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Glagolitic alphabet

The Glagolitic alphabet or Glagolitsa is the oldest known Slavic alphabet. It was created by brothers Saint Cyril (827–869 AD) and Saint Methodius (826–885 AD) in 855 or around 862–3 in order to translate the Bible and other texts into Slavic.

The name of the alphabet comes from the Old Slavic glagolъ, which means utterance (and is also the origin of the Slavic name for the letter "G"). Since glagolati also means to speak, the Glagolitsa is poetically referred to as "the marks that speak".

There are multiple popular versions concerning the authorship of Glagolitsa and the etymology of its name. There are alternative names as well. See later sections for more details.

The name "Glagolitic" is in Bulgarian and Macedonian глаголица (transliterated glagolica), Croatian glagoljica, Czech hlaholice, in Polish głagolica, in Russian глаго́лица (transliterated glagolitsa), in Serbian глагољица / glagoljica, in Slovenian glagolica, in Slovak hlaholika, in Ukrainian глаголиця (transliterated hlaholytsia), in Belarusian глаголіца' (transliterated hlaholitsa), etc.

Origins of the Glagolitic characters

The number of letters in the original Glagolitic alphabet is not known. The 41 letters we know today contain ligatures which were probably added later. In later versions, the number of letters drops dramatically, to less than 30 in modern Croatian and Czech recensions of Church Slavic language. Twenty-four of the 41 original Glagolitic letters (see Great Moravian below) are probably derived from graphemes of the medieval cursive Greek small alphabet, but have been given an ornamental design. It is presumed that the letters sha, shta and tsi were derived from the Hebrew alphabet (the letters ש Shin and צ Tsadi). Another opinion is that sha is derived from two Greek Sigmas placed side by side.1 The phonemes that these letters represent did not exist in Greek but do exist in Hebrew and are quite common in all Slavic languages. The remaining original characters are of unknown origin. Some of them are presumed to stem from the Hebrew and Samaritan scripts, which Cyril got to know during his journey to the Khazars in Cherson.

Glagolitic letters were also used as numbers, similarly to Cyrillic numerals. Unlike Cyrillic numerals, which inherited their numeric value from the corresponding Greek letter (see Greek numerals), Glagolitic letters were assigned values based on their native alphabetic order.


Rastislav, the Knyaz (Prince) of Great Moravia, wanted to weaken the dependence of his Slavic empire on East Frankish priests, so in 862 he had the Byzantine emperor send two missionaries, Saints Cyril and Methodius, to Great Moravia. Cyril created a new alphabet for that purpose: the Glagolitic. The alphabet was then used in Great Moravia between 863 (when Cyril and Methodius arrived there) and 885 for government and religious documents and books, and at the Great Moravian Academy (Veľkomoravské učilište) founded by Cyril, where followers of Cyril and Methodius were educated (also by Methodius himself).

In 886, an East Frankish bishop of Nitra named Wiching banned the script and jailed 200 followers of Methodius (mostly students of the original academy). They were then dispersed or, according to some sources, sold as slaves by Franks. Many of them (including Naum, Clement, Angelarious, Sava and Gorazd), however, reached Bulgaria and were commissioned by Boris I of Bulgaria to teach and instruct the future clergy of the state into the Slavic languages. After the adoption of Christianity in Bulgaria in 865, religious ceremonies and Divine Liturgy were conducted in Greek by clergy sent from the Byzantine Empire, using the Byzantine rite. Fearing growing Byzantine influence and weakening of the state, Boris viewed the introduction of the Slavic alphabet and language in church use as a way to preserve the independence of Slavic Bulgaria from Greek Constantinople. As a result of Boris's measures, two academies in Ohrid and Preslav were founded.

From there, the students traveled to various other places and spread the use of their alphabet. Some went to Croatia (into Dalmatia), where the squared variant arose and where the Glagolitic remained in use for a long time. In 1248, Pope Innocent IV gave the Croats of southern Dalmatia the unique privilege of using their own language and this script in the Roman Rite liturgy. Formally given to bishop Philip of Senj, the permission to use the Glagolitic liturgy (the Roman Rite conducted in Slavic language instead of Latin, not the Byzantine rite), actually extended to all Croatian lands, mostly along the Adriatic coast. The Holy See had several Glagolitic missals published in Rome. Authorisation for use of this language was extended to some other Slavic regions between 1886 and 1935. In missals, the Glagolitic script was eventually replaced with the Latin alphabet, but the use of the Slavic language in the Mass continued, until replaced by the modern vernacular languages.

Some of the students of the Ohrid academy went to Bohemia where the alphabet was used in the 10th and 11th century, along with other scripts. Glagolitic was also used in Russia, although rarely.

In Croatia, from the 12th century onwards, Glagolitic inscriptions appeared mostly in littoral areas: Istra, Primorje, Kvarner and Kvarner islands, notably Krk, Cres and Lošinj; in Dalmatia, on the islands of Zadar, but there were also findings in inner Lika and Krbava, reaching to Kupa river, and even as far as Međimurje and Slovenia.

Until 1992, it was believed that Glagolitsa in Croatia was present only in those areas, and then, in 1992, the discovery of Glagolitic inscriptions in churches along the Orljava river in Slavonia, totally changed the picture (churches in Brodski Drenovac, Lovčić and some others), showing that use of Glagolitic alphabet was spread from Slavonia also.

At the end of the 9th century, one of these students of Methodius who was settled in Preslav (Bulgaria) created the Cyrillic alphabet, which almost entirely replaced the Glagolitic during the Middle Ages. The Cyrillic alphabet is derived from the Greek alphabet, with (at least 10) letters peculiar to Slavic languages being derived from the Glagolitic.

Nowadays, Glagolitic is only used for Church Slavic (Croatian and Czech recensions).

Versions of authorship and name

The tradition that the alphabet was designed by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius has not been universally accepted. A less common belief, contradicting allochtonic Slovene origin, was that the Glagolitic was created or used in the 4th century by St. Jerome, hence the alphabet is sometimes named Hieronymian.

It is also acrophonically called azbuki from the names of its first two letters, on the same model as 'alpha' + 'beta'. (Actually, the word means simply "alphabet", see its a bit later form azbuka for the Cyrillic alphabet). The Slavs of Great Moravia (present-day Slovakia and Moravia), Hungary, Slovenia and Slavonia were called Slověne at that time, which gives rise to the name Slovenish for the alphabet. Some other, more rare, names for this alphabet are Bukvitsa (from common Slavic word 'bukva' meaning 'letter', and a suffix '-itsa') and Illyrian.

Hieronymian version

In the Middle Ages, Glagolitsa was also known as "St. Jerome's script" due to popular mediaeval legend (created by Croatian scribes in 13th century) ascribing its invention to St Jerome (342-429).

Till end of the 18th century, a strange but widespread opinion dominated, that the glagolitic writing system which was in use in Dalmatia and Istria with neighbor islands, as well as the translation of the Holy Scripture, owe their existing to the famous church's father St. Jerome. Knowing him as author of Latin "Vulgata", considering him - as a Dalmatia-born - a Slav, and especially a Croatian, the home-bred slavic intellectuals in Dalmatia very early began to ascribe him the invention of glagolitsa: possibly on purpose, with the intention to more successfully defend both Slavic writing and Slavic holy service against prosecutions and prohibitions from the Rome hierarchy's side, thus using the honourable opinion of the famous Latin holy father to protect their church rituals which were inherited from the Greeks Cyril and Methodius. We don't know who was the first to put in motion this based on nothing scientific tradition about St. Jerome's authorship of glagolitic script and translation of the Holy Scripture, but in 1248 this version has come to the knowledge of Pope Innocent IV. <…> The belief in St. Jerome as an inventor of glagolitic script lasted many centuries, not only at his homeland, i.e. in Dalmatia and Croatia, not only in Rome, due to Slavs living there… but also in the West. To the Czechia, the legend was brought in the 14th century by Croatian monks-glagolitas, and even the Emperor Charles IV got believed them

The epoque of traditional attribution of the script to Jerome ended probably in 1812. In modern times, only certain marginal authors share this point of view, usually "re-discovering" one of already known mediaeval sources.

Naïve etymology versions of the word "glagolitsa"

  • glago+litsa: "glago" is (an impossible) shortcut from "glagolъ", "litsa" means "faces" (plural from Old Slavic "lice" (litse, face), Russian "лицо#Russian" (litso, face), Bulgarian "лице#Bulgarian" (litse, face) etc.); thus glagolitsa = talking faces
  • glago+li+tsa, where particle 'li' means 'if' or '?', and 'co' (pronounced "tso") - 'what' in Polish and Czech; result has to mean 'what if' or 'what about' (those faces) talking?

Pre-Glagolitic Slavic writing systems

A hypothetical pre-Glagolitic writing system is typically referred to as cherty i rezy (strokes and incisions) - but no material evidence of the existence of any pre-Glagolitic Slavic writing system has been found, except for a few brief and vague references in old chronicles and "lives of the saints". All artefacts presented as evidence of pre-glagolitic Slavic inscriptions have later been identified as texts in known scripts and in known non-Slavic languages, or as fakes. The well-known Chernorizets Hrabar's strokes and incisions are usually considered to be a reference to a kind of property mark or alternatively fortune-telling signs. Some 'Russian letters' found in one version of St. Cyril's life are explainable as misspelled 'Syrian letters' (in Slavic, the roots are very similar: 'рус-' (rus-) vs. 'сур-' (sur-, syr-)), etc.


The alphabet has two variants: round and square. The round variant is dominated by circles and smooth curves, and the square variant features a lot of right angles, and sometimes trapezoids. See an image of both variants (incomplete) Or for more details The square variant lends itself to a more abundant use of ligatures than in the Latin or the Cyrillic script.

The following table lists each letter in order, giving a picture (round variant), its name, its approximate sound in the IPA, the presumed origin (if applicable), and the corresponding modern Cyrillic letter. The names Yer to Yus are sometimes written Jer to Jus. There are several letters that have no modern counterpart, such as the nasal vowels Yus.

Picture Unicode character Old Church Slavic name Church Slavic name Sound Presumed origin Modern slavic Cyrillic equivalent
Az' Az /ɑ/ The sign of the cross, or Hebrew Alef א (А а) A
Buky Buky /b/ Unknown; Samaritan /m/ is the same letter mirrored (Б б) Be
Vede Vedi /ʋ/ Probably from Latin V (В в) Ve
Glagolji Glagoli /ɡ/ (Γ γ) Greek Gamma (Г г) Ghe; see also (Ґ ґ) Ukrainian Ghe
Dobro Dobro /d/ (Δ δ) Greek Delta (compare /v/ as /d/ turned upside down) (Д д) De
Jest' Jest /ɛ/ Probably Samaritan /he/ or Greek number sampi (900) (Е е) Ye; see also (Э э) E and (Є є) Ukrainian Ye
Zhivete Zhivete /ʒ/ Probably Coptic janja (Ϫϫ) (Ж ж) Zhe
Dzelo Dzelo /ʣ/ Probably Greek stigma (Ϛϛ) (Ѕ ѕ) Macedonian Dze
Zemlja Zemlja /z/ (Θ θ) Variant of Greek Theta (З з) Ze
, Ⰺ, Ⰹ Izhe Izhe (Octal I) /i/, /j/ (Ι ι) Greek Iota with dieresis (И и) I; also (Й й) Short I
[I] I (Decimal I) /i/, /j/ Source unknown, probably combination of Christian symbols circle and triangle (І і) Belarusian/Ukrainian I; also (Ї, ї) Ukrainian Yi
[Djerv'] /ʥ/ Source unknown (Ћ ћ) Serbian Tshe and later (Ђ ђ) Serbian Dje
Kako Kako /k/ From Hebrew Qof ק (К к) Ka
Ljudije Ljudi /l/, /ʎ/ (Λ λ) Greek Lambda (Л л) El
Mislete Mislete /m/ (Μ μ) Greek Mu (М м) Em
Nash' Nash /n/, /ɲ/ Source unknown (Н н) En
On' On /ɔ/ Source unknown (О о) O
Pokoji Pokoj /p/ (Π π) Greek Pi (П п) Pe
Rtsi Rtsi /r/ (Ρ ρ) Greek Rho (Р р) Er
Slovo Slovo /s/ Source unknown, probably combination of Christian symbols circle and triangle (С с) Es
Tvrdo Tverdo /t/ (Τ τ) Greek Tau (Т т) Te
Uk' Uk /u/ Ligature of on and izhitsa (У у) U
Frt' Fert /f/ (Φ φ) Greek Phi (Ф ф) Ef
Kher' Kher /x/ Unknown, compare /g/ and Latin h (Х х) Ha
Oht' Oht, Omega /ɔ/ Ligature of on and its mirrored image (Ѿ ѿ) Ot (obsolete)
Shta Shta /ʃt/ Ligature of Sha on top of Cherv (or of Tverdo, less probably) (Щ щ) Shcha
Tsi Tsi /ʦ/ (ץ) Hebrew Tsade, final form (Ц ц) Tse
Chrv' Cherv /ʧ/ (צ) Hebrew Tsade, non-final form (Ч ч) Che
Sha Sha /ʃ/ (ש) Hebrew Shin ש (Ш ш) Sha
Yer' Yer /ɯ/ Probably modification of On (Ъ ъ) hard sign
ⰟⰊ Yery Yery /ɨ/ Ligature, see the note under the table (Ы ы) Yery
Yerj' Yerj /ɘ/ Probably modification of On (Ь ь) soft sign
Yat' Yat /æ/, /jɑ/ Maybe from epigraphic Greek Alpha Α, or ligature of Greek E+I (Ѣ ѣ) Yat (removed from Russian in 1917–1918, from Bulgarian in 1945)
/jo/ (Ё ё) O iotified (a hypothetical form)
Yu Yu /ju/ Simplified ligature IOV (Ю ю) Yu
[Ens'] Ya, Small Yus /ɛ̃/ (Ѧ ѧ) Yus Small, later (Я я) Ya
[Yens'] [Small Iotified Yus] /jɛ̃/ Ligature of Jest and nasality (Ѩ ѩ) Yus Small Iotified (obsolete)
[Ons'] [Big Yus] /ɔ̃/ Ligature of On and nasality (Ѫ ѫ) Yus Big (removed from Bulgarian in 1945)
[Yons'] [Big Iotified Yus] /jɔ̃/ (Ѭ ѭ) Yus Big Iotified (removed from Bulgarian in 1910s)
[Thita] Fita /θ/ (Θ θ) Greek Theta (Ѳ ѳ) Fita (removed from Russian in 1917–1918)
Izhitsa Izhitsa /ʏ/, /i/ Ligature of Izhe and Yer (Ѵ ѵ) Izhitsa (officially obsolete in Russian since 1870s, but used till 1917–1918)

Note that Yery is simply a digraph of Yer and I. In older texts, Uk and three out of four Yuses also can be written as digraphs, in two separate parts. The order of Izhe and I varies from source to source, as does the order of the various forms of Yus. Correspondence between Glagolitic Izhe and I - and Cyrillic И and I - is not known; textbooks and dictionaries often mention one of two possible versions and keep silence about the existence of the opposite one.


The Glagolitic alphabet was added to Unicode in version 4.1. The codepoint range is U+2C00 U+2C5E. See Mapping of Unicode Characters for context.


  • In Istria, a road connecting the hill towns of Roč and Hum is known as the "Glagolitic Avenue." Along this road is a series of 1970s-era monuments to the Glagolitic alphabet. The town of Hum also contains many examples of Glagolitic script on various monuments in its walls.
  • Perhaps the most well-known public display of Glagolitic script is found in the cathedral at Zagreb.
  • Slovak passports issued prior to the EU accession had their pages watermarked by Glagolitic letters.



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  • 1Diringer, David: The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. London: Hutchinson, 1967.
  • Franolić, Branko: Croatian Glagolitic Printed Texts Recorded in the British Library General Catalogue. Zagreb - London - New York, Croatian Information Center, 1994. 49 p.
  • Fučić, Branko: Glagoljski natpisi. (In: Djela Jugoslavenske Akademije Znanosti i Umjetnosti, knjiga 57.) Zagreb, 1982. 420 p.
  • Fullerton, Sharon Golke: Paleographic Methods Used in Dating Cyrillic and Glagolitic Slavic Manuscripts. (In: Slavic Papers No. 1.) Ohio, 1975. 93 p.
  • Гошев, Иван: Рилски глаголически листове. София, 1956. 130 p.
  • Jachnow, Helmut: Eine neue Hypothese zur Provenienz der glagolitischen Schrift - Überlegungen zum 1100. Todesjahr des Methodios von Saloniki. In: R. Rathmayr (Hrsg.): Slavistische Linguistik 1985, München 1986, 69-93.
  • Jagić, Vatroslav: Glagolitica. Würdigung neuentdeckter Fragmente, Wien, 1890.
  • Ягичъ, И. В.: Глаголическое письмо. In: Энциклопедiя славянской филологiи, вып. 3, Спб., 1911.
  • Japundžić, Marko: Postanak glagoljskog pisma. Tromjesečnik Hrvatska, srpanj 1994, p. 62-73.
  • Japundžić, Marko: Tragom hrvatskog glagolizma. Zagreb 1995, 173 p.
  • Japundžić, Marko: Hrvatska glagoljica. Hrvatska uzdanica, Zagreb 1998, 100 p.
  • Japundžić, Marko: Gdje, kada i kako je nastala glagoljica i ćirilica. Staroiransko podrijetlo Hrvata p. 429-444, Naklada Z. Tomičić, Zagreb 1999.
  • Kiparsky, Valentin: Tschernochvostoffs Theorie über den Ursprung des glagolitischen Alphabets In: M. Hellmann u.a. (Hrsg.): Cyrillo-Methodiana. Zur Frühgeschichte des Christentums bei den Slaven, Köln 1964, 393-400.
  • Miklas, Heinz (Hrsg.): Glagolitica: zum Ursprung der slavischen Schriftkultur, Wien, 2000.
  • Steller, Lea-Katharina: A glagolita írás In: B.Virághalmy, Lea: Paleográfiai kalandozások. Szentendre, 1995. ISBN 9634509223
  • Vais, Joseph: Abecedarivm Palaeoslovenicvm in usum glagolitarum. Veglae [Krk], 1917. XXXVI, 74 p.
  • Vajs, Josef: Rukovet hlaholske paleografie. Uvedení do knizního písma hlaholskeho. V Praze, 1932. 178 p, LIV. tab.
  • Žubrinić, Darko: Biti pismen - biti svoj. Crtice iz povijesti glagoljice. Hrvatsko književno društvo Sv. Jeronima, Zagreb 1994, 297 p.

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