Old Church Slavonic

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Old Church Slavonic:

see Church SlavonicChurch 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
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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.


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