Glagolitic Alphabet

(Or GLAGOLITSA; Slavonic glagol, a word; glagolati, to speak) 

An ancient alphabet of the Slavic languages, also called in Russian bukvitsa. The ancient Slavonic when reduced to writing seems to have been originally written with a kind of runic letters, which, when formed into a regular alphabet, were called the Glagolitic, that is the signs which spoke. St. Cyril, who, together with his brother St. Methodius, translated the Greek liturgy into Slavonic when he converted the Bulgarians and Moravians, invented the form of letters derived from the Greek alphabet with which the church Slavonic is usually written. This is known as the Cyrillic alphabet or Kirillitsa. The Cyrillic form of letters is used in all the liturgical books of the Greek Churches, whether Catholic or schismatic, which use the Slavonic language in their liturgy, and even the present Russian alphabet, the Grazhdanska, is merely a modified form of the Cyrillic with a few letters omitted. The order of the letters of the alphabet in the Glagolitic and in the Cyrillic is nearly the same, but the letters bear no resemblance to each other, except possibly in one or two instances. 

Although the Latin holds the chief place among the liturgical languages in which the Mass is celebrated and the praise of God recited in the Divine Offices, yet the Slavonic language comes next to it among the languages widely used throughout the world in the liturgy of the Church. Unlike the Greek or the Latin languages, each of which may be said to be representative of a single rite, it is dedicated to both the Greek and the Roman rites. Its use, however, is far better known throughout Europe as an expression of the Greek Rite; for it is used amongst the various Slavic nationalities of the Byzantine Rite, whether Catholic or Orthodox, and in that form is spread among 115,000,000 people; but it is also used in the Roman Rite along the eastern shores of the Adriatic Sea in Dalmatia and in the lower part of Croatia among the 100,000 Catholics there. Whilst the Greek language is the norm and the original of the Byzantine or Greek Rite, its actual use as a church language is limited to a comparatively small number, reckoning by population. 

The liturgy and offices of the Byzantine Church were translated from the Greek into what is now Old Slavonic (or Church Slavonic) by Sts. Cyril and Methodius about the year 866 and the period immediately following. St. Cyril is credited with having invented or adapted a special alphabet which now bears his name (Cyrillic) in order to express the sounds of the Slavonic language, as spoken by the Bulgars and Moravians of his day. Later on St. Methodius translated the entire Bible into Slavonic and his disciples afterwards added other works of the Greek saints and the canon law. 

However, the theory that St. Cyril himself invented the Glagolitic, and that his disciple St. Clement transformed it into Cyrillic by imitating the Greek uncial letters of his day is not universally held. Even before St. Cyril invented his alphabet for the Slavonic language there existed certain runes or native characters in which the southern dialect of the language was committed to writing. Some of the earliest Slavic manuscripts are written in the Glagolitic characters. 

There is a tradition, alluded to by Innocent XI, that they were invented by St. Jerome, a Dalmatian, as early as the fourth century; Jagic however thinks that they were really the original letters invented by St. Cyril and afterwards abandoned in favour of an imitation of Greek characters by his disciples and successors. This older alphabet, which still survives, is called the Glagolitic (from glagolati, to speak, because the rude tribesmen imagined that the letters spoke to the reader and told him what to say), and was used by the southern Slavic tribes and now exists along the Adriatic highlands. 

The Slavonic which is written in the Glagolitic characters is also the ancient language, but it differs considerably from the Slavonic written in the Cyrillic letters. In fact it may be roughly compared to the difference between the Gaelic of Ireland and the Gaelic of Scotland. The Roman Mass was translated into this Slavonic shortly after the Greek liturgy had been translated by Sts. Cyril and Methodius, so that in the course of time among the Slavic peoples the southern Slavonic written in Glagolitic letters became the language of the Roman Rite, while the northern Slavonic written in Cyrillic letters was the language of the Greek Rite. The prevailing use of the Latin language and the adoption of the Roman alphabet by many Slavic nationalities caused the use of the Glagolitic to diminish and Latin to gradually take its place. The northern Slavic peoples, like the Bohemians, Poles and Slovaks, who were converted by Latin missionaries, used the Latin in their rite from the very first. At present the Glagolitic is only used in Dalmatia and Croatia. Urban VIII in 1631 definitively settled the use of the Glagolitic-Slavonic missal and office-books in the Roman Rite, and laid down rules where the clergy of each language came in contact with each other in regard to church services. Leo XIII published two editions of the Glagoltic Missal. 

The liturgy used in the Slavonic language, whether of Greek or Roman Rite, offers no peculiarities differing from the original Greek or Latin sources. The Ruthenians have introduced an occasional minor modification, but the Orthodox Russians, Bulgarians, and Servians substantially follow he Byzantine liturgy and offices in the Slavonic version. The Glagolitic Missal, Breviary, and ritual follow closely the Roman liturgical books, and the latest editions contain the new offices authorized by the Roman congregations. The casual observer could not distinguish the Slavonic priest from the Latin priest when celebrating Mass or other services, except by hearing the language as pronounced aloud. 

The Cyrillic alphabet continued to be used for writing the Slavonic in Bulgaria, Russia, and Galicia, while the Southern and Western Slavs used the Glagolitic. These Slavs were converted to Christianity and to the Roman Rite by Latin missionaries, and gradually the Roman alphabet drove out the use of the Glagolitic, so that the Bohemians, Slovenians, Moravians, and part of the Croatians used Roman letters in writing their languages. In Southern Croatia and in Dalmatia (often treated as synonymous with Illyria in ancient times) the Glagolitic has continued in use as an ecclesiastical alphabet in writing the ancient Slavonic. Although the Slavic peoples bordering on the Adriatic Sea were converted to the Roman Rite, they received the privilege, as well as their brethren of the Greek Rite, of having the Mass and the offices of the Church said in their own tongue. Thus the Roman Mass was translated into the Slavonic, and, in order to more fully distinguish the Western Rite from the Eastern Rite among the Slavic peoples, the use of the Glagolitic alphabet was reserved exclusively for the service books of the Roman Rite, just as the Cyrillic was used for the Greek Rite. 

The use of the Glagolitic Missal and office books, while permitted in general among the Slavs of Dalmatia and Croatia from the earliest times since the Slavonic became a liturgical language under Pope John VIII, was definitely settled by the Constitution of Urban VIII, dated 29 April, 1631, in which he provided for a new and corrected edition of the Slavic Missal conformable to the Roman editions. In 1648 Innocent X provided likewise for the Slavic Breviary, and by order of Innocent XI the new edition of the Roman-Illyrian Breviary was published in 1688. In the preface to this Breviary the pope speaks of the language and letters employed therein, and gives St. Jerome the credit for the invention of the Glagolitic characters: "Quum igitur Illyricarum gentium, quæ longe lateque per Europam diffusæ sunt, atque ab ipsis gloriosis Apostolorum Principibus Petro et Paulo potissimum Christi fidem edoctæ fuerunt, libros sanctos jam inde a S. Hieronymi temporibus, ut pervetusta ad nos detulit traditio, vel certe a Pontificatu fel. rec. Joannis Papæ VIII, prædecessoris nostri, uti ex ejusdem datâ super eâ re epistola constat, ritu quidem romano, sed idiomate slavonico, et charactere S. Hieronymi vulgo nuncupato conscriptos, opportunâ recognitione indigere compertum sit." The new edition of the Roman Ritual in Glagolitic form had previously been published in the year 1640. 

The latest editions of the Missal and ritual are those of the Propaganda, "Missale Romanum, Slavicâ linguâ, glagolitico charactere" (Rome, 1893), and "Rimski Ritual (Obrednik) izdan za zapoviedi Sv. Otca Pape Paula V" (Rome, 1894). There was a former edition of the Glagolitic Missal, "Ordo et Canon Missæ, Slavice" (Rome, 1887), but on account of the numerous errors in printing and text it was destroyed, and only a few copies are in existence. The use of the Latin language in the Dalmatian seminaries since the year 1828 has had the effect of increasing the use of the Latin in the Roman Rite there, and the use of the Glagolitic books has accordingly diminished. Of course the non-Slavic inhabitants of Dalmatia and Croatia have always used the Slavonic language for the Roman Rite. At present the Slavonic language for the Roman Rite, printed in Glagolitic characters, is used in the Slavic churches of the Dioceses of Zengg, Veglia, Zara, and Spalato, and also by the Franciscans in their three churches in Veglia, one in Cherso, two in Zara, and one in Sebenico. Priests are forbidden to mingle the Slavonic and Latin languages in the celebration of the Mass, which must be said wholly in Slavonic or wholly in Latin. 


We know of several Istrian and Kvarner city statutes written in the Glagolitic Script:

  • Vrbnik Statute (on the island of Krk) - written in 1388,
  • Kastav Statute (1490, near Rijeka) - preserved in Latin, translated from the Glagolitic Script,
  • Moscenica Statute (~1501, Istria) - preserved in Latin, translated from the Glagolitic Script,
  • Veprinac Statute (1507, Istria) - preserved in the Glagolitic.


  • New Advent - Catholic Encyclopedia - (Glagolitic) and (Slavonic Language and Liturgy)

  • Addendum -

Main Menu

This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran

Created: Sunday, September 09, 2001; Last updated: Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Copyright © 1998, USA