Church Slavonic

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Church Slavonic

Church Slavonic, language belonging to the South Slavic group of the Slavic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Slavic languages). Although it is still the liturgical language of most branches of the Orthodox Eastern Church, Church Slavonic is extinct today as a spoken tongue. In its earliest period, from the 9th to 11th cent. A.D., this language is variously termed Old Church Slavonic, Old Church Slavic, or Old Bulgarian. The year 1100 is the conventional dividing line between the ancestor, Old Church Slavonic, and its descendant, the later Church Slavonic, which flourished as the literary language of a number of Slavic peoples before the 18th cent. Old Church Slavonic was created in the 9th cent. by St. Cyril and St. Methodius for their translation of the Gospels and other religious texts. Scholars disagree as to which spoken Slavic dialect was chosen by the two saints as the basis for the language of their translations. In any case, because this dialect was inadequate for their purpose, they had to enrich and transform it, drawing on the vocabulary and syntax of Greek. Old Church Slavonic is the first Slavic language known to have been recorded in writing. Two alphabets were devised for it, the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic. Tradition makes St. Cyril the inventor of both, although this view has been questioned; and both alphabets are said to have been derived in part from the Greek. The earliest suriving documents in Old Church Slavonic date from the 10th and 11th cent. In time, as the South and East Slavic tongues influenced this literary language in their respective regions, three major forms of the later Church Slavonic arose: Bulgarian, Serbian, and Russian. For various historical reasons, Russian Church Slavonic eventually became the dominant form. The Western Slavs were not caught up in this development, since they came under the domination of the Roman Catholic Church after the 11th cent. At first employed for religious writings, Church Slavonic later came to be used in secular compositions as well. Today it is written in the Cyrillic alphabet.


See G. Nandris, Handbook of Old Church Slavonic (1959); H. G. Lunt, Old Church Slavonic Grammar (4th ed. 1966); R. Picchio and H. Goldblatt, ed., Aspects of the Slavic Language Question (Vol. 1, 1984).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Church Slavonic


the old Slavic literary language of the 11th—18th centuries. Church Slavonic developed from Old Church Slavonic and was influenced by the spoken languages of the peoples by whom it was used. There are several local variants, or recensions: East Slavic, Bulgaro-Macedonian, Serbian, Croatian Glagolitic, Czech, and Rumanian.

Church Slavonic norms changed as a result of the gradual shift of the old literary centers from the southern part of the Slavic world to the east, the influence of the local spoken languages, and attempts to unify and standardize Church Slavonic and restore ancient norms; these processes were associated with various literary schools. Thus, after some decentralization and weakening of Church Slavonic norms in the 12th and 13th centuries, there was a period of unification and restoration of ancient norms in the 14th and 15th centuries as a result of the activity of the Turnovo school in Bulgaria and the Resava school in Serbia, as well as the related second South Slavic influence in Russia. In the late 15th and 16th centuries there was a shift of the Slavic literary centers to western Russia and Moscow, which .brought about a change in norms under the influence of the local spoken languages. There were several Slavic literary centers in the 17th century—Vil’na (Vilnius), Kiev, and Moscow—which led to parallel sets of norms. The centralization and normalization of Church Slavonic in the 18th century was based on the Church Slavonic used in Moscow.

Since literatures in the local spoken languages appeared in Slavic countries at various times alongside works written in Church Slavonic, two types of Old Russian, Old Serbian, and Middle Bulgarian literary languages developed. The basis of one type was Church Slavonic; the other type was grounded in the local spoken language. The relationship between the two types differed in different periods. Although the two were very similar in the Middle Ages, by the 17th century they had become two different languages. As languages with different systems, spoken Rumanian and Church Slavonic were always significantly independent of each other. Church Slavonic gradually gave way to a literary language based on the local spoken language in one area of usage after another and was no longer used in writing by the 18th century. Church Slavonic is still used as the liturgical language in the Orthodox Church.

In Russian linguistic literature the terms “Old Church Slavonic” (Staroslavianskii) and “Church Slavonic” (Tserkovno-slavianskii) are being replaced by the term “Old Slavic literary language” (drevneslavianskii literaturnyi iazyk), which denotes the single literary language of the South Slavs from the ninth to the 18th century, the East Slavs from the tenth to the 18th century, the Moravians (Czechs) from the ninth to the 11th century, and the Walachians and Moldavians from the 14th to the 18th century.


Bulich, S. Tserkovnoslavianskie elementy v sovremennom literaturnom i narodnom russkom iazyke, part 1. St. Petersburg, 1893.
Vinogradov, V. V. Ocherki po istorii russkogo literaturnogo iazyka XVII-XIX vv., 2nd ed. Moscow, 1938.
Tolstoi, N. I. “K voprosu o drevneslavianskom iazyke kak obshchem literaturnom iazyke iuzhnykh i vostochnykh slavian.” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1961, no. 1.
[”Doklady, prochitannye na zasedanii Komissii po sostavleniiu slovaria obshcheslavianskogo literaturnogo (tserkovnoslavianskogo) iazyka v aprele 1966 g.”] Ibid., 1966, no. 5.
Kopylenko, M. M. “Kak sleduet nazyvat’ iazyk drevneishikh pamiatnikov slavianskoi pis’mennosti?” Sovetskoe slavianovedenie, 1966, no. 1.
Uspenskii, B. A. Arkhaicheskaia sistema tserkovnoslavianskogo proiznosheniia. Moscow, 1968.
Filin, F. P. “O geneticheskom i funktsional’nom statuse sovremennogo russkogo literaturnogo iazyka.” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1977, no. 4.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.