On the origin of the Glagolitic alphabet

1. Introduction The emergence of a new alphabet is influenced by other existing scripts, but the incorporation of various sources into that alphabet may be attributed to a specific individual. The creator’s mind functions as a locus where accumulated experiences and knowledge of various script systems and considerations of political, religious, and social needs interact. For instance, Ulfilas created the Gothic alphabet in order to translate the Christian Bible in the fourth century by adopting an uncial Greek alphabet form and incorporating several Latin and Runic letters. The Armenian alphabet, devised in the beginning of the fifth century by Saint Mesrop Mashtots in order to preach to Armenians, integrates the Semitic-based Parsi script of Iran (Pahlavi) on the pattern of Greek. This paper is devoted to another case of this sort, exploring the origin of Glagolitic, allegedly the first Slavic script. The question of the origin of Glagolitic is more complicated than the cases of the aforementioned scripts, even if not completely obscure, because so many ancient scripts were named as Glagolitic’s models that it is hard to pinpoint which script contributed and to what extent. The purpose of this paper is to weigh various arguments in favor of distinct sources and to evaluate the role of the creator and the influences of possible sources in the emergence of Glagolitic. It has been generally accepted that Saints Constantine-Cyril and Methodius and their Moravian school commenced the codification of the first Slavic literary language in the ninth century.

The Moravian prince Rastislav sent a message to Michael III, the Byzantine emperor, asking him to send a bishop and teacher who could preach to the newly converted Moravians in their native tongue. Michael III chose two brothers-monks, Constantine and Methodius from Thessaloniki of Macedonia, since they were native speakers of a Slavic dialect (Old Bulgarian). They went to Moravia (863 AD) with liturgical books and Gospels translated into Slavic and transcribed in the new Slavic alphabet they created. After the brothers’ deaths, their disciples continued their missionary work in other Slavic regions. Although the story of Constantine’s Moravian mission tells us about the creation of only one alphabet, there are in fact two Slavic alphabets, Glagolitic (glagolica) and Cyrillic (kirillica), used to transcribe Old Church Slavonic. In the field of Slavic philology, there have been heated debates on the origin of the two Slavic alphabets, centering on the following issues: which script appeared first; whether there existed an unknown proto-Slavic script before the two alphabets emerged; and what scripts influenced (or evolved into) the two alphabets. The first question was resolved on a relatively firm ground on the basis of philological evidence in favor of the precedence of Glagolitic. However, the other two inter-connected queries have not obtained sufficiently clear answers. This paper addresses these questions, focusing on Glagolitic.

I first explore the possibility of a proto-Slavic script in Section 2, by examining controversial phrases from several historical manuscripts. I provide critical assessments of various arguments on the issue and suggest a reasonable medium. In Section 3, the question of the influence of other scripts is examined in terms of the structural and formal aspects of the Glagolitic system. I seek possible models for the Glagolitic system by comparing the organization and forms of Glagolitic letters with those of other alphabets. Section 4 contains concluding remarks. 2. A proto-Slavic script? The general consensus regarding the issue of precedence between Glagolitic and Cyrillic is that the former appeared before the latter (contra Istrin 1963, Georgiev 1964), based on the facts that: (i) the oldest extant Slavic manuscripts are written in Glagolitic; (ii) traces of Glagolitic writing are recognized in some palimpsests, under a new layer of Cyrillic text, but not vice versa; and (iii) there are a few manuscripts in which the main text is written in Glagolitic and notes in Cyrillic are added later in the margin, but no document has been found with Glagolitic notes and Cyrillic text.1 These pieces of evidence strongly support the primacy of Glagolitic. Who then created Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets? If the Slavs did not have their own script before Constantine-Cyril’s Moravian mission, and if Glagolitic preceded Cyrillic, the logical conclusion would be that Glagolitic is Constantine’s creature. 2 However, a few historical narrative sources contain phrases that might counter this conclusion.3

2.1 Arguments for a proto-Slavic script

There are two major manuscripts that have long puzzled Slavists: Vita Constantini (Žitie Konstantina filasofa, henceforth VC) ‘The Life of Constantine’ and Xrabr’s treatise O pis’menax ‘On Letters.’ VC is about Saint Constantine-Cyril’s life and his missions to the Saracens, the Khazars, and the Slavs of Moravia. The oldest copy of this text is no older than the fifteenth century, but it is presumed that the original text was written following Constantine’s death (869) by his brother Methodius. Chapter VIII of this manuscript contains a passage about what Constantine found when he went to Cherson in Crimea: And he found there a Gospel and Psalter written in Rus’ian letters. He also found a man who spoke that language. And having conversed with him, he acquired the meaning of this speech; and by comparing it with his own language, he differentiated the letters, vowels from consonants. And addressing a prayer to God, He quickly began to read and interpret. And many people marveled at him, praising God. (Emphasis is mine. English translation is quoted from Goldblatt 1986: 312)4 The phrase rusъskymi pismeny (‘in Russian letters’) has led to heated debates on the existence of the proto-Slavic alphabet before Constantine’s Moravian mission. Among a number of theories that attempt to interpret the phrase, I here limit my discussion to representative ones for the sake of space.

The extant interpretations are split in terms of whether the word “Russian” is intended for its lexical meaning (‘of Rusъ’) or not. The first direction, in favor of the authentic reading, was taken mostly by Russian and Bulgarian scholars, who claimed the existence of a pre-Constantine script (e.g., E. Georgiev 1956, 1964; V. Istrin 1963). The second direction was adhered to mainly by West European and American scholars, including R. Jakobson (1944) and H. Lunt (1958/1962, 1964). But a few other arguments based on innovative analyses of the (inter)textual context, such as those by Goldblatt (1986) and Tachiaos (1993), have also been raised. If the phrase in question was actually authentic, there would be no choice but to assume that the author of VC indeed intended to say that a Slavic alphabet was in use when Constantine went to Cherson. The construal of “Russian” as indicating Rusъ, that is, Old Scandinavian (Varangians), was suggested by scholars such as Francis Dvorník (1933) and Tadensz Lehr-Spławiński (1959). This Gothic hypothesis, however, was soon rejected because it was unlikely that Gospel and Psalter were translated into pagan Varangians’ language. The most dramatic and adventurous interpretation of the given phrase has perhaps been to accept the phrase as indicating ‘Slavic,’ arguing that there indeed was a pre-Constantine Slavic script used in writing and translating. This hypothesis finds supporting evidence in a passage in Xrabr’s treatise O pis’menax ‘On Letters’: Earlier the Slavs did not have letters but by means of strokes and carvings they deciphered (read) and counted (divined), being pagan. And when they were baptized, they had to write their Slavic speech with Roman and Greek letters without design. Because how could one adequately write with Greek letters bogъ or životъ or ʒělo or crьky or čajanie or širota or ědь or ądu or junostь or ęzykъ or other similar words? And so it was for many years. (English translation is adapted from Schenker 1995: 173)

In this passage, the Slavs are reported to decipher and count, using “strokes and carvings” (črъtami i rězami), which have been interpreted by certain scholars as indicating a preliminary form of alphabet. However, as Franklin (2002: 89-90) reasonably notes, although it may be taken for granted that some signs and marks, pictures and symbols, were probably used to represent certain meanings, the use of “strokes and carvings” does not necessarily indicate that the Slavs had an elaborate alphabet system like Glagolitic. Franklin argues that it is more natural to regard them as visual signs for commercial needs or fortune-telling. Hypotheses of proto-Slavic letters identify the script with various ancient scripts, including ancient Indian Brahmi syllabic script (Seriakov 1997), pre-Sumarian script from Mesopotamia, Cretan Linear A and B inscriptions (Sotiroff 1970, Grinevich 1993, Serafimov 2008), and many other candidates.5 For instance, Sotiroff (1970) suggests that the formal similarity between Linear B alphabets and Glagolitic supports the possibility that Glagolitic is an inherited form of the ancient Mycenaean script. However, arguments in favor of the existence of a proto-Slavic alphabet (as an elaborate alphabet system) are largely discredited when the low cultural level of the Slavs of that period is taken into consideration. In addition, many of the arguments are only based on the similarities of letter shapes of remote ancient scripts and ignore the lack of soundmatching between similar letters. Crucially, the formal similarities themselves are not as rigid as suggested.6

In terms of the question of a pre-Constantine script, Xrabr’s passage actually offers a more realistic possibility. Xrabr states that the Slavs used Greek and Roman letters without additional formal elaborations, to transliterate Slavic speech. This is also supported by the existence of several ancient Bulgarian epigraphic monuments, the Byzantine renditions of Slavic proper names in Greek, and Latin transliterations of Church Slavonic originals. Bulgarian scholar Emil Georgiev (1963) is the most active defender of the theory that there was a Greek-based pre-Constantine writing alphabet, of which no extant examples have been preserved.7 As Xrabr complained, however, the Greek and Roman adaptation to Slavic speech must have been too primitive to be regarded as an independent alphabet, mostly due to the difficulty of expressing Slaviconly sounds. Constantine and Methodius, as Greek Church scholars, must have been well versed in Greek and Latin. They cannot have construed an adaptation scheme, with a similar appearance to Greek/Roman, as a “Slavic” script, and thus it would not have been described as “Russian letters” in VC. In contrast, Glagolitic, with its innovative and artificial character, cannot have been regarded as an outcome of the natural evolution of Greek adaptation to Slavic speech. The passage from the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum indicating that “a certain Greek, Methodius by name, has with deceitful sophistry degraded the Latin language and the Roman doctrine as well as the authority of Latin books through the use of newly invented Slavic letters” (Schenker 1995: 167) supports this position. Schenker argues that the emphasis on the distinct nature of the alphabet created by Constantine shows that the alphabet was not a mere adaptation of Greek or Roman letters to the needs of Slavs.


JUNG Hakyung

Seoul National University, KOREA


1 See Matejka (1963), Schenker (1995), among others, for more discussion of the evidence in favor of the precedence of Glagolitic over Cyrillic.

2 It is unclear when the first alphabet began to be called Glagolitic (glagolica). The Cyrillic script (kirillica), which appeared after the Glagolitic, was named after Constantine-Cyril.The Russian copyist named Upir’ Lixoj mentions in a postscript that his Cyrillic copy of The Prophet Daniel is a transliteration of the original text in Glagolitic (is kurilovice). As this transliteration was accomplished in 1047, it is reasonable to assume that the Glagolitic alphabet was known as kurylovica (kyrilovica; kyrilica) in the first period of Russian literary culture. This label was subsequently transferred to an alphabet, which was created not by Constantine-Cyril but by his followers (Matejka 1963: 162).

3 It has been conjectured that this name appeared in Croatia in the fourteenth century (Comrie and Corbett 2002: 29).

4 All English translations of Glagolitic and Cyrillic passages in this paper are either mine or adapted from the specified sources, with reference to the original texts in Lavrov (1930/1966).

5 See Franklin (2002: 91-93) for his refutation of arguments for a proto-Slavic or preConstantine (Cyrillic) script.

6 Of course, the structural and formal similarities of letters from various sources and Glagolitic in itself should not be ignored in the exploration of the origins of Glagolitic, although some of the suggested similarities are not sufficiently reliable. As will be seen in Section 3, these kinds of similarities indicate that Glagolitic was modeled on other scripts, including the three “holy” languages of that time (Greek, Hebrew, Latin).

7 He does not deny that the Glagolitic script was Constantine’s creation, but he maintains that Cyrillic is still the older script, deriving from cursive Greek.

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