Introduction to Old Church Slavonic Declension

Jan 25, 2015 by

declensionIn Old Church Slavonic (OCS), as in modern Russian, nouns have inherent gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and change for case and number, while adjectives and participles agree with the nouns they modified, or are predicated of, in gender, number, and case. (The syntax of “numerals” in OCS is a separate topic, which we will deal with on a different occasion.) As in modern Russian, OCS has six cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, locative, dative, and instrumental), and it also had a vocative form, which some scholars call “case” and others simply call “form”. However, unlike in modern Russian, which has only singular and plural, OCS has three numbers: singular (‘one’), dual (‘two’), and plural (‘three or more’). The paradigm of endings (which Lunt 2001 calls “desinence”) for a given noun or adjective is determined based on that word’s declension, gender, and the nature of stem-final consonant (hard or soft). Thus, declensions can be thought of as sets of paradigms for the different genders and hard/soft stems. Which declension a certain noun, adjective, participle, or pronoun belongs to can be largely determined by its part-of-speech and gender.

There are four declensions in OCS (with some exceptions and anomalous patterns, which we will not discuss here): twofold nominal declension, simple nominal declension, pronominal declension, and compound (or “adjectival”) declension. Despite their names, the simple nominal declension is not really simple, and the scary-sounding twofold nominal declension is actually the dominant declension type for both nouns and adjectives. Pronouns typically follow the pronominal declension, although personal pronouns (‘I’, ‘thou’, ‘he’, ‘she’, etc.) follow their own special paradigm. The compound (or “adjectival”) declension is reserved for one type of adjectives, as will be explained below.

The twofold nominal declension is the most commonly found (or “productive”) declension pattern in OCS. As discussed in Lunt (2001: 54-61) and summarized in the table on p. 54, the twofold nominal declension has two sub-declensions for masculine/neuter nouns and for feminine nouns (see sub‑columns in Lunt’s table). The masculine and neuter genders are grouped together because their paradigms are virtually identical, with the exception of the nominative forms in all numbers and the vocative forms in the singular. Each of these two sub-declensions has a further subdivision into hard-stem paradigm and soft-stem paradigm (which are listed in that order, with a slash, in each cell of the table). Thus, we can think of the twofold nominal declension as a set of four paradigms, exemplified by the following nouns: gradъ ‘city’ (masculine hard-stem), otьcь ‘father’ (masculine soft-stem), žena ‘woman, wife’ (feminine hard-stem), duša ‘soul’ (feminine soft-stem). Also, as in modern Russian, a small number of masculine nouns ending in –a in the nominative belong to the feminine sub-declension, e.g. sǫdia ‘judge’ (compare to the Russian sudja ‘judge’, sirota ‘orphan’, žertva ‘victim’). In OCS, these nouns typically refer to male persons and trigger masculine agreement on modifying adjectives (but see Graudina et al. 1976 for a detailed discussion of the intricacies of this issue in modern Russian). Yet these nouns decline as if they were feminine—it is precisely these sorts of nouns that require a distinction between gender and declension. Finally, as mentioned above, neuter nouns—such as the hard-stem město ‘place’ and the soft-stem srьdьce ‘heart’—share most of their endings with the masculine nouns, with the only differences in the nominative and vocative forms. In modern Russian, the OCS twofold nominal declension corresponds pretty closely to the first and second declensions.

Nouns that do not belong to the twofold nominal declension inflect either according to the regular type of the simple nominal declension or to its anomalous type. (The simple nominal declension corresponds roughly to the third declension in modern Russian.) The regular type (see Lunt 2001: 71-73 and the table on p. 72) contains mostly feminine nouns (e.g. kostь ‘bone’), including those corresponding to “numerals” in modern Russian (in OCS, however, numerals were not a separate part-of-speech as they are in modern Russian; see Babby 1987). The regular type of the simple nominal declension also contains a few masculine nouns (e.g. pǫtь ‘road’) and the word trьe ‘three’, which agrees with the noun in gender. The anomalous type (see Lunt 2001: 73-75 and the table on p. 73) contains nouns of all three genders: e.g. masculine dьnь ‘day’, feminine ljuby ‘love’, and neuter vrěmę ‘time’. For more details see Lunt (2001: 73-75).

Pronouns, as mentioned above, belong to the pronominal declension, which includes the following pronouns: tъ ‘this’, onъ ‘that’, inъ ‘another’, kъžьdo ‘each’, samъ ‘self’, edinъ  ‘one, alone’, eterъ ‘a certain’, and many more (see Lunt 2001: 62-64). The pronoun sь ‘this’ has a special paradigm summarized in the table in Lunt (2001: 63). The only type of pronouns that is the exception, declining according to their own pattern, are the personal pronouns (see Lunt 2001: 76-77 and the table on p. 77).

The final part-of-speech to consider is the adjectives. As mentioned above, adjectives in OCS can be declined according to either one of two declensions: twofold nominal or compound (or “adjectival”) declension. Thus, the term “adjectival declension” is somewhat misleading as adjectives do not always appear in the compound declension forms, so the term “compound declension” is preferable: it highlights that this declension combines properties of both nominal and pronominal declensions. Hence, the endings of the compound declension are longer than those of the twofold nominal declension (the corresponding distinction between “long form” and “short form” adjectives in Russian will be touched on below). Specifically, the endings of the compound declension combine the relevant endings of the twofold nominal declension with the corresponding forms of the pronoun *jь ‘he’. However, the presence of the glide /j/, from the pronoun, is obscured by the way OCS writing system works: recall that /j/ is generally not represented in writing but the sequences of two vowels in a row are to be understood as being separated by a /j/. Thus, the compound declension form of the masculine dative singular of starъ ‘old’, pronounced /starujemu/, was spelled in OCS alternatively as staruumu or even starumu. (For more details on the morphology of the compound declension, see Lunt 2001: 64-70.)

As described in Lunt (2001: 64), the compound declension endings “give to adjectival stems an additional meaning of definiteness roughly equivalent to the English definite article: slěpa žena ‘a blind woman’ versus slěpaja žena ‘the blind woman’”. This is particularly true of adjectives that are used syntactically as nouns (i.e. did not modify another noun); witness, for example, the following passage from Mark 8:22-23: privěsę kъ njemu slěpa … i imъ slepaego za rǫkǫ ‘they brought a blind man to him, and taking the blind by the hand’. When an adjective is used to modify a noun, its use in the compound declension may signify that either the entire noun phrase is already known (= mentioned in the preceding discourse), as in the above example slěpaja žena ‘the blind woman’, or that the property denoted by the adjective itself is already known to apply to the noun in question, as in vъ geonǫ ognjьnǫjǫ ‘into the fiery hell’, as opposed to vъ peštь ognjьnǫ ‘into a fiery furnace’. A furnace may or may not be “fiery”, while the hell definitely is. (On the etymology of the word geona ‘hell’, English Gehenna, which comes from the toponym for a valley south of Jerusalem’s Old City, read here.)

In the vocatives, the use of the compound vs. twofold nominal declensions for adjectives is a little different: an adjective in the vocative normally follows the compound declension, as in běsьnyi pьse ‘o mad dog!’. However, if the adjectives follows rather than precedes a noun in the vocative or if it is itself used as a noun, it appears in the twofold nominal declension, as in fariseju slěpe ‘o blind Pharisee’ (Matthew 23:25) or bezumьne ‘o fool!’ (Luke 12:20; the passage we’ve read).*

It is important to note that although this distinction between the compound and twofold declension forms of adjectives is similar—and historically related to—the “long form” and “short form” distinction in modern Russian, there are important differences. First, in OCS adjectives that modified nouns could appear with the twofold declension endings, whereas in modern Russian only long form adjectives (but not short form ones!) can appear as modifiers: e.g. novyj dom ‘a/the new house’, but *nov dom is ungrammatical. Second, as can be seen from this example, the addition of the long form morphology in Russian does not introduce the definiteness meaning as the compound declension did in OCS. Thus, novyj dom can mean either ‘a new house’ or ‘the new house’. Similarly, while there is a difference between long form and short form adjectives in the predicate position—e.g. On vysokij vs. On vysok ‘He is tall’—that difference is not one of definiteness. For instance, in this example, the long form has an absolute meaning (‘He is generally tall’), while the short form has a relative or situational meaning (‘He is too tall’). This topic is discussed in more detail in Bailyn (1994) and Pereltsvaig (2001), as well as in the references cited there.



*Pharisees were a party and a religious school of thought in the Holy Land, in opposition to Sadducees, in the Second Temple period. Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on a number of political, social, and religious issues; ultimately, it was the Pharisees’ views that “won” and became the basis for Rabbinic Judaism. The New Testament presents Pharisees as in conflict with John the Baptist and Jesus; yet, some scholars believe that early Christian views in large part derive from the Pharisee school of thought. Because the New Testament often depicts Pharisees as self-righteous rule-followers, the word “Pharisee” in English means ‘a hypocritical and arrogant person who places the letter of the law above its spirit’.





Babby, Leonard H. (1987) Case, Prequantifiers, and Discontinuous Agreement in Russian. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 5(1): 91-138.

Bailyn, John Frederick (1994) The Syntax and Semantics of Russian Long and Short Adjectives: An X’-Theoretic Account. In Jindrich Toman (ed.) Annual Workshop on Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics; The Ann Arbor Meeting: Functional Categories in Slavic Syntax. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Publications. Pp. 1-30.

Graudina, Ljudmila Karlovna, Viktor Aleksandrovich Ickovich, and Lia Pavlovna Katlinskaja (1976) Grammatičeskaja pravil’nost’ russkoj reči. Opyt častotno-stilističeskogo slovarja variantov [Grammatical correctness of Russian speech. An experimental frequential stylistic dictionary of variants]. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Nauka.

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

Pereltsvaig, Asya (2001) Syntactic Categories Are Neither Primitive nor Universal: Evidence from Short and Long Adjectives in Russian. In Steven Franks, Tracy Holloway King, and Michael Yadroff (eds.) Annual Workshop on Formal Approaches to Slavic Linguistics. The Bloomington Meeting 2000. Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan Slavic Publications. Pp. 209-227.


Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: