Old Church Slavonic is the name given to the language that is preserved in several manuscripts and a few inscriptions originating from the regions of the Moravian Empire, situated between the Vistula River and the easternmost extent of Carolingian influence, and the Bulgarian Empire, extending from the lower reaches of Macedonia in the south up beyond the Danube in the north. These are the regions of the first missionary work among the Slavs by the monks Cyril and Methodius, who devised in the 9th century AD the first full-fledged writing system to represent the indigenous language. The documents that survive are primarily ecclesiastical. They were produced in a religious tradition that used Old Church Slavonic as the liturgical medium very much the way Latin was used in the Roman Catholic Church.
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Although Old Church Slavonic (OCS) is the oldest documented Slavic language, it is not the language from which the other Slavic languages evolved any more than Sanskrit is the language from which the other Indo-European languages evolved. Rather, OCS is now thought to be a dialect of one of the branches of the Slavic languages.
We may imagine that the community which later became Slavic speakers was at some time a dialect group of Proto-Indo-European (PIE). When the speech community became sufficiently separated from other PIE speakers to allow for independent language evolution, over time their dialect developed into what we may term Common Slavic (CS) or Proto-Slavic (PSl). Subsequently the same process happened again whereby, through the course of migration and the vying for power of different neighboring and internal kingdoms or empires, divisions of the Common Slavic speech community became isolated from one another. By the time of Late Common Slavic (LCS), three distinct dialects had emerged: East, West, and South Slavic. Modern examples of this dialectal division would be Russian in the East, Czech and Polish in the West, and Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian in the South.
Certain linguistic features show Old Church Slavonic to be a member of the South Slavic group of languages. For instance, the front nasal ę of LCS retains its front quality in South Slavic, whereas it develops a back quality in both the East and West dialects. Thus OCS has męso where Czech, for example, has maso. Likewise, South Slavic retains the nasal ę in the accusative plural of ja-stem nouns, whereas in East and West Slavic the nasality is lost. Hence OCS konję in contrast to Old Russian koně (East Slavic) and Polish konie (West Slavic).
It is supposed, however, that in the 9th century the dialectal differences were still minor enough that mutual intelligibility was possible across a wide expanse of the Slavic-speaking community. This view is supported by the fact that the efforts of Cyril and Methodius were conducted through the medium of OCS alone; presumably they chose this language so that their translations would be suitable for conversion of the pan-Slavic community. It is not quite clear to what degree the language of the OCS manuscripts resembles the actual spoken language of the region. It is often assumed that the language is the same as that which was spoken in the centuries preceding the work of Cyril and Methodius; but by the time the extant manuscripts were written, the actual spoken language was beginning to diverge from the written language. Nevertheless, the written language continued to exert an influence of its own, even beyond the regions of its origin. For example, in the 11th century one finds in Old Russian, on the geographical extremity of the Slavic community, constant stylistic and lexical borrowings from OCS as its own literature develops.
The precise location of the archaic homeland of the Slavs is little more than conjecture. Most estimations center on a region bounded by the Bug river to the west, the Pripjat to the north, the Don to the east, and the Dnieper to the south. But there is no consensus, and these tentative boundaries shift depending on the particular linguistic or cultural attributes being discussed. Often linguistic evidence is cited in the defense of geographic conjectures. For example, the words for 'yew' and 'ivy' are native to LCS (Russian tis, pljušč), but the term for 'beech' is a loanword (Russian buk, cf. German Buche). Hence it is assumed that the beech tree cannot be native to the original Slavic-speaking area, and because the easternmost extent of the red beech is along a line extending from modern Kaliningrad (Koenigsberg) to the mouth of the Danube, the Slavs could not have lived west of this line.
A few tribes mentioned in Greek and Latin writings from the first few centuries AD are thought to be Slavic. The earliest references come from the first century AD, where the terms Venedi or Veneti presumably refer to Slavs. These terms appear in the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder and the Germania of Tacitus, and are maintained in the German Wendisch as a term for Lusatian. In the second century Claudius Ptolemy uses the Greek Ouenedai in his work De geographia, and refers to the Baltic Sea as the Venedic Gulf. He claims that the Venedae lived to the north of the Goths, to the west of the Baltic tribes, and to the south of the Finns. Later the term Venetae is used in the sixth century by Jordanus, and then by Procopius, to denote both the Antes and the Sclaveni. They are agreed to have spoken the same language over a wide territory between the Dniester and Dnieper rivers; they appear to have migrated to the area after the Huns drove out the Goths in the fifth century.
From here various groups seem to have split off and migrated to the south and west. The ancestors of the East Slavs remained for the most part sedentary while the West Slavs pushed farther into Germany, though they were forced to retreat over the following centuries. The ancestors of the South Slavs pushed south into the Balkans and beyond to Greece, but were driven back from Greece in the next century. The South Slavs and West Slavs maintained contact over the region of Pannonia, but this was cut off with the advent of the Hungarians in the 9th century AD and the eastward expansion of the Germans. The South Slavs were isolated from the East Slavs with the growth of the Rumanians.
LCS includes lexical borrowings from what must have been neighboring speech communities. Political and military vocabulary items were borrowed from the Germanic peoples to the west, such as Gmc. *kuningaz 'king' ~ LCS *kŭnędzĭ 'prince', Gmc. *doms 'judgement' ~ LCS *duma 'thought', Gmc. *helmaz ~ LCS *šelmĭ 'helmet'. A few spiritual elements were borrowed from the Indo-Iranian speech community: notably LCS *bogŭ 'god' and *bogatŭ 'rich' correspond to Avestan baga 'god', Sanskrit bhagas 'distributor' and bhagavant- 'honorable', and Phrygian (Zeus) Bagaios 'lord'. Similarities with the Baltic languages are so great that some suggest a common Balto-Slavic branch of PIE. The contacts of the Slavic speakers with these three different speech communities provide another set of clues to their original location.
The OCS vocabulary, for its part, shows evidence of previous missionary work which had converted many of the Slavs to the Christian doctrine espoused by the Western Church. This was achieved primarily through the work of German priests, so that one finds a core Church vocabulary in OCS derived from Latin or German. Hence OCS olŭtarĭ 'altar' derives from Old High German altari < Lat. altare, and OCS crĭky 'church' comes from OHG chirihha < Grk. kuriakon. Other terms were literal translations, or calques, of their German counterparts, e.g. OCS ne-priěznĭ for OHG un-holdo 'devil'.
Despite the dialectal variation of the spoken Slavic languages, the language of the church remained quite consistent. It also remained the primary medium of the liturgy for centuries, though it underwent some changes through the course of time. Hence the terminology Church Slavonic or Church Slavic and, for the oldest documents, Old Church Slavonic or Old Church Slavic. In addition to its use in the ecclesiastical setting, Church Slavonic also remained for several centuries the literary language in various parts of the East and West Slavic speaking areas. Because of the Balkan origin of the earliest manuscripts, OCS is at times termed Old Bulgarian, though this nomenclature has fallen out of fashion.
There are no clear-cut events or finds that identify the period of Old Church Slavonic. Linguists and historians, however, have for the most part settled upon a convention. The earliest date for the OCS period is given by our estimation of the missions of Cyril and Methodius in the middle of the ninth century. The latest date for OCS is given as roughly 1100, after which it seems that manuscripts have more linguistic variation than they did before. Thus one may speak of the OCS period as extending from ca. 850 - 1100 AD. This is certainly an oversimplification, since the language spoken by Cyril and Methodius must have been in use for quite some time prior to their work, and there are later texts that show definite affinity with the OCS discussed in grammars.
The OCS corpus, limited to this time frame, is actually rather small. There are five manuscripts containing various portions of the Gospel. Next to these stand three other manuscripts, in which are contained a prayer-book, part of a missal, hymns, sermons, and saints' lives. The oldest dated Slavic text is a gravestone inscription erected in 993 by Samuel -- of Armenian ancestry according to one primary source -- who later became Tsar and established the so-called Western Bulgarian Empire centered around Ohrid in what is now Macedonia. (N.B. We take no position on any ethnic/cultural association of Samuel with modern groups/entities; see our Blog post for details.) Several manuscripts from Russian-speaking areas are dated before 1100, but these have such East Slavic characteristics that they are excluded from discussions of the OCS corpus proper.
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Most but not all language courses taught at The University of Texas concern modern languages; sometimes courses are offered in ancient languages, though more often at the graduate level. Slavic language courses are taught in the Department of Slavic & Eurasian Studies (link opens in a new browser window). Other online language courses for college credit are offered through the University Extension (new window).