Old Church Slavonic Writing: Glagolitic vs. Cyrillic

Jan 4, 2015 by

[Thanks to Natalia Kondrashova for a helpful discussion of some of the topics discussed in this post.]

Old Church Slavonic manuscripts are written in two alphabets: Glagolitic or Cyrillic. Scholars debate as to which of the two alphabets was designed by St. Cyril (827-869 CE). The name “Cyrillic” suggests that it was invented by St. Cyril, but most researchers now believe that Glagolitic was the alphabet devised by St. Cyril, perhaps with the help of his brother Methodius, for the purposes of their early missionary work. The main argument for this claim comes from the fact that of the surviving OCS manuscripts, the oldest are written in Glagolitic. (The corpus of surviving OCS manuscripts is discussed in the following post.)


The two alphabets are functionally equivalent, meaning that they have the same number of symbols designating the same sounds—yet visually, the two alphabets could not be more different. Glagolitic is particularly striking to the eye (see image on the left). The name “Glagolitic” derives from the OCS word glagolъ ‘word’ (note that in modern Russian this word underwent a meaning narrowing, to mean only a particular type of word). The shapes of Glagolitic letters, although reminiscent of the Coptic and some Greek alphabet graphics, are unique: as Lunt (2001: 15) notes,

“doubtless the “Slavic Apostles” made the letter-shapes different because they wanted to create a unique system for the new language which was to be used for the praise and glory of God. This is in accordance with the Byzantine tradition allowing autonomy and equality for all of the languages of eastern Christianity, such as Georgian, Armenian, Syriac, and Coptic”.*

There may have been a more practical aspect to the unique graphics of the Glagolitic letter-shapes: St. Cyril’s aim was to teach the Bible to the Slavs in their own language and to keep them away from the influence of the western Christian priests. (The western and eastern branches of Christianity were not yet separated at the time, as the Great Schism was still some centuries away, and the differences between western and eastern Christianity concerned spheres of power and various policies, especially language policies, but not theological/dogmatic issues.) If the letter-shapes used by the Slavs were more akin to those of the Latin alphabet, it was thought that the new converts may find it easy enough to read the Latin Bible and fall under the influence of western Christianity; recall from the earlier post that eastern Christianity in the Slavic lands fought a bitter battle against Frankish priests that were keen to impose their brand of Christianity on the Slavs.


The Cyrillic alphabet is less esoteric-looking and more similar to the Greek alphabet, on which it is largely based. The Greek values of the letters were by and large kept as they were pronounced at the time of Saints Cyril and Methodius (c. 825-885). It is thought that the Cyrillic “developed in the border zones where Greek teachers were proselytizing their pagan Slavic neighbors” (Lunt 2001: 14). It is also possible that Saints Cyril and Methodius, in a way, invented both Glagolitic and Cyrillic, by using the Greek alphabet as a model and then devised radically distinctive Glagolitic letter-shapes to emphasize the non-Greek identity of their writing system, or for the more practical political reasons mentioned above.

In subsequent centuries, the fates of the two alphabets were drastically different. The more arcane-looking Glagolitic alphabet fell out of use fairly quickly. Some manuscripts were written in Glagolitic in Macedonia into the 13th century, and Glagolitic texts were read and copied (often in Cyrillic transliteration) for a long period, especially in Croatia, where it was used well into the 17th century. Cyrillic, in contrast, became widely used, not only for a number of Slavic languages such as Russian and Serbian, but also for some Finno-Ugric languages (e.g. Udmurt), Turkic languages (e.g. Tatar), and many other languages in the former Soviet Union.

It should also be noted that the use of two different writing systems for the same language is not as uncommon as it may seem. Examples of languages that have two or more distinct writing systems, used either simultaneously or in different historical periods, include Serbian (the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets), Turkish (Arabic-based script replaced in the early 1900s by the Roman alphabet), and Japanese (which uses hiragana, katakana, and kanji simultaneously).

Another important aspect of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets is that they are remarkably well-suited to the language(s) they were designed for. Virtually each phoneme (i.e. meaning-carrying sound) of OCS is represented by its own letter. Where Greek lacked some requisite letters, new letters were introduced into the Cyrillic alphabet (the Glagolitic had corresponding characters as well). This is particularly the case for sibilants, such as /š/, /č/, /šč/, and /ts/ (two of which are represented in Cyrillic by letter-shapes borrowed from Hebrew: ш and ц). Vowel sounds for which new letters had to be created include nasalized vowels (/ẽ/, /õ/, and their diphthongized counterparts, /jẽ/ and /jõ/) and reduced vowels, the so-called “yers” (more on them in a later post).

As with several eastern alphabets, OCS letters are re-purposed to denote numerals in addition to phonetic symbols, but while phonetic values of the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets translate easily, their numerical values do not always correlate. For example, the Glagolitic letter denoting the /l/ sound means ‘50’, whereas its Cyrillic counterpart means ‘30’. The reason is that numerical values of the Glagolitic letters are assigned according to their alphabetical order, whereas numerical values of the Cyrillic letters correspond to those of their Greek counterparts. The letter “a” means ‘1’ in both Glagolitic and Cyrillic (as does “alpha” in Greek), but while the Glagolitic letter for “b” means ‘2’, its Cyrillic counterpart does not have a numerical value. Consequently, “v” (which is the third letter in both the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic alphabets) means ‘3’ in Glagolitic, but ‘2’ in Cyrillic. Typically, numerical (rather than phonetic) use of letters was indicated by placing a line over the letter(s) or by a dot on either side.

Although the “one letter per one phoneme” principle in largely observed in both Slavic alphabets, some OCS spellings follow rules of combination. In particular, certain vowel letters can symbolize vowels if they immediately follow a consonant letter but otherwise (i.e. if they follow a vowel or word-initially) the same letters indicate a sequence of /j/ followed by a vowel. The same rule is observable in modern Russian: for example, eë is pronounced /jejo/ rather than /eo/.

One last feature of the OCS writing to be noted is the use of graphic abbreviations (the words were pronounced in full). These abbreviations come in two types. The earlier, Greek-derived type of abbreviation writes the first and last letters of the stem plus the grammatical ending, and a line (or a ~) is placed over the word. In Greek, such abbreviations were used as a means of emphasis and were restricted to nomina sacra, the names of Divinity, such as ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Spirit’. (Compare these to the use of the abbreviated nomina sacra in Biblical Hebrew.) In OCS, abbreviation was also extended to certain other words, including verbal forms, particularly of the verb glagolati ‘to speak, say’. This was clearly a space-saving device; the same was practiced in other medieval writing systems: note, for instance, the abbreviation PRS ‘priests’ on the Kirkdale sundial.

The texts to be read in this course are all in the Cyrillic alphabet.



*It should be noted, however, that Armenian Apostolic Church is not a branch of the Byzantine-derived Eastern Orthodoxy, and neither are the Coptic and the Syriac Churches.



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


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