What is Old Church Slavonic?

Jan 3, 2015 by

[Note to readers: This post is the first in a mini-series dedicated to Old Church Slavonic and written in conjunction with the class I am teaching this quarter.]

Old Church Slavonic (OCS) is the language of the oldest Slavic manuscripts; today, it is merely a dead language, found only in conservative ecclesiastical use. Moreover, OCS is not identified with any particular nation; it is a supra-national language of Orthodox Slavs. So why study OCS today? For one, it offers a window into the oldest documented form of Slavic and a deeper understanding of its linguistic history. More importantly, OCS played a pivotal role in the formation of Slavic literary languages, particularly those of the Orthodox world (and to a lesser extent, of Croatian), and even of Slavic vernaculars, especially in the case of Russian. Therefore, the study of OCS provides a more complete picture of the modern Slavic languages. (A later post will be dedicated specifically to the OCS-derived phenomena in modern Russian.)

The first full-fledged writing system to represent Slavic languages was devised in the late 9th century by the monks Saints Cyril and Methodius; they were also the first missionaries to work among the Slavs. Surviving OCS documents are primarily ecclesiastical in nature: biblical texts, lives of saints, etc. In this, OCS is similar to Latin of the Middle Ages, although some scholars (e.g. Andrey Zaliznjak) claim that OCS was more comprehensible to speakers of Old Russian than Latin was to speakers of Old French and other medieval forms of Romance languages.

Geographical location

According to Todd B. Krause and Jonathan Slocum, OCS manuscripts and inscriptions originate “from the regions of the Moravian Empire, situated between the Vistula River and the easternmost extent of Carolingian influence, and the Bulgarian Empire, extending from the lower reaches of Macedonia in the south up beyond the Danube in the north”. However, OCS was used by the Slavs in many different regions, and is thus “a generalized form of early Eastern Balkan Slavic (or Bulgaro-Macedonian) which cannot be specifically localized” (Lunt 2001: 1). Moreover, with the spread of Christianity to Eastern Slavs (aka Christianization of Kievan Rus’ in 988 CE), OCS became the liturgical language of East Slavs, making a significant impact on what will emerge as today’s Russian language.

Genetic affiliation

OCS is a member of the Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family; other branches include Germanic (of which English is a member), Romance (including French, Italian, Spanish, and others), Celtic, Baltic, Indo-Iranian, Armenian, Greek, Albanian, as well as two now entirely extinct branches: Tocharian and Anatolian. The earliest form of Slavic, known as Common Slavic (Birnbaum 1979) or Proto-Slavic (Comrie and Corbett 1993), was not recorded in writing and therefore can only be reconstructed (by using a method known as “comparative reconstruction”).

Map 23

Little is known about the early Slavs or even where they lived. It is believed that the tribes referred to as “Venedi” or “Veneti” in Greek and Latin writings from the first centuries of the Common Era (e.g. the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder and the Germania of Tacitus) were Slavic-speaking tribes. The second-century writer Claudius Ptolemy claimed that these people, whom he referred to as Ouenedai, lived “to the north of the Goths, to the west of the Baltic tribes, and to the south of the Finns” (Krause and Slocum, see here). One argument for a relatively eastern location of the Slavic homeland comes from linguistic paleontology, specifically from the etymology of the word ‘beech’. Because the Slavic term for ‘beech’ is a loanword from Germanic (cf. Russian buk, German Buche), it is thought that the beech tree did not grow in the Slavic homeland.* It is well known that beech tree does not grow east of the line extending from modern Kaliningrad (Koenigsberg) to the mouth of the Danube (see map on the left); it is therefore concluded that early Slavs must have lived east of that line.

Subsequently, Slavic-speaking groups seem to have migrated west and south. In their heyday, Slavic languages were spoken as far west as modern-day Germany and as far South as Greece. For some time, the entire Slavic-speaking area was geographically continuous, but as Slavic tribes migrated, separated, and interacted with other groups, their dialects diversified into three geographically-based groupings: East, West, and South Slavic. The arrival of Magyars, who spoke an Ugric language and gave rise to present-day Hungarians, broke the contact between West and South Slavs over the region of Pannonia. Romance-speaking Romanians separated East Slavs from the South Slavs. Further diversification turned those dialects into groupings of mutually incomprehensible languages. The East Slavic grouping is now represented by Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian; West Slavic — by Polish, Czech, and Slovak; and South Slavic — by Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, and Slovenian. (For a more detailed discussion of the Slavic prehistory and genetic classification of Slavic languages, see Sussex and Cubberley 2006: 19-58.)

In the language family tree, OCS is typically placed in the South Slavic branch. One feature that characterizes OCS as South Slavic is the retention of the front nasal ę; in both West and East Slavic this sound changed into a back vowel. As mentioned by Krause and Slocum, “OCS has męso where Czech, for example, has maso. Likewise, South Slavic retains the nasal ę in the accusative plural of ja-stem nouns, whereas in East and West Slavic the nasality is lost. Hence OCS konję in contrast to Old Russian koně (East Slavic) and Polish konie (West Slavic)”. Although OCS sound system and morphology are undeniably South Slavic, its syntax and stylistics exhibit influences of Byzantine Greek. A significant proportion of the OCS vocabulary, especially abstract and religious terms, was borrowed or calqued from Byzantine Greek as well.

However, most scholars agree that in the late 9th century, when Saints Cyril and Methodius developed the OCS writing, the differences among Slavic ways of speaking were relatively minor, and mutual comprehension across the Slavic-speaking lands was still possible. Moreover, it is not clear to what extent OCS documents represent the spoken language of any given location. Most scholars also agree that OCS manuscripts from different regions contain features that characterize the local vernaculars. It is also possible that the earliest surviving OCS documents represent the language as it was spoken in centuries preceding the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius, rather than the vernaculars of their day. It is not atypical of medieval written documents—especially, carefully crafted manuscripts as opposed to more casual inscriptions—to reflect older forms of the spoken language. For example, manuscripts from the late Old English period (9th and 10th centuries) exhibit many archaic features, while inscriptions from the same period contain numerous innovations, not reflected in manuscripts.

Origins of Slavic rite and writing

As mentioned above, the earliest forms of Slavic had no written form. However, development of a writing system to represent the language of the Slavs became necessary with the missionary efforts by the Byzantine church. Lunt (2001: 1) writes:

“In 862, Prince Rastislav, ruler of Morava (located somewhere in the Danube Basin), appealed to the Byzantine Emperor Michael III for a teacher who would give instruction in Christian law “in our own language.” Michael appointed a priest, the experienced diplomat and able scholar Constantine, called the Philosopher, to the difficult and important mission. Constantine was a native of Salonika, and the Emperor pointed out that all the people of Salonika spoke Slavic well… Constantine went to Morava accompanied by his brother Methodius, a former civil administrator who had become a monk.

The brothers elaborated an alphabet for the Slavic language, translated the most important liturgical books, and started to train Moravans for the clergy.”

Although the two brothers were favorably received by the Pope in Rome, Constantine fell ill and died there in 869 CE, having assumed monastic vows and the name of Cyril on his death-bed. His brother Methodius continued to struggle for the recognition of the Slavic (Orthodox) liturgy until his death in 885 CE, against the bitter opposition by Frankish priests. After the Bulgarian ruler Boris was baptized in 864 CE and established Christianity as the official religion in his realm, and especially after Orthodoxy was expelled from Moravia in 870 CE, the center of Orthodoxy and OCS writing moved in Bulgaria and Macedonia. However, in 1014 the Macedonian state was destroyed and only “some degree of learning was maintained in the Bulgarian, Macedonian and Serbian monasteries, and in distant Croatia” (Lunt 2001: 2). Additional centers where OCS was adopted—and adapted—emerged in Kiev and Novgorod after the adoption of the Slavic rite by Prince Yaroslav the Wise in 1030.

The Timing of OCS

The usual dates given for the OCS period extend from ca. 860 to 1100 CE. However, both dates are simplifications. The earliest surviving OCS manuscripts (more on which in the following post) date from the end of the 10th century or even as late as ca. 1050. The terminal date for OCS, 1100 CE, constitutes the point after which manuscripts show more extensive local variation than in the OCS period. There are some manuscripts, however, that come from a later period and yet show affinity with the OCS as it is described in grammars.

As we shall see from a later post, OCS has had a significant impact on Old Russian and especially on one of its descendants, modern Russian. It is thus possible to say that some fragment of OCS survived in modern Russian, just as some Latin has survived in English and other languages (see Solodow 2010).



*The history of the ‘beech’ terms is further complicated by the fact that in the cognate term in Greek designates ‘oak’ and in Romance languages, ‘elder tree’.



Birnbaum, H. (1979) Common Slavic. Progress and problems in its reconstruction. Columbus, OH: Slavica.

Comrie, Bernard and Greville Corbett, eds. (1993) The Slavonic Languages. London: Routledge.

Lunt, Horace G. (2001) Old Church Slavonic Grammar. Mouton de Gruyter.

Solodow, Joseph B. (2010) Latin Alive. The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sussex, Roland and Paul Cubberley (2006) The Slavic Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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