Church Slavonic language

Church Slavonic

Page from the Spiridon Psalter in Church Slavonic
Region Eastern Europe
Native speakers
Early forms
Old Church Slavonic
  • Church Slavonic
Glagolitic (Glag), Cyrillic (Cyrs)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 cu (with Old Church Slavonic)
ISO 639-2 chu
ISO 639-3 chu (with Old Church Slavonic)
Glottolog chur1257[1]
Linguasphere 53-AAA-a

Church Slavonic or New Church Slavonic is the conservative Slavic liturgical language used by the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Russia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republic of Macedonia and Ukraine. The language also occasionally appears in the services of the Orthodox Church in America. It was also used by the Orthodox Churches in Romanian lands until the late 17th and early 18th centuries,[2] as well as by Roman Catholic Croatians in the early Middle Ages.

In addition, Church Slavonic is used by some churches which consider themselves Orthodox but are not in communion with the Orthodox Church, such as the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, the Russian True Orthodox Church and others. It is also sometimes used by Greek Catholic Churches, which are under Roman communion, in Slavic countries, for example the Croatian and Ruthenian Greek Catholics, as well as by the Roman Catholic Church (Croatian and Czech recensions, see below).

Church Slavonic represents a later stage of Old Church Slavonic, and is the continuation of the liturgical tradition introduced by the Thessalonian brothers Cyril and Methodius in the late 9th century in Nitra, a principal town and religious and scholarly center of Great Moravia (located in present-day Slovakia), who produced the first Slavic translations of the Scripture and liturgy from Ancient Greek. By the early 12th century, individual Slavic languages started to emerge, and the liturgical language was modified in pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and orthography according to the local vernacular usage. These modified varieties or recensions eventually stabilized and their regularized forms were used by the scribes to produce new translations of liturgical material from Ancient Greek, or Latin in case of Croatian Church Slavonic.

Attestation of Church Slavonic traditions appear in Early Cyrillic and Glagolitic script. Glagolitic has nowadays fallen out of use, though both scripts were used from the earliest attested period. The first Church Slavonic printed book was the Missale Romanum Glagolitice (1483) in angular Glagolitic, followed shortly by five Cyrillic liturgical books printed in Kraków in 1491.


An example of Russian Church Slavonic computer typography

Various Church Slavonic recensions were used as a liturgical and literary language in all Orthodox countries north of the Mediterranean region during the Middle Ages, even in places where the local population was not Slavic (especially in Romania). In recent centuries, however, Church Slavonic was fully replaced by local languages in the non-Slavic countries. Even in some of the Slavic Orthodox countries, the modern national language is now used for liturgical purposes to a greater or lesser extent. Nevertheless, the Russian Orthodox Church, which contains around half of all Orthodox believers, still holds its liturgies almost entirely in Church Slavonic.[3] However, there exist parishes which use other languages (and the main problem here is the lack of good translations):[4]

Church Slavonic language (also known as New Church Slavonic, the name proposed by F. V. Mareš) is actually a set of at least four different dialects (recensions), with essential distinctions between them in dictionary, spelling (even in writing systems), phonetics etc. The most widespread recension, Russian, has, in turn, several local sub-dialects with slightly different pronunciations.

For the list and descriptions of extinct recensions, see article Old Church Slavonic language.

Russian (Synodal) recension

The Russian recension of New Church Slavonic is the language of books since the second half of the 17th century. It generally uses traditional Cyrillic script (poluustav); however, certain texts (mostly prayers) can be printed in modern alphabets with the spelling adapted to rules of local languages (for example, in Russian/Ukrainian/Bulgarian/Serbian Cyrillic or in Hungarian/Slovak/Polish Latin).

Before the eighteenth century, Church Slavonic was in wide use as a general literary language in Russia. Although it was never spoken per se outside church services, members of the priesthood, poets, and the educated tended to slip its expressions into their speech. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was gradually replaced by the Russian language in secular literature and was retained for use only in church. Although as late as the 1760s, Lomonosov argued that Church Slavonic was the so-called "high style" of Russian, during the nineteenth century within Russia, this point of view declined. Elements of Church Slavonic style may have survived longest in speech among the Old Believers after the late-seventeenth century schism in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Russian has borrowed many words from Church Slavonic. While both Russian and Church Slavonic are Slavic languages, some early Slavic sound combinations evolved differently in each branch. As a result, the borrowings into Russian are similar to native Russian words, but with South Slavic variances, e.g. (the first word in each pair is Russian, the second Church Slavonic): золото / злато (zoloto / zlato), город / град (gorod / grad), горячий / горящий (goryačiy / goryaščiy), рожать / рождать (rožat’ / roždat’). Since the Russian Romantic era and the corpus of work of the great Russian authors (from Gogol to Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky), the relationship between words in these pairs has become traditional. Where the abstract meaning has not commandeered the Church Slavonic word completely, the two words are often synonyms related to one another, much as Latin and native English words were related in the nineteenth century: one is archaic and characteristic of written high style, while the other is common and found in speech.

Standard (Russian) variant

In Russia, Church Slavonic is pronounced in the same way as Russian, with some exceptions:

Serbian variant

In Serbia, Church Slavonic is generally pronounced according to the Russian model. The medieval Serbian recension of Church Slavonic was gradually replaced by the Russian recension since the early eighteenth century. The differences from the Russian variant are limited to the lack of certain sounds in Serbian phonetics (there are no sounds corresponding to letters ы and щ, and in certain cases the palatalization is impossible to observe, e.g. ть is pronounced as т etc.).

Ukrainian or Rusyn variant

The main difference between Russian and (Western) Ukrainian variants of Church Slavonic lies in the pronunciation of the letter yat (ѣ). The Russian pronunciation is the same as е [je]~[ʲe] whereas the Ukrainian is the same as и [i]. Greek Catholic variants of Church Slavonic books printed in variants of the Latin alphabet (a method used in Austro-Hungary and Czechoslovakia) just contain the letter "i" for yat. Other distinctions reflect differences between palatalization rules of Ukrainian and Russian (for example, ч is always "soft" (palatalized) in Russian pronunciation and "hard" in Ukrainian one), different pronunciation of letters г and щ, etc.

Typographically, Serbian and (western) Ukrainian editions (when printed in traditional Cyrillic) are almost identical to the Russian ones. Certain visible distinctions may include:

Old Moscow recension

The Old Moscow recension is in use among Old Believers and Co-Believers. The same traditional Cyrillic alphabet as in Russian Synodal recension; however, there are differences in spelling because the Old Moscow recension reproduces an older state of orthography and grammar in general (before the 1650s). The most easily observable peculiarities of books in this recension are:

Croatian recension

This is in limited use among Croatian Catholics. Texts are printed in the Croatian Latin alphabet (with the addition of letter ě for yat) or in Glagolitic script. Sample editions include:

Czech recension

Church Slavonic is in very limited use among Czech Catholics. The recension was restored (actually, developed) by Prof. D. Th. Vojtěch Tkadlčík in his editions of the Roman missal:

Grammar and style

Although the various recensions of Church Slavonic differ in some points, they share the tendency of approximating the original Old Church Slavonic to the local Slavic vernacular. Inflection tends to follow the ancient patterns with few simplifications. All original six verbal tenses, seven nominal cases, and three numbers are intact in most frequently used traditional texts (but in the newly composed texts, authors avoid most archaic constructions and prefer variants that are closer to modern Russian syntax and are better understood by the Slavic-speaking people).

In Russian recension, the fall of the yers is fully reflected, more or less to the Russian pattern, although the terminal ъ continues to be written. The yuses are often replaced or altered in usage to the sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Russian pattern. The yat continues to be applied with greater attention to the ancient etymology than it was in nineteenth-century Russian. The letters ksi, psi, omega, ot, and izhitsa are kept, as are the letter-based denotation of numerical values, the use of stress accents, and the abbreviations or titla for nomina sacra.

The vocabulary and syntax, whether in scripture, liturgy, or church missives, are generally somewhat modernised in an attempt to increase comprehension. In particular, some of the ancient pronouns have been eliminated from the scripture (such as етеръ /jeter/ "a certain (person, etc.)" → нѣкій in the Russian recension). Many, but not all, occurrences of the imperfect tense have been replaced with the perfect.

Miscellaneous other modernisations of classical formulae have taken place from time to time. For example, the opening of the Gospel of John, by tradition the first words written down by Saints Cyril and Methodius, искони бѣаше слово "In the beginning was the Word", were set as искони бѣ слово in the Ostrog Bible of Ivan Fedorov (1580/1581) and as въ началѣ бѣ слово in the Elizabethan Bible of 1751, still in use in the Russian Orthodox Church.

See also


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Church Slavic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Petre P. Panaitescu, Studii de istorie economică și socială (Romanian)
  3. See Brian P. Bennett, Religion and Language in Post-Soviet Russia (New York: Routledge, 2011).
  4. See the report of Fr. Theodore Lyudogovsky and Deacon Maxim Plyakin, Liturgical languages of Slavic local churches: a current situation, 2009 (in Russian), and a draft of the article Liturgical languages in Slavia Orthodoxa, 2009 (also in Russian) of the same authors.
  5. "Rimski misal slavĕnskim jezikom". Kršćanska sadašnjost. Retrieved 2012-10-16.
    "German review of Rimski misal slavĕnskim jezikom". Slovo. Retrieved 2012-06-04.
  6. "Review (in Croatian) of Rimskyj misal (Olomouc, 1972)". Slovo. Retrieved 2012-06-04.
  7. "Review (in Croatian) of Rimskyj misal (Olomouc, 1992)". Slovo. Retrieved 2012-06-04.
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