Old 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.

Old Church Slavonic


(OCS; in Russian, staroslavianskii iazyk), the language of the oldest surviving Slavic texts of the tenth and 11th centuries, which continued the tradition of the liturgical and canonical books translated from the Greek by Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century.

Old Church Slavonic (OCS), the oldest Slavic literary language, was based on the Slavic dialect of southern Macedonia (Thessaloniki). From the very beginning, OCS was an international language for the Slavs; it was used first by the Western Slavs in the Czech, Moravian, Slovak, and Polish lands, then by the Southern Slavs, and lastly (from the tenth century) by the Eastern Slavs. Old Church Slavonic texts were written in two alphabets: the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic. Most scholars believe that Glagolitic is older than Cyrillic and that it was the alphabet invented by Constantine (Cyril), one of the creators of the Slavic writing system. This assumption is supported by the uniqueness of the Glagolitic script, which makes it impossible to link Glagolitic with certainty to any known alphabet of that period. Cyrillic often calls to mind the style of the Greek uncial script of the ninth century.

Surviving OCS texts reflect the local types of the ancient Slavic literary language of the tenth and 11th centuries. The Kiev Fragments (tenth century) are of the Moravian type; the Codex Zo-graphensis, Codex Marianus, Codex Assemanianus, Glagolita Clozianus, and Psalterium Sinaiticum (11th century) are of the Ohrid type (western Macedonian); and the Savvina Kniga, Codex Suprasliensis, and Enino Apostle are of the proto-Slavic (eastern Bulgarian) type. The number of OCS book manuscripts totals only 16, including minor texts. Inscriptions on stone, the oldest of which is the Dobruja inscription of 943, constitute a valuable addition to the parchment corpus of texts.

Old Church Slavonic belongs to the South Slavic group of languages and reflects the typical phonetic and morphological features of the group:

(1) The initial combinations ra- and la-, corresponding to the Russian ro- and lo-: compare OCS ravbn&and ladii to Russian rovnyi (“even”) and lodka (“boat”).

(2) Lack of polnoglasie (full vocalism): compare OCS brada, glava, vrédb, and mléko to Russian boroda (“beard”), golova (“head”), vered (“abscess”), and moloko (“milk”).

(3) The change of the old combinatons *tj and *dj to st and id: compare OCS svësta and mezda to Russian svecha (“candle”) and mezha (“boundary”).

A number of scholars, among them A. Meillet and N. S. Tru-betskoi (Trubetzkoy), justifiably concluded that the phonetic and morphological structures of OCS were similar to the phonetics and morphology of late Common Slavic. Old Church Slavonic was characterized by the presence of reduced vowels (sbm [“sleep,” “dream”], dbnb [“day”], pbsahmb [“psalm”]), whose disappearance, according to most scholars, signaled the end of the Common Slavic period. It also possessed the nasal vowels g and o as in the OCS petb and pqtb (compare the Russian piat’ [“five”] and put’ [“path,” “way”], and the vowel iat’ (é), as in svétb (“light,” “world”). In morphology, it was characterized by six types of declension, a dual, two simple and two compound past tenses, a supine, and a number of participial forms.

The role of Old Church Slavonic as a literary language was continued by Church Slavonic, which, in the early stage of its development (11th to 14th centuries) had a number of recensions, among them Russian, Middle Bulgaro-Macedonian, Serbian, and Croatian Glagolitic.


Kul’bakin, S. M. Drevne-tserkovno-slavianskii iazyk, 3rd ed. Kharkov, 1917.
Lavrov, P. A. Materialy po istorii vozniknoveniia drevneishei slavianskoipis’mennosti. Leningrad, 1930.
Selishchev, A. M. Staroslavianskii iazyk, parts 1–2. Moscow, 1951–52.
Vaillant, A. Rukovodstvo po staroslavianskomu iazyku. Moscow, 1952. (Translated from French.)
Trubetzkoy, N. Altkirchenslavische Grammatik. Vienna, 1954.


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