language, Уу with a diaeresis and Уу with a circle and a diaeresis.

There is no Уу with a circle and a diaeresis in any other Cyrillic alphabet. Уу with a circle is used in Shughni, one of the languages spoken in the Pamir Mountains.

11 North-Western Mari alphabet (Characters not present in the standard Cyrillic are highlighted)

The НГ ligature from the Meadow Mari alphabet apparently consists of the characters Нн and Гг, respectively, but requires adjusting the width of the components. Without adjustments the sign will turn out to be unbalanced and too wide.


In Уу with a circle and a diaeresis from the North-Western Mari alphabet, it makes sense to adjust the position of the diacritics for the compactness of the sign, but in some cases it may be also necessary to reduce the size of the circle.