December 2, 2018

Do you know what a COYOTE TOOTHACHE and a CHECKBOOK PHOTOCOPY have in common? If written in uppercase, all the letters of these expressions appear in the Cyrillic alphabet. That is, if we take a more relaxed definition of letters being the same shape: in many typefaces, K and К and Y and У do not look the same, just very similar. Although, to be precise, if somebody would try to read these using the Cyrillic alphabet, they would read “souote tootnase” and “sneckvook rnotosoru”, respectively.

I started thinking about this when I realized that I had never seen a Russian license plate with letters that do not also appear in the Latin alphabet. So I started to wonder about two things: is this observation true in general? If so, what words could we make up that would consist only of such letters?

License plates

License plates from St. Petersburg, Russia. Flickr / Jerry Woody Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.0
As for the question about license plates, the relevant Wikipedia article answers it in the second sentence of the Current plate format section:

To improve legibility of the numbers for Russian cars abroad, only a small subset of Cyrillic characters that look like Latin characters are used (12 letters: А, В, Е, К, М, Н, О, Р, С, Т, У, Х).

Good! This is also true for other countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet, for example Bulgaria or Ukraine.

Getting matching words

As mentioned above, the letters ABEKMHOPCTYX are matched when we look at capital print letters. Fewer letters (a subset of the ones above) match when we use the lowercase versions, so that is not very interesting to look into. However, there is another set of letters we can work with: the cursive Cyrillic alphabet is different from the print letters, so we can use new letters: e, u, o, n, p, c, m, y, x.

While one could try to think about words that contain only the relevant letters, it is much easier to use a computer to do this work for us. I wrote a Python notebook for this. It downloads dictionary files (which we will use as a word list) from the GitHub repository of LibreOffice, then filters to have only those words that contain the appropriate letters.

When we look at uppercase letters, we find 970 matching words. We can use these to build expressions such as

As for the cursive letters, we find 268 matching words to play with. I really like

The full list of matching words as well as a list of Russian words one can write using just letters from the Latin alphabet can be found in the aforementioned notebook.

Did you come up with a nice expression or even a full sentence using these words? Share it in the comment section below.  

Cover photo: License plate on a car in St. Petersburg, Russia, 2011. Flickr / Salvatore Freni Jr Creative Commons CC-BY-ND-2.0

EXPECT A HAPPY HOBBY - December 2, 2018 - András Hann