Category Archives: Old Church Slavonic

Slavonic-Romanian etymological disputes

One of the fun aspects of reading Old Church Slavonic texts is encountering vocabulary that has disappeared from most modern Slavonic languages, but which persists as a loanword into Romanian even in the everyday conversational language. I thought I had found another example in Matthew 20:30–34:

и сє дъва слѣпьса сѣдѧшта при пѫти слъішавъша ꙗко иисѹсъ мимо ходитъ възъпистє глагол҄ѭшта помилѹи нъі господи съінѹ давъідовъ | народъ жє запрѣти има да ѹмльчитє | она жє пачє въпьꙗашєтє глагол҄ѭшта помилѹи нъі господи съінѹ давъідовъ | и ставъ иисѹсъ възгласи ꙗ и рєчє чьто хоштєта да сътвор҄ѭ вама | глаголастє ємѹ господи да отврьзєтє сѧ наю очи | милосрьдовавъ жє иисѹсъ прикоснѫ сѧ очью има и абьє прозьрѣстє и по н҄ємь идєтє |
And, behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. And the multitude rebuked them, because they should hold their peace: but they cried the more, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David. And Jesus stood still, called them, and said, What will ye that I shall do unto you? They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened. So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him.

The key word here is абьє ‘immediately’. Romanian has the very similar-looking word abia which has the following definitions in the 1998 edition of the Dicționar explicativ al limbii române (I’m translating into English): With difficulty, painstakingly. 2. (quantitative, intensive) very little, almost nothing. 3. (temporal) for a very short time; as soon as, right when; just then, just now. 4. at least; if only. The meanings line up, phonetically the word is almost the same, so surely they’re related.

I was surprised then to see that DEX ’98 derives the Romanian word from Latin ad vix. Alexandru Ciorănescu’s Dicționarul etimologic român (Tenerife: Universidad de la Laguna, 1958–1966) gives the same etymology and even adds the assertion Cihac’s hypothesis that the word is based on Slavonic abije is mistaken. But ad vix seems entirely impossible on phonetic grounds, as it would give in Romanian something like ˣabes.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to add this to the list of Slavonic etymologies that Romanian linguists, for reasons of national pride or whatever, are unwilling to accept even when they are staring them in the face.

Text and translation from Codex Suprasliensis

Many of the reading selections in Robert Auty’s Handbook of Old Church Slavonic: Part II Texts and Glossary (London: The Athlone Press, 1960) present little challenge as they are from the OCS translation of the New Testament and so are already familiar to the student. However, one selection sure to be unknown to readers is the life of St Gregory from the East Bulgarian manuscript Codex Suprasliensis. I have placed the original text and a translation of the selection on my website.

The page uses an extravaganza of web standards that are not supported by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, such the q (quote) and abbr (abbreviation) tags and setting fonts based on the language of each portion as communicated by the xml:lang attribute. If you can’t see the page properly and use IE, consider switching to Firefox. If you use Firefox or another decent browser and still can’t see the page properly, please send me a screenshot.

The limitations of Unicode’s Cyrillic block as it now stands became especially irksome while I was typing the OCS original. Like every OCS manuscript written with the Cyrillic alphabet, the text makes use of iotified-A, but for some inexplicable reason this is not in Unicode and so I’ve been forced to use u+044f cyrillic small letter ya. I was able to include the titlon and palalisation sign, and I could add the Cyrillic-space breathing marks (which are, of course, meaningless in OCS), but there seems to be no specific Cyrillic-block circumflex accent.

Two literary bits

A quick remark about two books I’ve discovered recently.

Alexander M. Schenker’s The Dawn of Slavic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) is concerned with the historical and cultural events of Slavic ethnogenesis, but it also has such an extensive presentation of Old Church Slavonic that it may be fairly counted among OCS primers, comparing quality-wise with Gardiner’s not so hot but still somewhat useful Old Church Slavonic: An Elementary Grammar (Cambridge University Press, 1984). If you follow the link to’s page for Schenker’s book, ignore the sole reviewer, who is simply a moron.

Robert I. Binnick’s Time and the Verb (Oxford University Press, 1991), surely an allusion to the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, is the most amusingly titled linguistics work I have encountered yet. It is an introduction to tense and aspect.

(Relatively) recent Old Church Slavonic primer

Coming from a little-known European academic publisher, LINCOM EUROPA, and unavailable for sale in the U.S., Boris Gasparov’s 2001 primer Old Church Slavonic (ISBN 3895868892) was a pleasant surprise. The book is generally a synchronic treatment of the artificial language that we find in the manuscripts, with few references to Proto-Indo-European. Still, Prof Gasparov does bring in historical matters to explain the semi-improvisational character of OCS, as in, for example, the variant dental palatalisations and the sigmatic aorist’s idiosyncratic inflection coming from earlier phonological constraints. The book also devotes more space to issue of syntax than other grammars I know, showing just how much the translators strove to preserve Greek word order.

The only reading provided is the life of the holy martyr Basiliscus from Codex Suprasliensis, 18, just a single paragraph. Reading and analysis follow. The bibliography is similarly meagre, containing just some popular readers and primers and leaving out monographs or journal articles that someone with a new grasp of OCS could move on to.

Gasparov’s book is a much more usable text for the beginner than Lunt’s intimidating and over-detailed Old Church Slavonic (De Gruyter, 7th ed. 2001), a reference grammar too often recommended as a primer, though for the Indo-Europeanist Nandriș‘s Handbook of Old Church Slavonic: I. Grammar (Athlone Press, 1959) is in my opinion still the best choice. It is a pity that this book by Gasparov book sunk like a rock; I only found it while browsing the shelves at the University of Chicago’s library.

OCS additions to Unicode’s Cyrillic block

Using Unicode to digitise an Old Church Slavonic document requires some truly unpleasant compromises, as anyone who has attempted to do so has sorely found out. For example, I’m perpetually irked by the fact that the Unicode Consortium refuses to assign a position for iotified Cyrillic A, telling people to use U+044F CYRILLIC SMALL LETTER YA, which is normally used for the modern Cyrillic letter that looks like a reversed Latin R (я). R.M. Cleminson, professor of Slavonic studies at the University of Portsmouth—who, incidentally, was instrumental in Unicode’s recent inclusion of Glagolitic—has decided to fight the power and is writing a proposal to the Unicode Technical Committee for the inclusion of these vitally needed characters. A draft of the proposal is available for viewing and Prof Cleminson welcomes comments from those who are clued up about historical Slavonic orthography and Unicode standards.

Sigmatic Aorist II: OCS

Continuing from the last post on the sigmatic aorist in Latin, I turn to Bridget Drinka’s examination of this matter in Old Church Slavonic. This will be brief, due to being occupied by other matters at university.

While Drinka shows that the sigmatic aorist in Latin is in general a very late innovation, her goal for Slavonic is to show that the lengthened grade, traditionally reconstructed for a sigmatic aorist in Proto-Indo-European, is a Slavonic innovation. We can suppose that lengthening of the root vowel occurs due to the loss of the some consontant alone, since Slavonic adopted such strict rules for compounds, and there is no need to suppose such a grade in the proto-language. To take the verb rešti, for example, we see that in the infinitive there is no lengthening, but in the aorist rěše there is. This final form could have come through application of ruki—which, as Drinka explains, was a wandering innovation slowly spreading across the eastern IE languages—from earlier rēs-, which in turn has it lengthened vowel due to the loss of the velar in the proto-form *rek-s.

Old Church Slavonic primers

The various Old Church Slavonic primers that have been written over the past hundred years are of varying quality. Among the worst for this student of historical linguistics are Lunt’s Old Church Slavonic Grammar, which is purely synchronic and written from the viewpoint of structual linguistics, and Gardiner’s Old Church Slavonic : An Elementary Grammar, which is also synchronic but is objectionable mostly for looking like a set of lecture notes hastily thrown together. Things get better with Schmalstieg’s Introduction to Old Church Slavic Grammar, which is diachronic and quite informative, although Schmalstieg has his idiosyncracies (such as a bit too overtly sparring with his enemies on the page) and eschewing any mention of laryngeals.

However, there are two works that I would hold up as the best there is in the world of OCS primers. The first is Handbook of Old Church Slavonic Grammar by Grigore Nandriş (London: The Athlone Press, 1956). I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better introduction to a minor Indo-European language (i.e. one other than Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit). The logical presentation of the language’s development from Proto-Indo-European, the smart organization, and the way he seems to anticipate any questions the reader might have are delightful. In fact, I’m a bit reluctant to recommend it because I am still looking for my own copy and don’t want competition. There is a companion volume of reading selections and a glossary compiled by Robert Auty that is, for whatever reason, much easier to find on the used market and will prove enlightening to any student.

The other great primer is K.A. Vojlova’s Старославянский язык (Moscow: Drofa, 2003), which is very inexpensive and can be had from the largest bookstores in Moscow. Although a Russian-language work, which obviously assumes some prior study of Russian, its presentation of the language is very gentle and the book is approachable for students with only the slightest prior study of comparative Indo-European linguistics. It includes abundant reading selections, and was published recently enough to discuss the Eninskij Apostol manuscript which was discovered too late for Auty’s volume. The inexpensiveness of the book compared with its high quality raises questions about why Western scholarly educational materials are often so very expensive.

Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass is useless

Back when I first learned about Old Church Slavonic, the sexiest language around, I was intrigued by Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s masterpiece of twentieth-century choral repetoire, the Glagolitic Mass. Instead of setting the mass in Latin, as is the fashion and which he himself considered in 1908, Janáček instead decided to look far back into his country’s history and set the mass in Old Church Slavonic. I bought a recording right away, and for some months enjoyed the music while puzzling over the libretto. Why, I thought, was the OCS vowel yat marked (in transliteration as ě), while the two nasal vowels were not to be seen at all? How authentic was the text, and was I sure to be getting Old Church Slavonic instead of some thoroughly uninteresting redaction like Russian Church Slavonic?

I discovered the awful truth upon acquiring Paul Wingfield’s Janáček: Glagolitic Mass, a Cambridge Music Handbook. In the third chapter, ‘The (Old?) Church Slavonic text’, Wingfield—guided by a few fine handbooks for OCS—shows that the text of Janáček’s work is a hybrid and error-ridden, transliterated variant of Old Church Slavonic. Not only did Janáček piece together the work from two imperfect attempts at getting to an OCS mass, but in the process of revising the music he would write out the text from memory and fail to check it against the source. A scholar, Miloš Weingart, attempted to correct the text in 1928, but he felt he had to omit the nasal vowels, thinking them too difficult for singers, and had to leave out the missing jers lest he add a hundred extra syllables to the work.

Further attempts have been made in the last seventy years to reach an acceptable text that could fairly well be called Old Church Slavonic, but none entirely successfully. The only Old Church Slavonic gimmick I could show off to my friends, unwilling to admit OCS’s class and allure, proves to be an mismash about as unnatural as anything one would hear in Russian or Bulgarian liturgies. Oh well, at least it is still good music.