Church Slavonic language

Church Slavonic
Kiev psalter.jpg
Page from the Spiridon Psalter in Church Slavonic
Spoken in Eastern Europe
Language family
Writing system Glagolitic (Glag), Cyrillic (Cyrs)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 cu
ISO 639-2 chu
ISO 639-3 chu
Linguasphere 53-AAA-a

Church Slavonic is the primary liturgical language of the Orthodox Church in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It is also used in the Orthodox churches of Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Poland, and occasionally appears even in the services of the American and Czech and Slovak Orthodox. This makes it the most widely used liturgical language in the entire Orthodox Church.

In addition, Church Slavonic is sometimes used by Greek Catholic Churches in Slavic countries, for example the Croatian and Ruthenian Greek Catholics.

Historically, this language is derived from Old Church Slavonic by adapting pronunciation and orthography and replacing some old and obscure words and expressions with their vernacular counterparts (for example from the Old East Slavic language). 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 Croatian Missale Romanum Glagolitice (1483) in Croatian angular Glagolitic, followed shortly by five Cyrillic liturgical books printed in Kraków in 1491.



An example of Russian Church Slavonic 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 entirely in Church Slavonic.[1]

Nowadays, Church Slavonic language (also known as New Church Slavonic) 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 order, several local sub-dialects with slightly different pronunciation.

Russian (Synodal) recension

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/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:

  • Church Slavonic features okanye and yekanye, i.e., the absence of vowel reduction in unstressed syllables. That is, о and е in unstressed positions are always read as [o] and [jɛ]~[ʲɛ] respectively (like in northern Russian dialects), whereas in standard Russian pronunciation they have different allophones when unstressed.
  • There should be no de-voicing of final consonants, although in practice there often is.
  • The letter е [je] is never read as ё [jo]~[ʲo] (the letter ё does not exist in Church Slavonic writing at all). This is also reflected in borrowings from Church Slavonic into Russian: in the following pairs the first word is Church Slavonic in origin, and the second is purely Russian: небо / нёбо (nebo / nëbo), надежда / надёжный (nadežda / nadëžnyj).
  • The letter Γ can traditionally be read as voiced fricative velar sound [ɣ] (just as in Southern Russian dialects); however, occlusive [ɡ] (as in standard Russian pronunciation) is also possible and legal since the 20th century. When unvoiced, it becomes [x]; this has influenced the Russian pronunciation of Бог (Bog) as Boh [box].
  • The adjective endings -аго/-его/-ого/-яго are pronounced as written ([aɡo], [ʲeɡo], [oɡo], [ʲaɡo]), whereas Russian -его/-ого are pronounced with [v] instead of [ɡ] (and with the reduction of unstressed vowels).

Serbian variant

In Serbia, Church Slavonic is generally pronounced according to the Russian model. The medieval Serbian recension of Church Slavonic ceased to be used in the early eighteenth century, when it was replaced by the Russian recension. 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 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. Another 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:

  • less frequent use of abbreviations in "nomina sacra";
  • treating digraph <оу> as a single character rather than two letters (for example, in letter-spacing or in combination with diacritical marks: in Russian editions, they are placed above <у>, not between <о> and <у>; also, when the first letter of a word is printed in different color, it is applied to <о> in Russian editions and to the entire <оу> in Serbian and Ukrainian).

Old Moscow recension

The Old Moscow recension is in use among Old 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 1650s). The most easily observable pecularities of books in this recension are:

  • using of digraph <оу> not only in the initial position,
  • hyphenation with no hyphenation sign.

Croatian recension

In limited use among Croatian Catholics (mostly in Dalmatia). Texts printed in Croatian Latin alphabet (with the addition of letter <ě> for yat) or in Glagolitic script. Sample editions:

  • Ioseph Vais, Abecedarivm Palaeoslovenicvm in usum glagolitarum. Veglae, [Krk], 1917 (2 ed.). XXXVI+76 p. (collection of liturgical texts in Glagolitic script, with a brief Church Slavonic grammar written in Latin language and Slavonic-Latin dictionary)
  • Rimski misal slavĕnskim jezikom: Čin misi s izbranimi misami..., Zagreb: Kršćanska sadašnjost, 1980 (ISBN 978-953-151-721-5) (in Croatian Latin script) (review of the book, in German: [1]; how it looks: [2])

Czech recension

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

  • Rimskyj misal slověnskym jazykem izvoljenijem Apostolskym za Arcibiskupiju Olomuckuju iskusa dělja izdan. Olomouc 1972. (review of the edition, in Croatian: [3])
  • Rimskyj misal povelěnijem svjataho vselenskaho senma Vatikanskaho druhaho obnovljen... Olomouc 1992. (review of the edition, in Croatian: [4])

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 speech. Inflexion 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 Russian-speaking people).

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 down as въ началѣ бѣ слово in the Ostrog Bible of Ivan Fedorov (1580/1581) or in the recently used Elizabethan Bible (the first printing in 1751).

See also


  1. ^ See Brian P. Bennett, Religion and Language in Post-Soviet Russia (New York: Routledge, 2011).

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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