Relationship of Cyrillic and Glagolitic scripts

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The exact nature of relationship between the Glagolitic and the Cyrillic scripts has been historically a matter of great controversy and dispute in Slavic studies, especially pertaining to the question of chronological precedence and mutual influence. Several traditional accounts on the origin of the Slavic script they describe are ambiguous in their statements of what particular script they pertain to, which is furthermore complicated by the occasional mixture of terms used for them in some sources.

Question of precedence

The theory of chronological precedence of Glagolitic script with regard to Cyrillic has been first put forth by G. Dobner in 1785,[1] but ever since Pavel Jozef Šafárik's 1857 study of Glagolitic monuments Über den Urspung und die Heimat des Glagolitismus there has been a virtual consensus in the academic circles that the Glagolitic was the script Constantine (Cyril) devised, rather than Cyrillic.[2] This view is supported by numerous linguistic, paleographic and historical accounts.

  1. The reason why Greek-derived Cyrillic script spread so quickly in the lands of Slavia Orthodoxa is because it had the benefit of replacing an alphabet that was specifically designed to fit the sound system of Slavic speech. This leads to the conclusion that Cyrillic was but a mere transliteration of older Glagolitic alphabet. As a comparison, Slavic lands using the Latin alphabet (West Slavic languages, as well as Slovene and Croatian) took a long time to adapt Roman alphabet systematically for their local needs, inventing special digraphs and diacritics for Slavic phonemes only with the advent of printing in the 16th century.[2]
  2. Glagolitic monuments are significantly smaller in number, which suggests that the writing tradition which introduced them was subsequently replaced by a younger tradition, more vigorous and voluminous in output.[2]
  3. Generally, Glagolitic monuments of the Old Church Slavonic canon are older than their Cyrillic counterparts.[2]
  4. The most archaic features of OCS canon monuments (e.g. the uncontracted and unassimilated endings of definite adjective forms -aego, -aago, -aemu, -aamu, -uemu, -uumu as opposed to contracted forms in Sava's book; 2nd and 3rd person dual imperfect endings -šeta, -šete are common in the Glagolitic monuments as opposed to the -sta, -ste in the Cyrillic monuments; younger, sigmatic aorist is not attested at all in the Glagolitic monuments which otherwise preserve much more morphological archaisms) are generally much more frequent in Glagolitic than in Cyrillic part of the canon.[2][3] The evidence of pre-Moravian-mission phonetics Glagolitic alphabet was devised for and which it indirectly reflects, characteristic of the phonological system of a South Slavic Macedonian dialect in a specific timeframe of the late 9th century – the đerv, št and dzelo, and which are present in Glagolitic monuments either exclusively or predominantly, further corroborates their antiquity over Cyrillic in which these sounds are absent or changed by means of sound changes assumed to have occurred in the later period.[4]
  5. Of surviving (Old) Church Slavonic palimpsests, the tendency has been to write Glagolitic over Glagolitic, Cyrillic over Glagolitic, Cyrillic over Cyrillic, but never Glagolitic over Cyrillic.[2] All extant palimpsests are written in Cyrillic, and modern photographic analysis has shown a previous layer of Glagolitic letters.[5]
  6. Some Cyrillic monuments of the canon contain occasional Glagolitic letters, words, or even sentences, all written by the hand of the same scribe. Adversely, Cyrillic words or letters found in the Glagolitic monuments are provably later additions.[2]
  7. Cyrillic glosses are present in Glagolitic MSS, but not the other way around.[6]
  8. Some scribal errors in Cyrillic monuments indicate that the Cyrillic MS has been copied from Glagolitic original. For example, in Sava's book one can find a form ѫзоікомъ instead of ѫзꙑкомъ. If we assume that the text has been copied from the Glagolitic template, the scribal error becomes much more clear: оі is written in Glagolitic as ⰑⰊ, while is written as ⰟⰊ. Similarity of Glagolitic graphemes Ⱏ and Ⱁ has caused an obvious spelling mistake.[5]
  9. The numerical value of Glagolitic letters is an orderly progression in agreement with the sequence of letters in the alphabet. On the other hand, the Cyrillic script simply follows the Greek numerical usage and does not assign numerical values at all to certain non-Greek letters (b, ž, št, š, y, ĕ, ь, ъ). Moreover, Cyrillic script had the so-called episemons, graphemes whose sole purpose was the notation of numerals. Therefore, most Glagolitic and Cyrillic numerals are represented by different letters of the alphabet. Furthermore, discerned scribal errors indicate the transposition from Glagolitic numeral system into Cyrillic, and not the other way around.[6]
  10. Glagolitic monuments contain much higher number of untranslated Greek words, which indicates that they're the ones preserving the original text of the translation conducted by Constantine. Furthermore, Glagolitic monuments contain many errors in terms of unsuccessfully translated phrases, while such places in Cyrillic monuments have been significantly rectified.[7]
  11. The style of the Glagolitic monuments is often unclear and hardly intelligible, sometimes almost completely unintelligible without the Greek original (e.g. a series of pages in the Glagolita Clozianus). This should point to their antiquity, the very outset of Slavic literacy, when there was no skill in translation.[7]
  12. The relation between the Glagolitic monuments in Moravia and those in the Balkans is best explained by presuming expansion of the Glagolites tradition from Moravia, before the 10th century when the Magyar-German wedge separated Western from Southern Slavs.[6]

Chernorizets Hrabar's account

Leaf 40 of a preserved MS containing Hrabar's account

In his famous treatise On the Letters (O pismenexъ), written as early as the end of the ninth or beginning of the tenth century, monk Chernorizets Hrabar states the following:

Prěžde ubo slověne ne iměaxǫ kъńigъ nъ črьtami i rězami čьtěaxǫ i gataaxǫ pogani sǫšte. Krьstivъše že sę rimьskyjimi i grьčьskyjimi pismeny nǫždaaxǫ sę pьsati slověnьskǫ rěčь bez ustrojenьja. Nъ kako možetъ sę pьsati dobrě grьčьskyjimi pismeny bogъ ili životъ ili ğělo ili crьky ili čajanьje ili širota ili ědъ ili ǫdu ili ili junostь ili ęzykъ i ina podobьnaja simъ. I tako běšę mъnoga lěta.

"Earlier the Slavs did not have books but by strokes and notches read and divined, being heathen. And when they were baptized, they had to write their Slavic speech with Roman and Greek letters without design. Because how could one write with Greek letters:

  • богъ bog (meaning 'god'; English uses b for this sound )
  • or живѡтъ život (meaning 'life'; contemporary meaning in East Slavic languages: 'stomach')
  • or ѕело dzělo ('very much'; Polish uses dz for this sound)
  • or церковь crьky ('church')
  • or чаание čajanie ('expectation'; English uses ch for this sound)
  • or широта širota ('width'; English uses sh for this sound)
  • or дъ іадъ ědъ ('poison')
  • or ѫдоу ǫdu ('where'; of the contemporary Slavic languages, only Polish has this sound, represented by ą)
  • or юность junostь ('youth'; English uses you for this sound)
  • or ѫзыкъ ęzykъ ('tongue'; perhaps Hrabar mistakenly took it as ѧзыкъ, not ѫзыкъ. Of the contemporary Slavic languages, only Polish has this sound, represented by ę)

or other similar words? And so it was for many years."[8]

Hrabar's črьtami i rězami have long puzzled scholars. Various suggestions have been made, ranging to simple wood-marks used for aid in counting, to adaptations of Turkic (such as the ones occurring in Proto-Bulgar epigraphy) and Germanic (such as of the Gothic alphabet created by the Visigothic bishop Wulfila) runes. However, despite the proximity of Bulgar and Gothic tribes to presumed location of Slavic tribe and Proto-Slavic Urheimat, obvious contacts of which have otherwise left clear linguistic traces, not only has no authentic Slavic runic writing been discovered, but it cannot furthermore be shown that Constantine's Glagolitic alphabet contains any runic elements at all.[9]

According to Schenker (1995), Hrabar's account is most likely to pertain to the possible pre-Constantine usage of Greek and Roman alphabet for writing by the Slavs, which was a very difficult task. The initial letters of the example words he cites are meant to illustrate that – the initial consonants in životъ, ğělo, crьky, čajanie and širota were completely absent in the contemporary Byzantine Greek phonology, as well as the initial nasal vowels illustrated by ǫdu and ęzykъ. Same is valid for the initial syllable of junostь which was either [ju] or [ü], yat in ědъ (Greek letter η had acquired phonetic value of [i] in Byzantine Greek), as well as for b and g in bogъ which could not be represented by Greek letters β and γ which were pronounced as labial and velar fricatives, respectively.

Bulgarian scholar Emil Georgiev is the most vocal supporter of the theory that there was indeed a Greek-based pre-Constantine writing alphabet, out of which Cyrillic developed and of which no extant examples have been preserved. He does not deny that the Glagolitic script was Constantine's creation – but Cyrillic is still the older script, according to him, deriving from cursive Greek.

Hrabar's account further describes how Constantine-Cyrill was sent by God to Slavs "to compose 38 letters, some according to the shape of Greek letters, some according to the Slavic word". This particular statement, as well as some other details, have led some philologists to the conclusion that Hrabar actually speaks about Cyrillic script. However, that theory has been dispelled by the meticulous analysis of St. M. Kuljbakin in a study Beleške o Hrabrovoj apologiji (Glas SKA, Beograd, 1935).[10] The twice cited number of 38 letters of the Constantine's alphabet Hrabar writes about corresponds to the number of letter in the Glagolitic alphabet (iotated yus letters apart, which were absent in the original alphabet), while the Early Cyrillic script has many more graphemes. According to I. Gošev, Hrabar mentions another fact that undoubtedly corroborates the Glagolitic character of Constantine's alphabet – Hrabar writes that the first пнсмѧ of the alphabet compiled by Constantine the Philosopher, азъ, was "God's gift" to the Slavs, and by that it was markedly different from pagan Greek alpha. This "God's gift" is explicable only in terms of Glagolitic a (15px), which represents the cross, i.e. the symbolic invocation with God's blessing.[11]

The "Russian letters" in Vita Constantini

Obrěte že tu evaggelie i psaltyrь rusьskymi pismeny pisano, i člověka ōbrětъ glagoljušta toju besědoju, i besědova s nimъ, i silu rěči priimъ, svoei besědě prikladaa različnaa pismena, glasnaa sъglasnaa, i kъ bogu molitvy tvorę, vъskorě načętъ česti i skazati, i mnodži sę emu divlęxu, boga xvalęšte.

"And he found there the Evangel and Psalter written with Russian letters, and upon finding a man who spoke the language, talked with him; and perceiving the power of the speech, he added various letters for his own language, consonant vocal sounds; and praying to God, immediately began to compose and reveal, and many marvelled at him, glorifying God."[12]

The phrase rusьskymi pismeny ("Russian letters", or more appropriately "Rus' letters") occurring in Vita Constantini VIII, 15 is another famous and enigmatic statement that has been puzzling to Slavists for a long time, having provoked various and imaginative explanations. According to the chronicle, Constantine, prior to the setting out, at the request of the Byzantine emperor, on a mission to the Khazars, found in Cherson – at the time a Byzantine outpost in the Crimea, recently repossessed – a gospel text and a psalter written in "Russian letters".

Even though the Crimea in the c. 860 was probably a multiethnic community (especially its main port city of Cherson), it is quite unlikely that among the peoples settled there were also Slavs, notably Slavs from the basin of the southern Dnieper.,[13] as the Slavs of the Dnieper region were at that period still separated from the northern shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov by the steppe, populated by the Khazars and later also by Pechenegs, the latter remaining heathen until long after the conversion of Rus' in 966. Therefore, scholars have generally rejected the connections of the Rus' referred here with Eastern Slavs, with a few highly nationalistic minority still maintaining a view that Constantine indeed found and Old East Slavic text, and that the man he encountered spoke that language.

Birnbaum (1999) argues that it is highly unlikely that Constantine would have been so very much concerned with the issue whether the Slavs (of Moravia or elsewhere) had their own writing system, as reported further in the following chapter XIV of Vita Constantini, had he in fact already found and familiarized himself or otherwise experimented with a Slavic script in the Crimea, while en route to Khazars.

According to the hypothesis originally propounded by French Slavist André Vaillant, accepted and further developed by distinguished scholars such as Roman Jakobson, Dietrich Gerhardt, Karel Horálek, Robert Auty, Horace G. Lunt and others, rusьskymi (or rosьskymi) stands for the original surьskymi (sorьskymi), with a metathesis of the consonants of the first syllable. I.e. sur- > rus- (sor-, > ros-) and thus the original meaning was 'Syriac' (i.e. Aramaic, the language of Jesus), being substituted for 'Russian' (i.e. Old Russian, aka Old East Slavic) by the later East Slavic copyist, to whom 'Syriac' here presumably made little sense. It is doubtless that Syrian (Syriac, Aramaic) speaking people, presumably prevalently merchants, could have resided in the Crimea in the late ninth century, especially in the port city of Cherson. Moreover, Syriac was the language of Syrian Christian refugees who had escaped from Arabic Islamic rule and could have made their refuge on Cherson at that time. Therefore, the Syriac hypothesis is generally held to have much arguments on its side and many accept it even today.[14]

File:Vita Constantini p109.JPG
Vita Constantini, VIII, 1-18, containing the controversial excerpt.

According to another theory, the term rusьskymi (pismeny) refers in fact to Gothic, the author confusing one Old Germanic language (Gothic) with another (Old Norse, or more precisely Early Old Swedish, the speech of Varangians, which were referred to in contemporary Slavic and Byzantine Greek sources as Rusь or Ῥῶς). This theory was advocated by Czech-American Slavist Francis Dovrník and Polish Slavist Tadeusz Lehr-Spławiński. The chief argument is that Goths had been Christianised much earlier, as early as the fourth century by the mission of the bishop Wulfila, and that there is doubtless evidence of Gothic presence in the Crimea (cf. Crimean Gothic, which was recorded as late as the 16th century). The chief argument against this theory is the fact that it is not particularly likely that the Old Scandinavian language of the notoriously pagan Varangians would have been mixed with the language of Christian-Arian Goths by a medieval copyist and that, furthermore, the Arian Goths of the Balkans were in no way identical with the Crimean Goths at the northern shores of the Black Sea, which were very possibly not even converted to Christianity, or at least not in its "heretic" Arian variety. Therefore, this theory was very soon abandoned in favour of other explanations.[14]

Harvey Goldblatt has suggested in his essay On 'rusьskymi pismeniy in the "Vita Constantini" and Rus'ian Religious Patriotism[15] another radical reinterpretation. Goldblatt notes that of all the preserved codices that contain Vita Constantini, the vast majority is East SLavic (Goldblatt counted app. 40), and has the reading rusьskym(i) pismeny, while numerically much fewer South Slavic MSS show various alternative readings: rousьskymi, roušьskymi and rosьky (or corrupted forms that can be derived from it). Given also the fact that the earliest attestation of this text does not go back further than the fifteenth century, it cannot be automatically assumed, according to Goldblatt, that they all reflect one uniform and complete text tradition of the Vita Constantini, supposedly written in Moravia before 882. Instead, by considering in particular also the nationalistic (or "patriotic") ideology expressed by a Russian Church Slavonic text known as the Skazanie o gramotě rusьstěi, a work whose oldest extant copy is found in a MS immediately following that of the Vita Constantini, Goldblatt suggests that, for the lack of information, "one cannot...advance a conjecture on either the circumstances on textual transmission for the Skazanie prior to the fifteenth century or the precise relations between its textual history and that of [the] Vita Constantini".[16] Yet the Skazanie provides the correct context in which to place the "Russian" episode of the Vita Constantini "precisely because it conveys a message conforming perfectly to the ideological atmosphere of the fifteenth-century 'Rus'ian' lands", after the defeat of the Slavs at the battle of Kosovo in 1389 and the fall of Tarnovo, the Bulgarian capital in 1393. Thus, the Greek "betrayal of Orthodoxy", with the loss of Constantinople to Muslim Ottoman Turks in 1453 was suited to reinforce the idea of a religious and cultural transfer from Byzantine and the Slavic Balkans to Muscovy. The notion of Constantine-Cyrill discovering "Russian letters" in Cherson or that he would have studied with a "Russian" in the Crimea would thus be completely acceptable, indeed welcome, in the fifteenth century Muscovy. Grounded on the belief that Moscow was, by then, the center of the true Orthodox faith, the scenario of events in Cherson would thus become a central component of the new, Muscovite ideological outlook.[17]

Another recent theory is that by Greek Slavist Tachiaos (1993-1994). The author first emphasizes that there is in fact no support for the Syriac hypothesis in the MS tradition as no single extant text of the Vita Constantini actually has the allegedly correct reading (sourьskymi), which is something one would have expected given the many witnesses of this text which have been preserved and considering the fact that letter transpositoins within a single word were indeed not an uncommon phenomenon in medieval texts. In other words, argues Tachiaos, to accept the Syriac theory one has to assume that the sour > rous- (sur- > rus-) metathesis must have occurred very early, in the very first antegraph underlying all extant MSS. He thus argues that the Vita Constantini goes back to the original version composed in Moravia immediately after Constantine's death (in 869). In order to explain the stay of the brothers in Cherson, Tachiaos claims that the Old Church Slavonic verbs obrěsti and sъkazati were used in the specialized meaning of "to receive" and "to interpret, teach, preach", rather than the common senses of "to find" and "to speak", respectively. Thus the described Cherson episode would mean that Constantine "received" a gospel text and a psalter and a man (speaking that language), and that he soon began to read it and to "preach" in it. He further suggests that Constantine, who already knew some Hebrew when he arrived in Cherson, here merely perfected his mastery of that language while learning the very beginnings of the related Samaritan language. As for the mysterious rusьskymi, Tachiaous argues that the Constantine's study of Hebrew, Samaritan and the "Rus'" languages, though repeated one after the other, must not be viewed as necessarily having occurred in close time sequence, and hence the Constantine is said to have encountered Slavs among the multiethnic population of the Crimea.

Vernadsky (1959) does not doubt at all the existence of Rus' strongholds on the Crimea in the ninth century, but moreover argues that some of the settlements must have existed in the older period of merger of Rus' (Russians) with Alanic tribes. A troop of Rus' is reported to have settled on the Crimea as early as the late eighth century, as around 790 AD the city of Surož (ancient Sugdaea, nowadays Sudak) was apparently attacked by the Rus'. The Life of St. Stefan of Surož (Žitie Stefana ispovednika, ep. Surožskago) reports of conversions to Christianity of Rus' knyaz who led the siege to the city of Surož. A certain number of Rus' followed his example, so they, having settled on the Crimea, necessarily came under the influence of their neighbours, the Greeks and the Goths. Religious rites, in which the Rus' participated, were conducted in Byzantine Greek and Gothic, depending on the locality. It is thus possible that the Rus' in a certain period might have wanted and in fact did found their own churches using their own tongue for liturgical ceremonies.[18] Consequently, the translation of the New Testament was a necessity, and it is not impossible that they arranged it, and all that was left of it was a doubtful news in Vita Constantini. As far as the alphabet is concerned, Vernadsky argues that this rusьskymi in fact could have referred to an ethnonym as well as on the Aryan word – Old Indic rocá "shining, radiant", rúci "light, lustre", Avestan raočah-, "light, esp. heavenly", Old Indic rukṣa-, = Avestan raoxšna "radiant" – and thus it could referred to an "enlightened" or "inspired" alphabet.

None of the proposed theories is flawless and escapes heavy criticism, and furthermore none enjoys widespread acceptance among Slavists. Thus in a recent study Birnbaum (1999) concludes that "This therefore is one of the remaining controversial issues of the Cyrillo-Methodian research today as much as ever".[19]


  1. Nedeljković (1965, p. 1)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Schenker (1995, p. 179)
  3. Damjanović (2004, p. 61) "Spomenici pisani glagoljicom u pravilu su primjetljivo arhaičniji po jeziku nego oni koji su pisani ćirilicom."
  4. Nedeljković (1965, p. 12)
  5. 5.0 5.1 Damjanović (2004, p. 61)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Schenker (1995, p. 180)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Nedeljković (1965, p. 13)
  8. Translated after Schenker (1995, p. 173)
  9. Schenker (1995, p. 174)
  10. Damjanović (2004, p. 170)
  11. Nedeljković (1965, p. 4)
  12. Vita Constantini, VIII, 15, lines 0-4.
  13. Birnbaum (1999, p. 9)
  14. 14.0 14.1 Birnbaum (1999, p. 11)
  15. Studia slavica mediaevalia et humanistica, Riccardo Picchio Dicata, M.Colucci et al., eds., Rome 1986, pp. 311-328
  16. Goldblatt 1986:325
  17. Birnbaum (1999, p. 12)
  18. Fermeglia (1986, p. 73)
  19. Birnbaum (1999, p. 15)


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