The Glagolitic Alphabet and its Use in Croatian Church Records

Following recent political changes in Eastern Europe, the Family History Library has had the opportunity to film extensively in the region, including in Croatia. This will be a major boon for researchers in Croatian genealogy, but the church records of many Roman Catholic parishes in Dalmatia present a unique linguistic challenge. In addition to the expected Latin language, they can be written in Italian or Croatian. The later Croatian-language records are written in the Latin alphabet, but entries prior to about 1800 (this can vary from parish to parish) are often written in the Glagolitic alphabet. This alphabet was in use nowhere but Dalmatia and its hinterland, or Istria and the Kvarner Gulf islands and coast, between the 11th and early 19th centuries. As with older stages of languages anywhere, one can expect spelling variations and archaic grammar and vocabulary. Furthermore, certain characteristics of Dalmatian dialects of Croatian are present. This paper is an introduction to these problems and provides a basic understanding of how to deal with them. It includes historical background to the alphabet and its use, a discussion of linguistic and orthographic problems, and examples of church records. The word Glagolitic comes into English most directly from glagoljica, the Croatian name for the alphabet. This in turn comes from the Old Slavic word glagol meaning “word”, or glagoljati meaning “to speak”. This itself is  based mostly likely on the root gol which, for example, is in the Russian word golos or “voice”. It is thought that the syllable was repeated: gol + gol, which in South Slavic languages became glagol. It may even have the same semantic origin as bar + bar to yield barbaros in Greek, meaning someone who did not speak Greek, and which is the source for “barbarian.” The origin of the Glagolitic alphabet itself continues to be a subject of some debate. It is now generally accepted that it was created in the 9th century by two Greeks, Constantine and Methodius, as an aid in translating biblical and liturgical works into Slavic for use in their missionary work to Great Moravia. In order to understand why the alphabet came into being and why it fell out of use except among the Croats of some Dalmatian parishes, we need to know something about Constantine and Methodius, something about the geopolitics of that part of Europe in the 9th century, and something about the religious politics of the western Balkan Peninsula. By the middle of the 9th century, the Slavic state known as Great Moravia had arisen on the Pannonian plain. The precise location and extent of Great Moravia is a matter of some debate. What is known, however, is that Pannonia had been a province of the Roman Empire that was overrun by several waves of conquest by the Huns, Goths, Avars and others. Conquest from outside meant the disruption of




Roman civil administration as well as organized religion, which by this time was Christianity. Therefore, Pannonia was a target of political and religious reconquest. From a political viewpoint, Frankish expansion that had begun under Charlemagne continued under his successors during the 9th century. This political expansion was closely associated with Christian missionary work, and Pannonia was a target of missionary activity from Aquileia, a Roman Catholic bishopric entrusted to Frankish clergy. In addition, there were perhaps missionaries working directly from Rome. By the middle of the 9th century, however, the ruler of Great Moravia, Rastislav, had become powerful enough to bar Frankish missionaries from working in his lands. This caused the Frankish ruler to form an alliance with the Bulgarian Empire, putting Rastislav in the middle of a vise. In order to conclude an alliance with the most natural alternative, the Byzantine Empire, Rastislav requested missionaries in 862 as an ecclesiastical counterbalance to the missions coming from the German church and from Rome, and a political maneuver to offset an alliance between the Franks and the Bulgarian Empire. He requested that these missionaries instruct his people using their own, Slavic, language. The Emperor Michael III and Patriarch Photios selected Constantine and Methodius to head this mission. Constantine and Methodius were brothers whose father, Leo, was a Byzantine military commander (drungarios) based in Thessalonika.1 There has been speculation that their mother may have been Slavic-speaking. What is certain is that by the middle of the 9th century, Thessalonika was a cosmopolitan center of the Byzantine Empire whose surrounding territory was inhabited primarily by speakers of a Slavic dialect. There is linguistic, onomastic and  archaeological evidence that Slavic tribes began to appear south of the Danube by the 4th century CE. During the course of the 4th to the 9th centuries, they spread southward, occupying virtually the entire Balkan Peninsula, including much of modern-day Greece. As they were converted to Christianity in the south, many became Greek-speaking, but in the northern areas of present-day Greece the hinterland remained predominantly Slavic-speaking in the 9th century. A few words about the history of Slavic languages might be helpful here. It is now generally accepted that the Slavic peoples and language developed from Indo-European approximately 2500 BCE in the area of the Pripet Marshes. By the 9th century, the westward movement of Slavicspeakers left them in territory from the Ural Mountains to west of the Elbe River and, as just noted, southward into the Balkans. This vast expansion naturally led to the development of many dialects, so that by this time, one could speak of East Slavic, West Slavic and South Slavic dialects. Therefore, whether Constantine and Methodius grew up speaking Slavic as well as Greek, or whether they learned it later, what they knew was the South Slavic dialect. Shortly after the creation of the Glagolitic alphabet, the invasion of the Finno-Ugric Magyars into the Pannonian plain, and the development of Romance-speaking Dacians into Romanians cut the Slavic speakers of the Balkans off from West and South Slavic dialects. There is evidence that the movement of Slavic-speakers south of the Danube, mentioned above, took place along two broad paths, one to the east of the Carpathians, and one across and through them. The dialects that developed on the east became Bulgarian and Macedonian, while those in the west became Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian.


Methodius was born about 815, while Constantine was younger, born in 826 or 827. The brothers were welleducated, obtaining an elementary education in Thessalonika. Methodius was for some years a Byzantine official in the area of Thessalonika, and became a monk at the most important Byzantine monastery of the day, Mount Olympus in Asia Minor. Constantine went on to study at the Imperial university in Constantinople, which provided training for those intended to serve in the Imperial administration. At first, Constantine became a deacon and was appointed librarian to the Patriarch, but later became a professor of philosophy at the university in Constantinople. Both brothers traveled as emissaries and missionaries to several areas bordering on the Byzantine Empire. With their education, diplomatic experience, knowledge of languages and closeness to the Patriarch, they were natural choices as the “teacher” that Rastislav requested. Constantine is legendarily credited with the invention of Glagolitic, while he and Methodius, and probably others, set themselves to translating parts of the Bible and Byzantine liturgical works into Slavic. They set up from Constantinople in the spring of 863 and arrived at Rastislav’s court in the fall. Constantine devoted between three and four years to instruction in Great Moravia. By this time he and Methodius wished to have their students ordained as priests and to begin developing a church hierarchy. However, it was necessary to win approval from the Pope and other clergy. They held disputations in Venice, and later went to Rome in 867. Constantine died in 869 while in Rome to obtain approval  from the Pope to use Slavic in the liturgy and for other church needs. Shortly before he died, Constantine took monastic vows and, in the process, changed his name to Cyril. Methodius worked on for another sixteen years and became bishop with his seat in Sirmium (present-day Sremska Mitrovica). However, when Methodius died in 885, the German bishops who had opposed him for years were successful in forcing his disciples and students to cease their work, and drove most of them out of Great Moravia, thus ending one of Byzantium’s major missions to the Slavs. There were two routes of flight for the scribes and teachers from Great Moravia. One group fled into the Bulgarian Empire, whose northern boundary was very near Sirmium at that time. They continued to use the Glagolitic alphabet to write in Slavic, but soon encountered an obstacle. Scribes in Bulgaria were writing in Greek or using Greek letters at this time, and the church in Bulgaria was still dominated by Greek clergy. It is likely that, at a synod in Preslav in 893, it was decided that a new Slavic alphabet would be created, this time based on the Greek alphabet. It is this alphabet that was called Cyrillic in honor of Constantine, or St. Cyril, and that is in use today. Those who advocated the use of Glagolitic went west, whether from pressure or personal choice, to Lake Ohrid, where they started a school and continued to use Glagolitic for several decades. The other group of disciples fled southwest from Moravia and Pannonia, to Byzantine possessions on the Dalmatian coast, where they also continued to use the Glagolitic alphabet. The Church in Rome attempted many  times over the next few centuries to extinguish the use of the Glagolitic alphabet and the use of a Slavic-language liturgy, but were never completely successful, judging from the number of church councils over the course of the centuries that condemned the use of Glagolitic. There is some evidence that the Glagolitic alphabet was in use in Croatia already during Methodius’ lifetime.2 This was due to the spread of the use of a Slavic-language liturgy by Methodius and his disciples. While the earliest use was surely in Pannonia, the use of a Slavic liturgy spread to the Dalmatian coast. The continued use of the Glagolitic alphabet in Croatia was inextricably connected to the acceptance or denunciation of a Slavic liturgy by the Roman Catholic Church. While definite documentary evidence is lacking, later documents indicate there were synods in Croatia in 925 and 928, held first of all to reorganize the Catholic hierarchy of Dalmatia, which was divided politically between Byzantine and Croatian territory, but which touched upon the issue of using a Slavic liturgy written in Glagolitic.3 In this instance, as in others up to the middle of the 13th century when the Pope finally authorized the use of the Slavic liturgy and Glagolitic alphabet4 , it is clear that while the Catholic Church attempted to regulate these deviations, their use was common. Extant documents written in Glagolitic date between the 11th and 19th centuries.5 They include the entire range of writing. The Glagolitic manuscript collection of the Jugoslavenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti (Yugoslav Academy of Science and Arts) in Zagreb is the largest in the world and contains: Bibles, apocrypha and legends; liturgical texts such as missals, breviaries, rituals and other materials; exorcisms and notations; prayer books; theological works; homiletics; songs; codices of assorted content such as legends, history, sermons, educational articles, etc.; regulations and statutes of religious establishments; civil registers; notarial protocols; metrical books; registers of monastic establishments; clerical account books; agricultural notes; and miscellanea. Early writing was in uncial letters, in which the scribe essentially printed or even painted characters. By the beginning of the 13th century, Glagolitic writing in Croatia began to demonstrate characteristics that differentiated from earlier forms. The primary difference was a change to angular forms of letters from more circular or curved. Uncial letters were still the norm; the tendency toward semiuncial letters which was a characteristic of Cyrillic paleography during this period was much less in evidence in Glagolitic. By the end of the 14th century, the use of cursive writing was common in non-liturgical texts. In cursive writing, letters were often connected and could be moved up or down with respect to the line of other letters. Letters of the alphabet were used to denote numbers. Figure 3 presents the Glagolitic alphabet together with the Latin alphabet equivalent and the numerical value of the letters. The most commonly used abbreviations are “gn” for gospodin (lord in both theological and secular meanings), “gnov” or “gv” for “lord’s”, and “st” for svet (Holy). Letters used as numbers and abbreviations were denoted by a “titla”, a line above two or three letters. This line appears to connect two dots, and can be slanted or horizontal. When used with numbers, one may find a form of punctuation preceding the numeral. When used with an abbreviation, only the root or base word itself is abbreviated, while the inflected ending is written out. For example, the word gospodin (Lord), is abbreviated with either “g” or “gn,” but “Lord’s” is written gospodinova or abbreviated “gva”. This should appear in every record, in the phrase “in the year of Our Lord” which in Croatian is v godinu gospodinovu or godina gospodinova. Figure 4 lists ligatures. The use of ligatures was common, and some letters could occasionally be written above the rest.


Stefanic  provides a list of common variants of some letters, which appears here as figure 5. Some of the letters require further explanation, especially when trying to find words in a modern dictionary. The letters Stefanic calls “jor” or “jer” or “semivowel (poluglas)” are vestiges of an historical development in Slavic languages. They are vowels that were at one time pronounced, but which over the course of time lost any value. They remain only to indicate whether the preceding consonant was palatalized or not. Since South Slavic languages have lost palatalization, there is no longer any need for their use. Therefore, once these letters have been transcribed, they should be deleted to yield modern orthography. The letter “jat” should generally be transcribed “e” or “ie” except when it appears by itself, when it should be transcribed as “ja” and is the first person singular nominative pronoun “I”. The language of the Dalmatian church records, whether written in Glagolitic, or later in Latin alphabet, requires some discussion. It is Croatian, but with some archaic forms, with variants particular to the Dalmatian coast, especially in orthography. As with many European languages, spelling norms were codified and taught only in the 19th century. Since the use of the Glagolitic alphabet in church records predates the establishment of orthographic and linguistic norms, one must expect variation.


Modern  orthography for Croatian is very phonetic and, luckily, this holds true for pre-standardization spelling as well. The most common archaic form is the aorist form of the verb. The aorist is a simple past tense, where the ending for the aorist in the first person singular is the letter “h”. Since the parish priest who had performed the rite described in the record was generally the scribe, the most common verb form is the first person singular. In modern Croatian the past tense is a compound verb, formed by the present tense of the verb “to be,” which in the first person singular is sam, and a participle that agrees in gender with the subject of the verb. Hence, in older texts, “I baptized” is krstih, while in modern Croatian it is krstio sam (masculine). One will also encounter the aorist form “bi” of the verb biti (to be) together with a participle, generally in the passive voice: bi nadiveno for “was given (the name of …)”. Dialects of modern Croatian (and Serbian) are divided into broad categories on the basis of two characteristics. One is the word for “what?” There are three forms: sto, ca, and kaj, so dialects may be stokavian, cakavian or kajkavian. The second characteristic is the modern reflex of the archaic vowel known as “jat”. The three possibilities are: e, ije (or je) and i, hence ekavian, ijekavian and ikavian dialects. The most common dialect groups are stokavian and ekavian (most Serbian dialects and standard literary Serbian); stokavian and ijekavian (some Montenegrin dialects, most dialects in Bosnia, many dialects from Slavonia and Croatia proper, as well as standard literary Croatian); kajkavian of any variety (northern Croatian dialects tending toward Slovenian) and cakavian and ikavian (most Dalmatian dialects). Dictionaries of Croatian (or Serbo-Croatian) provide spellings that are from the standard literary norm. Hence the words in the Glagolitic texts that have the vowel “i” that has come from “yat” will not be spelled with “i” in standard dictionaries, but rather with “e” or “ije/je”. Another common Dalmatian dialect characteristic that is typical in modern usage and appears in older texts is the use of “a” instead of “o” in masculine verb particles, so that, for example, the standard Croatian form for the masculine particle of the verb “to be” is bio, while in Dalmatian dialects it is bia. Another common feature is the use of the letter “n” instead of “m” at the end of a word, so “I was,” which in standard Croatian for masculine is Jas am bio can appear in Dalmatian dialects as Ja san bia. The letter “r” demonstrates some linguistic difficulties in several Slavic languages. It can be either a consonant or a vowel. Consequently, in many of the records in question the scribe will add a vowel before an “r,” whether it is a consonant or vowel. So one can find karstih instead of krstih (=I baptized), or gerih instead of grih (standard Croatian grijeh), (=sin) By the time of the earliest registration of church records, scribes were separating words by a space. Hyphenation of any sort at the end of a line was not provided, however. There was also a class of words that were not written separately. These are words that have no inherent stress and are attached in speech to either the following or preceding word; the linguistic term is clitics. Proclitics are attached to the following word, and in Croatian include prepositions and conjunctions. Enclitics are attached to the preceding word and include short forms of pronouns, the reflexive particle “se” and the present tense of the verb “to be”. There are six types of records that are common: birth (baptism), marriage, death, confirmation, status animarum (given in family groups), and anniversary memorials. This latter type is a list in calendar order of those for whom prayers are said on the anniversary of their death. Some church books may include other material such as a list of members or rules of a religious order. Below I provide some examples of church records written in the Glagolitic alphabet in Croatian, with transcription, translation and commentary. I have written abbreviations out in full by adding the missing letters in parentheses, have written clitics separately, and have provided modern punctuation in the translations.


Fig. 6 – 1659 birth register from Filipjakov

Godiste g(ospodino)ve 1659 na 15 aprila bi u crikvu donesena kci Matia Kuzenovica i Mare negove zene ja dom Jurai Mirkovic parohiar S.S. Filipa i Jakova ispunih s(ve)t(e) ceremonie ostavlene nakarsteniu i s(ve)t diticici koiu e pravo karstia kako e meni reka Ivan sin Mikule Luketina at radi pogibie smartne bizeci od turak i nadih ioi ime Anastazia kum io bia Sime Matosic i Jove Paregic. The year of our Lord 1659, on the 15th of April. The daughter of Matija Kuzenovic and Mara, his wife, was brought into church. I, Don Juraj Mirkovic, parish priest of Sts. Philip and Jacob, carried the sacrament of holy baptism, and baptized her. Ivan, son of Mikula Luketin, told me [that the parents] had died running from the Turks. And the name of Anastasia was given. The godparents were Sime Matosic and Jove Paregic. Comments: This scribe appears to write “e” when “o” is meant on occasion. He also does not always provide jotation, i.e., writing “j” before a vowel, especially before “e”. He often writes “o” as a superscript, and in the word pravo writes “pr” as a ligature. Note the regular use of cursive “i”.


Godista gospodinova 1760 na 1 juna ja don Sime Marat od Biograda po dopuscenu p(a)roha g(ospodi)na don Mik[in?]a toksi karstih diticici rocenu na 1 juna od zakonitih zarucnika Marka Curkovica i Mande Katarica negove prave zene oba od ove parokije i varosa kojoi ditecici stavih ime Justina kum bih ja don Sime Marat i kuma Angelia Petanuva. In the year of our Lord 1760, on the 1st of June. I, Don Sime Marat of Biograd, with the approval of the parish priest, Don Mikin (?), baptized a female child born the 1st of June of lawfully married parents Marko Curkovic and Manda Kataric, his true wife, both of this parish and town. The child was given the name Justina. I was the godfather, and the godmother was Angelia Petanuva.

1765 na 25 setembra bihu zdruzeni u s(ve)tu zenidbu Miko Dapikul zvane z’ Franicu kcer p. Jiva Cutula ki su bili napovidani u tri dnevi svetacni i te iste napovidi bihu ucinene u cri(k)ve obicaine od kuratie kako zapovida s(ve)ta crikva i kuncilii tridentinski kih zdruzih u crikvi s(ve)te Stosie u mojoi kuratii svidoci Tome Brusic p. Mika i sudac Jure Segulic Pop Jivan Bucul kurato. 1765, on the 25th of September, were joined in holy matrimony Miko, called Dapikul, with Franica, daughter of Ivo Cutul. The banns had been read on three Sundays and in church by the clergy as the Holy Church and the Council of Trent so order. They were married in the church of St. Anastasia in my parish. Witnesses were Tome Brusic, Father Mika (priest) and the judge Jure Segulic. [signed] Father Ivan Bucul, curate.



1680 miseca nov(e)nbra dan 8 kada se rodi sin Maretin Matia Markocica a karseti s(e) na 10 nov(e)nbra i karstih ea do(n) Franic Marketic plovan a to karestih u crikevi s(vet)e Marij(e) kum bi paro(n) Mati Mori(n) a kuma Mara zena pokojnoga Matia Garzana otac Matij Marekocic a mati Mara zena negova. 1680, in the month of November, the 8th day was born Maretin, son of Matije Markocic. He was baptized on the 10th of November, and I, Don Franic Marketic, priest, baptized him in the church of St. Mary. The godfather was Mr. Mati Morin, and the godmother was Mara, widow of the late Matije Garzan. The father was Matije Markocic and the mother Mara, his wife.


by Gordon L. McDaniel



1. The best source in English for the lives and activities of Constantine and Methodius is Dvornik, with some different interpretations from Boba. 2. John V.A. Fine, Jr., Early Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), p. 280-281. 3. John V.A. Fine, Jr., The Late Medieval Balkan: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987), 152. 4. Francis Dvornik, Byzantine Missions Among the Slavs : SS. Constantine-Cyril and Methodius (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1970), p. 231. 5. My discussion of the linguistic and paleographic characteristics of Glagolitic documents is derived from the introduction written by Stefanic for his two volume description of the Glagolitic manuscripts of the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences, the largest repository by far of such manuscripts.


Banac, Ivo. “Main trends in the Croat language question.” Aspects of the Slavic Language Question. Vol. 1: Church Slavonic, South Slavic, West Slavic, 189-260. Boba, Imre. Moravia’s History Reconsidered: A Reinterpretation of Medieval Sources. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971. Fine, John V.A. Early Medieval Balkans: a Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Fine, John V.A. The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987. Dvornik, Francis. Byzantine Missions Among the Slavs : SS. Constantine-Cyril and Methodius. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1970. Stefanic, Vjekoslav. Glagoljski rukopisi Yugoslavenske akademije (Glagolitic manuscripts of the Yugoslav Academy). Zagreb: Jugoslavenska akademija znanosti i umjetnosti, 1969-1970.




About sooteris kyritsis

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