Old Church Slavonic

Encyclopædia Orbis Latini

Ancient Slavic language, belonging to the Eastern (Bulgaro-Macedonian) part of the Southern group (the western part includes Serbo-Croatian and Slovene) of the Slavic languages. It is also called Old Bulgarian, as modern Bulgarian seems to be its direct heir.

Origin and History

In the 6th century Slavic migrants from the Vistula region, pushed by Avars and other nomadic invaders of the Great Steppe, crossed the Danube and settled on the Balkan peninsula. They fought successfully against the East Roman Empire (Byzantium) and reached as far as Peloponnese. To absorb the invaders into the system of the established political and cultural patterns the Byzantine government promoted an ambitious program for their Christianization. For this purpose the Byzantine missionaries Saints Cyril (Constantine) (827-869) and Methodius (825-884), who were natives of Thessalonica, devised a Slavic literary language (now technically known as Old Church Slavonic) for translating the Bible and preaching Christianity in Moravia. After the Bulgarian king Boris I (852-889) converted to Christianity the Old Church Slavonic was readily accepted as official language in Bulgaria and from there it spread to Serbia, Russia, Wallachia and Moldavia. In some periods it was used in Bohemia, Croatia and Southern Poland. Colored by some local modifications, it remained the religious and literary language of Orthodox Slavs and Rumanians throughout the European Middle Ages. The standard variety that developed in Russia, referred merely as Church Slavonic language, is still used today as the language of the Orthodox churches in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia and sometimes in Bohemia.

The language of Cyril and Methodius was based primarily on the Macedonian (South Slavic) dialects around Thessalonica. Nevertheless, it reflects a lot of Common Slavic features: by the 9th century all Slavs could still understand each other well, the difference between their dialects being hardly significant.

Phonology and Writing

The pronunciation was of modus intensus type: the phonemes in the syllables were arranged according to their energy and the vowels, as most energetic, always ended the syllables. Belonging to the South Slavic branch, Old Church Slavonic contained a number of typical southern features in phonetics. The Common Slavic diphthongs *or (*ar), *ol (*al), *er, *el turned to ra, la, re, le (this feature is referred as unvoicefulness), cf.:

The ancient groups *tj, *dj became *št, žd (š is as sh in shop and ž is s in measure), cf. The archaism of Old Church Slavic is seen in the preserved supershort vowels i and u of Common Slavic which;  in all other Slavic tongues, which reflect later developments, they disappeared or turned to normal vowels o, e (or a) if the next syllable also contained a supershort vowel, cf.: Two nasal vowels (on and en) are also an archaic trait, kept today nowhere but in Polish. The Russian variety, the Church Slavonic, replaced it by u and ja (ja is as ya in yard).

See also The Indo-European Phonetics.

Old Church Slavonic was written in two alphabets known as Glagolitic and Cyrillic (the invention of Glagolitic has been traditionally ascribed to St. Cyril).


Morphology of Old Church Slavic was highly inflective with a definite trend towards analytism. There were six main types of nominal declension: nouns were distributed not by means of three genders, but according to the nominal stems inherited from Indo-European. Seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative and vocative) are used for nouns; the dual number is in wide use for nouns and pronouns. Two systems of adjectives were used: simple and pronominal, the letter to emphasize a quality of a noun.

Along with the archaic Indo-European forms of the verb (the aorist tense, the traces of the ancient imperfect), several compound analytical constructions were formed with the help of the verb byti to be and the past active participles. Therefore there were two simple and two compound past tenses in the language. The future meaning was often expressed by the prefixed present forms. An analytical future was formed with the verb hošteti to want + infinitive. Apart from the infinitive, another verbal noun, the supine, was used after the verbs of motion. The passive voice was constructed analytically: the verb byti to be and the passive participles.

As the other ancient Indo-European languages (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit), Old Church Slavonic had an absolute construction (it was in dative case).


The majority of Old Church Slavonic words have their direct cognates in other Indo-European languages. Besides the original Slavic vocabulary, a number of ancient Iranian and Germanic loan-words exist. As the Bible was translated from Greek, a great number of Greek traits appear in orthography and the lexicon of Old Church Slavic. Latin also influenced the language.


Old Church Slavonic was preserved as a liturgical language into modern times. It continued to be written by the Rumanians untill the 18th century and by the Serbs and Bulgarians until the 19th century. It had significant influence on the modern Slavic languages, especially on the Russian literary language that grew out of a compromise style incorporating many Church Slavonic elements into the native Russian vernacular. Modern Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian reintroduced thousands of old words, directly from Old Church Slavonic and its Russian variety (Church Slavonic), or via modern Russian. Rumanian also absorbed a lot of Church Slavonic words.

(c) 2001  Written by Cyril Babaev for Orbis Latinus.


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(c) Zdravko Batzarov