Old Church Slavonic

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Old Church Slavonic, also known as Old Bulgarian[1][2][3][4][5], was the first literary Slavic language, based on the Slavic dialects of the Thessalonica region by the 9th century Byzantine Greek[6] missionaries, Ss Cyril and Methodius, who used it for translation of the Bible and other Ancient Greek ecclesiastical texts, and for some of their own writings. It played a great role in the history of Slavic languages and served as a basis and a role-model for later Church Slavonic traditions, where Church Slavonic is used as a liturgical language to this day by some Orthodox and Greek-Catholic Churches of the Slavic peoples.


The language was standardized for the mission of the two apostles to Great Moravia in 863. For that purpose, Cyril and his brother Methodius first codified Old Church Slavonic from the Southern Slavic dialect spoken in the neighborhood (hinterland) of their city Thessalonica, in the region of Macedonia (Template:Unicode; in Old Church Slavonic, Template:Unicode), 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 (a Gospel book lectionary containing only feast-day and Sunday readings), the Psalter, and Acts of the Apostles, were translated. (The Gospels were also translated early, but it is unclear whether Ss Cyril or Methodius had a hand in this). 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.

In 885, the use of the Old Church Slavonic in Great Moravia was prohibited by the Pope in favor of Latin. Students of the two apostles, who were expelled from Great Moravia in 886, brought the Glagolitic 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 991/997–1015). The Cyrillic alphabet was developed shortly afterwards in the Preslav Literary School and replaced 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 recensions, 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 Slavic vernacular.

Much later, local redactions of Old Church Slavonic were created for ecclesiastical and administrative use, and are collectively known as Church Slavonic 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 substantially 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 today.


Initially Old Church Slavonic was written with the Glagolitic alphabet, but later Glagolitic was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet.[7] Only in Croatia was the local variant of the Glagolitic alphabet preserved.


As an ancient Indo-European language, OCS has highly inflective morphology. Nominals can be declined in three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), three numbers (singular, plural, dual) and seven cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, genitive, and locative. Synthetic verbal conjugation is expressed in present, aorist and imperfect tenses, while perfect, pluperfect, future and conditional tenses/moods are made by combining auxiliary verbs with participles or synthetic tense forms.

Basis and local influences

Old Church Slavonic is evidenced by a relatively small body of manuscripts, most of which were written in Bulgaria during the late 10th and the early 11th centuries. The language has a Southern Slavic basis with an admixture of Western Slavic features inherited during the mission of Ss Cyril and 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 Slavic phonetic and lexical features with Western Slavic ones. Manuscripts written in the medieval Bulgarian tsardom have, on the other hand, few Western Slavic features.

Old Church Slavonic is valuable to historical linguists since it preserves archaic features believed to have once been common to all Slavic languages. Some of these features are:

  • The nasal vowels Template:IPA and Template:IPA
  • Supershort Template:IPA and Template:IPA.
  • Open articulation of the yat vowel.
  • Template:IPA and Template:IPA from Proto-Slavic *nj and *lj
  • 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 Slavic nature of the language is evident from the following variations:

  • morphosyntactic
    • use of the dative possessive case in personal pronouns and nouns: Template:Unicode; descriptive future tense using the verb Template:Unicode ("to want"); use of the comparative form Template:Unicode (smaller) to denote "younger".
    • use of suffixed demonstrative pronouns (tъ, ta, to). In Bulgarian and Macedonian these developed into suffixed definite articles.

Old Church Slavonic has some extra features in common with Bulgarian:

Eastern Bulgarian recension

The Eastern Bulgarian recension is the oldest recension of the Old Church Slavonic language[8], which flourished with the rise of the First Bulgarian Empire under Tsar Simeon I. The main literary center of this recension was the Preslav Literary School, one of the two main literary schools of the First Bulgarian Empire along with the Ohrid Literary School. The existence of two major literary centers in the Empire led to the development of two recensions in the period from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. Thus:

  • The Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets were used concurrently
  • In some documents the original super short vowels ъ and ь merged with one letter taking the place of the other
  • In Western Bulgarian recensions ъ was sometimes substituted with о
  • In Eastern Bulgarian recensions the original ascending reflex (рь, ль) of syllabic Template:IPA and Template:IPA was sometimes metathesized to ьр, ьл; or a combination of the ordering was used
  • The central vowel ы merged with ъi
  • Sometimes the use of letter <Ѕ> (Template:IPA) was merged with that of <З> (Template:IPA)
  • verb forms Template:Unicode, naricaješi were substituted or alternated with Template:Unicode, naričeši
  • Use of words with proto-Bulgar origin, such as кумиръ, капище, чрьтогъ, блъванъ, etc.

Western Bulgarian (Macedonian) recension

The Western Bulgarian[9][10](Macedonian)[11][12][13][14] recension is one of the oldest recensions of Old Church Slavonic and thrived in the period between the 10th and 14th centuries. The main literary center of this recension was the Ohrid Literary School, one of the two main literary centers of the First Bulgarian Empire whose most prominent member, and most likely founder, was St Clement of Ochrid. This recension is represented by the Codex Zographensis and Codex Marianus, among others. As this recension grew and thrived, several other literary centers emerged, among which most notable is the Lesnovo Literary School of the Lesnovo Monastery. The main features of this recension are the following:

Moravian recension

While in the Prague fragments the only Moravian influence is replacing Template:IPA with Template:IPA and Template:IPA with Template:IPA, the recension evidenced by the Kiev Folia is characterised by the following features:

  • Confusion between the letters Big yus (Template:Unicode) and Uk (оу) occurs once in the Kiev Folia, when the expected form Template:Unicode is spelled Template:Unicode
  • Template:IPA from Proto-Slavic *tj, use of Template:IPA from *dj, Template:IPA *skj
  • use of the words mьša, cirky, papežь, prěfacija, klepati, piskati etc.
  • preservation of the consonant cluster Template:IPA (e.g. modlitvami)
  • use of the ending –ъmь instead of –omь in the masculine singular instrumental, use of the pronoun čьso

Later recensions (Church Slavonic)

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

Croatian recension

The Croatian recension of Old Church Slavonic is one of the earliest known today. It only used the Glagolitic alphabet of angular Croatian type. It is characterized by the following developments:

  • de-nasalisation of PSl. *ę > e, PSl. *ǫ > u, e.g. Cr. ruka : OCS rǫka ("hand"), Cr. jezik : OCS językъ ("tongue, language")
  • PSl. *y > i, e.g. Cr. biti : OCS byti ("to be")
  • PSl. weak-positioned yers *ъ and *ь in merged, probably representing some schwa-like sound, and only one of the letters was used (usually 'ъ'). Evident in earliest documents like Baška tablet.
  • PSl. Strong-positioned yers *ъ and *ь were vocalized into a in most Štokavian and Čakavian speeches, e.g. Cr. pas : OCS pьsъ ("dog")
  • PSl. hard and soft syllabic liquids *r and r′ retained syllabicity and were written as simply r, as opposed to OCS sequences of mostly rь and rъ, e.g. krstъ and trgъ as opposed to OCS krьstъ and trъgъ ("cross", "market")
  • PSl. #vьC and #vъC > #uC, e.g Cr. udova : OCS. vъdova ("widow")

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 Template:IPA with [u]
  • merging of letters ě and ja[15]

Serbian recension

The Serbian recension was at first written in the Glagolitic alphabet, but later switched to the Cyrillic alphabet. It appeared in the mid-12th century. Characteristics are as follows:

  • nasal vowels were denasalised and in one case closed: *ę > e, *ǫ > u, e.g. OCS rǫka -> Sr. ruka ("hand"), OCS językъ -> Sr. jezik ("tongue, language")
  • extensive use of diacritical signs by the Resava recension
  • use of letters i, y, ě for the sound Template:IPA by the Bosnian variant, and i, y for the sound Template:IPA by other variants of the Serbian recension.

Due to Turkey taking possession of Bulgaria while a semi-autonomous vassal status of Serbia was preserved, in late 15th century Serbian recension was influenced by an influx of educated refugee-scribes trained in the East-Bulgarian recension, which re-introduced a more classical form.

The canon of Old Church Slavonic

The core corpus of Old Church Slavonic manuscripts is usually referred to as canon. Manuscripts must satisfy certain linguistic, chronological and cultural criteria to be incorporated into the canon, i.e. it must not significantly depart from the language and tradition of Constantine and Methodius, usually known as the Cyrillo-Methodian tradition.

For example, the Freising Fragments, dating from the tenth century do show some linguistic and cultural traits of Old Church Slavonic, but are usually not included in the canon as some of the phonological features of the writings appear to belong to some Pannonian Slavic dialect of the time. Similarly, the Ostromir Gospels exhibits dialectal features that classify it as East Slavic, rather than South Slavic, so it's not included in the canon either. On the other hand, the Kiev Missal is included in the canon, even though it manifests some West Slavic features and contains Western liturgy, due to the Bulgarian linguistic layer and connection to the Moravian mission.

Manuscripts are usually classified in two groups, depending on the used alphabet, of Cyrillic and Glagolitic. With the exception of Kiev Missal and Glagolita Clozianus which exhibit West-Slavic and Croatian features respectively, all Glagolitic texts are assumed to be of Macedonian (Western Bulgarian) provenience:

  • Kiev Missal (Ki, KM), seven folios, late tenth century
  • Codex Zographensis, (Zo), 288 folios, tenth or eleventh century
  • Codex Marianus (Mar), 173 folios, early eleventh century
  • Codex Assemanius (Ass), 158 folios, early eleventh century
  • Psalterium Sinaiticum (Pas, Ps. sin.), 177 folios, eleventh century
  • Euchologium Sinaiticum (Eu, Euch), 109 folios, eleventh century
  • Glagolita Clozianus (Clo, Cloz), 14 folios, eleventh century
  • Ohrid Folios (Ohr), 2 folios, eleventh century
  • Rila Folios (Ri, Ril), 2 folios and 5 fragments, eleventh century

All Cyrillic manuscripts are of Bulgarian provenience and date from the eleventh century, except for Zographos Fragments which are Macedonian (Western Bulgarian):

  • Sava's book (Sa, Sav), 126 folios
  • Codex Suprasliensis, (Supr), 284 folios
  • Enina Apostol (En, Enin), 39 folios
  • Hilandar Folios (Hds, Hil), 2 folios
  • Undol'skij's Fragments (Und), 2 folios
  • Macedonian Folio (Mac), 1 folio
  • Zographos Fragments (Zogr. Fr.), 2 folios
  • Sluck Psalter (Ps. Sl., Sl), 5 folios


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 liturgical and Biblical texts, were produced by Byzantine missionaries Ss Cyril and 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 Second Book of Enoch was only preserved in Old Church Slavonic, although the original most certainly had been Greek or even Hebrew or Aramaic.


The original name of the language in the Old Church Slavonic texts was simply Slavic (словѣньскыи ѩзыкъ, slověnĭskyj językŭ),[16] derived from the word for Slavs (словѣне, slověne), the self-designation of the compilers of the texts. This name is preserved in the modern names of the Slovak and Slovene languages. The language is sometimes called Old Slavic, which may be confused with the distinct Proto-Slavic language. The commonly accepted terms in modern English-language Slavic studies are Old Church Slavonic and Old Church Slavic.

Old Bulgarian (ѩӡыкъ блъгарьскъ) is also widely used[17] and is the only designation used by Bulgarian linguistics, as it corresponds to the earliest form of written Bulgarian, followed by Middle Bulgarian (Church Slavonic language) and New Bulgarian (the modern Bulgarian language). The designation Old Bulgarian (Template:Lang-de) was introduced in the 19th century by August Schleicher, Martin Hattala, Leopold Geitler, and August Leskien[18][19], who noted the similarities between the first literary Slavic works and the modern Bulgarian language. For similar reasons Russian linguist Aleksandr Vostokov used the term Slav-Bulgarian.

Similarly, Old Macedonian is used occasionally in Western scholarship[20][21][22] for many of the same reasons, but in a regional context.


  1. "On the relationship of old Church Slavonic to the written language of early Rus'" Horace G. Lunt; Russian Linguistics, Volume 11, Numbers 2-3 / January, 1987
  2. Template:Cite book
  3. Template:Cite book
  4. Template:Cite book
  5. Benjamin W. Fortson. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, p. 374
  6. Dmitrij Cizevskij. Comparative History of Slavic Literatures, Vanderbilt University Press (2000) p. 27
  7. Horace Gray Lunt, Old Church Slavonic Grammar, Berlin-New York (2001) p.15
  8. Jos. Dobrovský, Institutiones linguae slavicae dialecti veteris quae quum apud Russos, Serbos, aliosque ritus graeci tum apud Dalmatas glagolitas ritus latini Slavos in libris sacris obtinet, Vindobonae 1822. Initium translatorum in linguam slavicam ab eo (i. e. Cyril) et fratre Methodio librorum sacrorum, ad officia Missae celebranda maximae necessariorum, in Bulgaria factum fuisse, testatur biographus Clementis Archiepiscopi Bulgariae.
  9. Template:Cite web
  10. Template:Cite web
  11. Henry R. Cooper. Slavic Scriptures: The Formation of the Church Slavonic Version of the Holy Bible, pg. 86
  12. Roomsch-Katholieke Universiteit, et al. Polata Knigopisnaja: An Information Bulletin Devoted to the Study of Early Slavic Books, Texts and Literatures, pg. 70
  13. Roman Jakobson, P Weinrich. Slavic languages: Distribution of Slavic languages in present day Europe, pg. 7
  14. Yuriy Sherekh, George Y. Shevekov. A prehistory of Slavic: the historical phonology of common Slavic
  15. Paul Cubberley Russian: A Linguistic IntroductionCambridge University Press (2002), p.44
  16. Nandris, Grigore (1959). Old Church Slavonic Grammar, p. 2 (London: University of London Athlone Press).
  17. Ziffer, Giorgio - On the Historicity of Old Church Slavonic UDK 811.163.1(091)
  18. A. Leskien, Handbuch der altbulgarischen (altkirchenslavischen) Sprache, 6. Aufl., Heidelberg 1922.
  19. A. Leskien, Grammatik der altbulgarischen (altkirchenslavischen) Sprache, 2.-3. Aufl., Heidelberg 1919.
  20. R. E. Asher, J. M. Y. Simpson. The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, pg. 429
  21. Dmitrij Cizevskij. Comparative History of Slavic Literatures, pg. 26
  22. Benjamin W. Fortson. Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, pg. 374