Old Church Slavonic: It Reads Like a Novel… Almost!


La version française de cet article, qui s’intitule Le slavon liturgique, ça se lit comme un roman… ou presque!, figure dans l’outil Chroniques de langue.

Marc Laforge
(Terminology Update, Volume 33, Number 2, 2000, page 21)

To talk about Old Church Slavonic—also called Old Slavonic—is to recount a short history of translation and terminology.

Back in the ninth century, on a continent that would one day be known as Europe, there arose a Slavic nation-state: the Great Moravian Empire. In order to Christianize his kingdom, Prince Rostislav called upon Cyril and Methodius, two missionaries from Byzantium, to translate the Holy Scriptures. We should remember that at the time, the Bible was known only in the ancient Septuagint version, a Greek translation from the Hebrew Bible produced in Alexandria in the second and third centuries B.C.E. Legend has it that 72 rabbis worked in isolation for 72 days on the island of Paros, and in the end, all their translations were identical.

In order to translate the scriptures into Slavonic—or to transcribe them, as some would say—there was a large problem to solve. The only available alphabet consisted of a few lines and notches used to count and to tell fortunes. The first challenge facing Cyril and Methodius was to create an alphabet to transcribe the many sounds of Slavonic, before getting on with their main task of translation. To make the story a little shorter, let us just say that this led to the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet, created of course by Cyril (later Saint Cyril) who also invented the glagolitic alphabet used in eleventh-century Slavic literature. These two alphabets do appear to share a common origin, since they have almost the same number of letters and identical phonetic values.

Here is where the squabbles begin. For a long time, it was thought that the Cyrillic alphabet was used for the very first translation of the Bible, but more recent research indicates that this was more likely the glagolitic alphabet (which comes from the Slavonic "glagol" or "words" and the Old Church Slavonic, "glagoliti," "to speak"): what a fine word to drop into a conversation—if you know how to pronounce it!

Thus, in order to translate the Bible, not only did an alphabet have to be created, but new terms had to be produced, many by adapting the Greek words, and others from Slavic elements, used with a Greek model. Are you still with me?

As for the syntax, the Slavic characteristics were preserved, but in many cases the translation reflected Greek forms.

In the beginning, the Cyrillic alphabet had 43 letters, including Greek letters, combinations of several Greek letters, and some symbols borrowed from Hebrew. This alphabet, now reduced to about 30 letters, has been used for many years, to transcribe Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Ukrainian and many non-Slavic languages.

Beginning as a literary language, used in writing but never spoken by any particular group, Old Church Slavonic is a language created for a cultural purpose but whose vocabulary, syntax and style distance it from the popular idiom at its base.

The Greek model was essential for its development and it is precisely that link with the great Greek tradition that transformed the dialect spoken by a small ethnic group into the language of a specific spiritual culture.

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