What is the Glagolitic alphabet?

The Glagolitic alphabet or Glagolitsa (Croatian: glagoljica) is the oldest known Slavic script which was introduced in mid-9th century and was used in the Slavic world until the 16th century, when it was eventually replaced by the Latin script (Croatian: latinica).

It is interesting to note that Glagolitsa was used in Croatia – and only in Croatia – up until the 19th century, which means it was the official script in Croatia for 1000 years!

The meaning of the name 'Glagolitic'

The name of the script is derived from the Croatian verb glagoljati, which has 2 meanings: (1) to speak, to utter, and (2) to serve mass in the Old Church Slavonic* language (or Old Church Slavic, abbreviated OCS), the oldest Slavic literary language. Not surprisingly, the verb glagoljati further stems from from the Old Church Slavonic word glagolъ (utterance).

Interestingly, the name for the script was coined as late as the 16th century, and what's more, on Croatian territory! One should note that by this time Glagolitsa was used only in Croatia and had already been replaced by the Latin script in the rest of the Slavic-speaking world.

*Old Church Slavonic, also known as Old Church Slavic, was the first Slavic literary language. You can find out more about OCS here on Wikipedia.

Who invented the Glagolitic alphabet?

It is believed that the creators of Glagolitic characters were the Saint brothers Cyril and Methodius, Christian missionaries from Thessalonica in the Byzantine Empire (now Thessaloniki, Greece).

More precisely, the invention of Glagolitic script is attributed to Cyril. It is believed that he devised the script in order to introduce Christianity and writing among the illiterate, pagan Slavic tribes.

However, the origin of Glagolitsa is a bit more complex than that, and there are no less than 43 different theories on its genesis! Fortunately these theories can be divided into 3 groups:

  1. Exogenous: Glagolitsa was created with respect to some other scripts that preceded it and dates much further back than the 9th century.
  2. Endrogenous: The Glagolitic script is entirely unique, and we cannot speak of any other Slavic script that had existed before.
  3. Exogenous-endrogenous: A combination of the two. These theories presuppose the existence of some older script(s), but hold that Glagolitic system of characters was entirely original.

Some of the greatest Croatian scholars that were preoccupied by these issues are supporters of exogenous theories. But one thing is for sure: Glagolitic alphabet was the first script used to transcribe OCS.

The Glagolitic characters

There are 41 characters of Glagolitsa as we know it today, but this number can vary from type to type.

How many letters were there in the original Glagolitic script is not known. All of the letters had names, e. g.: a – az, b – buky, v - vêdê etc. (the positioning of the letters was, of course, different from today's alphabet).

The script is therefore called azbuki (Croatian: azbuka) – the name derived from the names of the first two letters, az and buky. Oh, and by the way, the term alphabet is coined by the same analogy: alpha + beta.

Glagolitic Alphabet

What's more, Glagolitic letters were also used as numbers. Their numerical value is correspondent to their alphabetical order and they were easily recognised as numbers because they either had dots on each side or a ligature above.

There are 2 types of Glagolitic script: round and square, according to the shape of the characters. The round type was used in the entire Slavic-speaking world, while the square Glagolitsa, introduced in the 13th century, is exclusively Croatian! Actually, there is also the third type, the triangular variant – this type is the oldest one and its existence was discovered much later.

The Baška tablet: the first recorded mention of 'Croatia'

Baška TabletBaška tablet (Croatian: Bašćanska ploča, from around 1100) is one of the oldest – and probably the most famous – monuments containing Glagolitic inscription.

This monument has great historical significance: It is the oldest known document in which the adjective Croatian (hrvatski) is mentioned, as well as the name of a Croatian ruler in Croatian language (kralj Zvonimir). The document was named after Baška, a town on the island of Krk where it was found. Nowadays it is kept in the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb.

It features a transitional form of Glagolitsa, between round and square. The language used is Croatian with some hints of OCS. In the first part of inscription, abbot Držiha reports the donation of a piece of land by King Zvonimir to a Benedictine abbey. The second half tells how abbot Dobrovit built the church together with his nine brothers.

You can read more about the Baška tablet here on Wikipedia.

Exercise: Try and pronounce the following words/phrases from the text. Can you remember what they mean?

Answer azbuki

Answer Baška tablet

Answer Cyril and Methodius

Answer Glagolitic alphabet

Answer Latin script

Answer round Glagolitsa

Answer square Glagolitsa