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Old Church Slavonic

Old Church Slavonic (also called Old Church Slavic or Old Bulgarian, incorrectly Old Slavic ) is the first literary Slavic language, developed from the Slavic dialect of Solun (Thessaloniki) by 9th century Byzantine missionaries, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius. It was used by them for translation of the Bible and other texts from Greek and for some of their own writings. It played a great role in the history of Slavic languages and evolved into Church Slavonic, which is still used as a liturgical language by some Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches of the Slavic peoples.

Old Church Slavonic (')
Status: Extinct
    Old Church Slavonic
Language codes
ISO 639-1 cu
ISO 639-2 chu


The language was standardized for the mission of the two apostles to Great Moravia in 863 (see Glagolitic alphabet for details). For that purpose, Cyril and his brother Methodius, first codified Old Church Slavonic from the Southern Slavic dialect spoken in the neighbourhood of their city, Solun (Thessaloniki), in the Byzantine Empire.

As part of the preparation for the mission, in 862/863, the Glagolitic alphabet was created and the most important prayers and liturgical books, including the Aprakos Evangeliar (an Evangeliar containing only feast-day and Sunday readings), the Psalter, and Acts of the Apostles, were translated. The language and the alphabet were taught at the Great Moravian Academy (Veľkomoravské učilište) and were used for government and religious documents and books between 863 and 885. The texts written during this phase contain characteristics of the Slavic vernaculars in Great Moravia.

Students of the two apostles, who were expelled from Great Moravia in 886, brought the Glagolic alphabet and the Old Church Slavonic language to the Bulgarian Empire. It was taught at two Bulgarian academies - in Preslav (capital 893-972) and Ohrid (capital ca. 976-1015). The Cyrillic alphabet was developed shortly afterwards in the Preslav Literary School and substituted the Glagolitic one. The texts written during this era contain characteristics of the vernacular of Bulgaria. There are some linguistic differences between texts written in the two academies.

Thereupon the language, in its Bulgarian recension, spread to other South-Eastern and Eastern European Slavic territories, most notably to Croatia, Serbia, Bohemia, Lesser Poland, and the Russian principalities. The texts written in each country contain characteristics of the local Slavonic vernacular.

Much later, local redactions of Old Church Slavonic were created for ecclesiastical and administrative use, and are collectively known as Church Slavonic (Russian: церковнославя́нский язы́к, tserkovnoslavyánskiy yazík), but these terms are often confused. Church Slavonic maintained a prestige status, particularly in Russia, for many centuries — among Slavs in the East it had a status analogous to that of the Latin language in western Europe, but had the advantage of being less divergent from the vernacular tongues of average parishioners. Some Orthodox churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, Bulgarian Orthodox Church and Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as several Greek Catholic churches, still use Church Slavonic in their services and chants.


Initially Old Church Slavonic was written with the Glagolitic alphabet, but later it was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet. Only in Croatia the local variant of Glagolitic alphabet was preserved.

Basis and local influences

Old Church Slavonic is evidenced by a relatively small body of manuscripts, written for the most part, in the late 10th and the early 11th century. The language has a Southern Slavic basis with an admixture of Western Slavic features inherited during the mission of Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius to Great Moravia (863 - 885). The only well-preserved manuscript of Moravian recension, the Kiev Folia, is characterised by the replacement of some Southern Slavonic phonetical and lexical features with Western Slavic ones. Manuscripts written in the medieval Bulgarian kingdom have, on the other hand, fewer Western Slavic features.

Old Church Slavonic is valuable for historical linguists as it preserves archaic features believed to be once common to all Slavonic languages:

  • nasal sounds of the vowels o and e
  • use of supershort vowels ь and ъ for Proto-Indo-European short i and u
  • open articulation of the yat vowel
  • [ň] and [ľ] for the Proto-Slavic [nj], [nl]
  • Proto-Slavic declension system based on stem-endings (so-called o-stems, jo-stems, a-stems and ja-stems)
  • aorists, the imperfect, Proto-Slavic paradigms for participles etc. were still used

The Southern Slavonic nature of the language is evident from the following variations:

  • phonetic:
    • use of [ra-], [la-] for the Proto-Slavic [or̃-], [ol̃-]
    • use of [s] for the Proto-Slavic [ch] before the Proto-Slavic ĺi
    • use of [cv-], [dzv-] for the Proto-Slavic [kv-], [gv’-]
  • morphosyntactic
    • use of the dative possessive case in personal pronouns and nouns: рѫка ти; отъпоуштенье грѣхомъ; descriptive future tense using the verb хотѣти; use of the comparative form мьнии (smaller) to mean younger.
    • use of suffixed demonastrative pronouns (тъ, та, то). In Bulgarian and Macedonian these developed into suffixed definite articles.

Some of the phonetical features in Old Church Slavonic are furthermore typical only for Bulgarian, as follows:

  • very wide articulation of the Yat vowel (Ѣ); originally still preserved in the Bulgarian dialects of the Rhodope mountains;
  • Proto-Slavonic reflexes of *tj ([t']) and *dj ([d']):
Proto-Slavic OCS Bulgarian Czech Macedonian Polish Russian Slovak Slovenian Serbian
*dj žd žd z gj dz zh dz j dž
*tj št št ts kj ts ch ts ch ch
*gt/kt št št ts kj ts ch ts ch ch

Bulgarian recensions

Several literary centres operated in the Bulgarian Empire, centered around the two main academies in Ohrid and Preslav. This led to the appearance of multiple Bulgarian recensions in the period from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Thus:

  • both Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets were concurrently used
  • in some documents the original supershort vowels [ъ] and [ь] merged and only one of the letters was used to represent both of them
  • in West-Bulgarian recensions [ъ] was sometimes substituted with [o]
  • in East-Bulgarian recensions the original ascending reflex (rь, lь) of syllabic 'r' and 'l' was sometimes changed to descending ьr, ьl or a combination of both was used
  • original [ы] and [ъi] merged to [ы]
  • sometimes the use of letter 'Ѕ' (dz) was unified with that of 'З' (z)
  • verb forms naricają, naricaješi were substituted or alternated with naričą, naričeši
  • lexical - use of words with proto-Bulgar (Turko-Iranian) origin, such as кумиръ, капище, чрьтогъ, блъванъ, etc.

Moravian recension

While in the Prague fragments the only Moravian influence is replacing [št] with [c] and [žd] with [z], the recension evidenced by the Kiev Folia is characterised by the following features:

  • confusion between the letters Big yus (Ѫ) and Uk (ѹ) occurs once in the Kiev Folia, when the expected form въсѹдъ is spelled въсѫдъ
  • use of [c] for the Proto-Slavonic *tj, use of [dz] for the Proto-Slavonic *dj, use of šč for the Proto-Slavonic *skj
  • use of the words mьša, cirky, papežь, prěfacija, klepati, piskati etc.
  • preservation of the group dl (e.g. modlitvami)
  • use of the ending - ъmь instead of –omь in the Instrumentalis sg. mask., use of the pronoun čьso

Later recensions (Church Slavonic)

Later use of the language in a number of medieval Slavic states entailed the adjustment of Old Church Slavonic to the local vernacular, although a number of Southern Slavic, Moravian or Bulgarian features were also preserved. Some of the later significant recensions of Old Church Slavonic (referred to as Church Slavonic) nowadays are: Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian, Russian.

Croatian recension

The Croatian recension of Old Church Slavonic is one of the earliest known today. It used only the Glagolitic alphabet. The nasal sounds [ą]/[ę] had been substituted with [o]/[u] and a variety of reflections of the proto-Slavic *tj and *dj emerged.

Russian recension

The Russian recension was developed after the 10th century on the basis of the earlier Bulgarian recensions from which it differed slightly. Its main features are:

  • substitution of the nasal sound [ą] with [u]
  • merging of letters [ě] and [ja]

Serbian recension

The Serbian recension was written in Glagolitic alphabet at first, but later switched to Cyrillic alphabet. It appeared in the 12th century on the basis of the East-Bulgarian recensions:

  • nasal vowels [ą] and [ę] were replaced with [u] and [е]
  • use of diacritical signs by the Resava recension
  • use of letters [i], [y], [ě] for the sound 'i' by the Bosnian recension


The history of Old Church Slavonic writing includes a northern tradition begun by the mission to Great Moravia, including a short mission in the Balaton principality, and a Bulgarian tradition begun by some of the missionaries who relocated to Bulgaria after the expulsion from Great Moravia.

Old Church Slavonic's first writings, translations of Christian liturgy and Biblical texts, were produced by Byzantine missionaries Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, mostly during their mission to Great Moravia.

The most important authors in Old Church Slavonic after the death of Methodius and the dissolution of the Great Moravian academy were Clement of Ohrid (active also in Great Moravia), Constantine of Preslav, Chernorizetz Hrabar and John Exarch, all of whom worked in medieval Bulgaria at the end of the 9th and the beginning of the 10th century.


The original name of the language in the Old Church Slavonic texts was simply "Slavonic" (словѣньскъ), therefore the present-day Slavic names of the language are derived from the old or new word for Slavs. The intuitive pronunciation of the old word for Slavs can be given as appr. slovaeneh [ae stands for a very open e] or sloveneh at that time.

The language is sometimes called "Old Slavic", but that term is undesirable as it may be confused with the distinct Proto-Slavonic language.

The designation Old Bulgarian (German Altbulgarisch) was introduced in the 19th century by reputable linguists as August Schleicher, Martin Hattala and Leopold Geitler who noticed that the linguistic features of the first Slavic literary works are the same as those of the Bulgarian language. For similar reasons Russian linguist Aleksandr Vostokov used the term Slav-Bulgarian. The designation is, however, now considered by some as incorrect, as it implies that Old Church Slavonic was the ancestor exclusively of Bulgarian and that all manuscripts have a connection to Bulgarian.

The commonly accepted terms in English language Slavonic Studies nowadays are Old Church Slavonic and Old Church Slavic, although Old Bulgarian can still be found in a number of sources and is the only designation used by Bulgarian linguistics.

Modern Slavic nomenclature

Here are some of the names used by speakers of modern Slavonic languages:

  • Bulgarian старобългарски (starobəlgarski)
  • Czech staroslověnština
  • Croatian starocrkveni slavenski
  • Macedonian старословенски (staroslovenski)
  • Polish staro-cerkiewno-słowiański
  • Russian старославя́нский язы́к (staroslavyánskiy yazík); древнеболгарский (drevnebolgarskiy)
  • Serbian староцрквенословенски (starocrkvenoslovenski)
  • Slovak staroslovienčina
  • Slovene starocerkvenoslovanščina
  • Ukrainian старослов’янська (staroslovians'ka)

See also

  • Otche nash - 'Pater Noster' in Old Church Slavonic and other Slavic languages

External links

Last updated: 10-14-2005 03:58:00
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