Development of Slavic Alphabet

The creation and development of the Slavic alphabet played a critical role in spreading Christianity and promoting the cultural identity of the Slavic peoples.

Summary of Event

One of the most important linguistic developments in medieval Europe was the building of the Slavic alphabet. This alphabet, uniquely adaptable to the richness of the spoken Slavic tongues, has been paramount in promoting the cultural identity of the Bulgarians, Serbs, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, and Russians. It was also forcibly adopted by non-Slavic peoples under Russian and Soviet domination in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries until the breakup of the Soviet Union’s republics into separate countries in the late 1980’s and early 1990’. [kw]Development of Slavic Alphabet (c. 850)
[kw]Slavic Alphabet, Development of
[kw]Alphabet, Development of Slavic (c. 850)
Moravia;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Bulgaria;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Russia;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Macedonia;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Serbia;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Byzantine Empire;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Literature;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Religion;c. 850: Development of Slavic Alphabet[0950]
Cyril, Saint
Methodius, Saint
Vladimir I

Little is known of the Slavs prior to their adoption of a written language, although they did have a notch-and-stick system of communication. The earliest evidence of their settlements is in and about the region between the Oder and Vistula Rivers. Their expansion in all directions from this area was noted by Greek and Latin writers. Their southern and western movement was eventually restricted in the late eighth century by the nascent Germanic Drang nach Osten (push to the east) of Charlemagne and the Magyar incursion in the next century. This resistance to Slavic expansion explains the division of the southern Slavs of the Balkan peninsula and the western Slavs of east central Europe, who managed on their own to expand slowly eastward, a process not completed until the Russian settlement on the Bering Sea in the late nineteenth century.

The development of writing among the Slavs had its origin in their conversion to Christianity Christianity;Slavs beginning in the later ninth century. Traditionally, the brothers Cyril Cyril, Saint and Methodius Methodius, Saint , two Greek priests from Salonika in upper Macedonia, have been recognized as the apostles of the Slavs. Both were well prepared for their mission, coming as they did from that part of the Eastern Empire with the greatest exposure to Slavic peoples and culture. Cyril had studied and taught philosophy at Constantinople, and both brothers had served in court in a mission to the Khazars beyond the Black Sea in 860-861.

Soon after their return, they came to Great Moravia Great Moravia at the request of Prince Rotislav Rotislav . This mission had religious as well as political overtones, because Rotislav wished to curb the influence among his people of Roman-rite German missionaries from Salzburg and Passau led by Bishop Wiching, a symptom of the stress developing between Rome and Constantinople in the battle for souls in Slavic territories. Moreover, because of the long-term economic relationship between the Slavs and Constantinople and the security that Constantinople provided from a Frankish invasion, Rotislav was politically motivated to request missionaries from Constantinople. Cyril and Methodius were to spread the Christian message among the pagan Slavs by preaching in the vernacular, training a native clergy, and providing a written Slavic language for the transmission of the Scriptures and liturgical texts. In the process, their efforts would underscore the need for a Slavic alphabet.

Unfortunately, the immediate success of the Byzantine mission was limited because of the ecclesiastical debate between Rome and Constantinople. Cyril and Methodius’s efforts were, however, ultimately recognized by Rome; the former died in 869 while on a mission to Rome and the latter was created archbishop of Sirmium and papal legate. Even so, Methodius’s work was thwarted at nearly every turn in Moravia by the efforts of Bishop Wiching Wiching, Bishop and the German party. Following Methodius’s death in 884, his disciples were persecuted and driven from Moravia. The brothers’s influence proved more effective among the Slavic people of the Balkans, where their orthodox form of Christianity prevailed as well as their Slavic alphabet.

The spread of the Slavic alphabet was limited because of ethnic, regional, and political differences. With the acceptance of Christianity Christianity;Kievan Rus as the state religion by the Kievan prince Vladimir I Vladimir I in 988, however, the use of the Slavic alphabet grew. Although almost exclusively limited to religious sermons, tracts, and church service books, these documents formed the backbone of the Russian literary language until the seventeenth century.

The appearance of two alphabets presents a problem in early Slavic literature: the Cyrillic, with its forty-three letters, and the Glagolitic, with its thirty-eight or forty characters, depending how diphthongs were counted. While differing widely in the form of their letters and their eventual development, both alphabets were admirably suited for representing the many Slavic sounds and subtle nuances of pronunciation. Scholarship is much divided over which was the creation of Cyril, although it seems likely that the more primitive Glagolitic was developed by him, while the Glagolitic alphabet was modified by the followers of Cyril and Methodius, probably in Bulgaria, into the Cyrillic alphabet, named in honor of Saint Cyril. The shapes of the Glagolitic letters are unlike any known variety of Greek, and the general impression of its nonligatured quadrangles, squares, and appended circles is that they have an Ethiopian, Samaritan, Armenian, or even Hebrew base.

Saint Cyril helped to Christianize the Slavs, using a new alphabet to translate the Scriptures into their native tongue. The Slavic alphabet, Cyrillic, was named for him.

(Library of Congress)

This appearance may have been a deliberate attempt on Cyril’s part to create a unique and original alphabet to document the Slavic culture, while yet maintaining a similarity to the alphabets of other civilized nations of his time. Nevertheless, the Glagolitic characters had a numerical and phonetic value nearly identical to the Cyrillic letters, and in the early stages of Slavic writing Glagolitic was an important rival of the Cyrillic. This Bulgarian Glagolitsa, as it is called, was used widely in northern and eastern Balkan areas until the thirteenth century, when it was superseded by the Cyrillic alphabet. There did remain, however, some localized use of Glagolitsa in Dalmatia and Montenegro until early modern times.


The basis for the Cyrillic is clearly the Greek script found in Salonika in the ninth century. Adaptations of this script to correspond to the sounds of the Slavic language of the day were so effective that it has been considered one of the most complete systems of writing in the family of languages. This Cyrillic alphabet became the vehicle for the religious literature, devotional and scriptural, of those Slavic peoples who received their Christianity from Constantinople.

Although the script was modified in the early eighteenth century by Peter the Great, and again by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Cyrillic alphabet itself remained the basic tool used to express the literary aspirations of the Russians, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, and White Russians, as well as those countries that fell under Soviet domination after the Russian Revolution. The Slavic peoples of central and southeastern Europe who accepted their Christianity from Rome adapted their language to the Roman alphabet. The alphabetic break with their Slavic brethren to the east is not complete, however, for the Glagolitic characteristic of diacritical marks is found in several of the western Slavic languages.

Further Reading

  • Christin, Anne-Marie, ed. A History of Writing: From Hieroglyph to Multimedia. Paris: Flammarion, 2002. This comprehensive history of ideograms and alphabets includes essays on the Slavic alphabet.
  • Diringer, David. The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind. 2 vols. London: Hutchinson, 1968. This two-volume work provides a brief treatment of the Slavic alphabet.
  • Duichev, Ivan, ed. Kiril and Methodius, Founders of Slavonic Writing: A Collection of Sources and Critical Studies. Translated by Spass Nikolov. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Series of monographs covering various aspects of the development of the Slavic alphabet.
  • Dvornik, Francis. Byzantine Missions Among the Slavs: Saints Constantine—Cyril and Methodius. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970. Considers the development of the Slavic alphabet as an outgrowth of religious missions.
  • Entwistle, W. J., and W. A. Morrison. Russian and the Slavonic Languages. 2d ed. London: Faber and Faber, 1974. First published in 1964, this work provides a detailed examination of the historical and cultural development of all Slavonic languages. The introductory chapters are important for the general reader.
  • MacKenzie, David, and Michael W. Curran. “Kievan Rus: Economic Life, Society, Culture, and Religion.” In A History of Russia, the Soviet Union, and Beyond. 4th ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1993. A brief overview of the bonds between religion, politics, economics, and the development of the Slavic alphabet.
  • Obolensky, Dimitri. Byzantium and Slavic Christianity: Influence of Dialogue? Berkeley, Calif.: Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, 1998. This work, published as part of a lecture series, looks at the lives and works of Saints Cyril and Methodius, focusing on how they influenced the Slavs.
  • Vukcevich, Ivo. Rex Germanorum, Populos Sclavorum: An Inquiry into the Origin and Early History of the Serbs/Slavs of Sarmatia, Germania, and Illyria. Santa Barbara, Calif.: University Center Press, 2001. This voluminous history of the Slavic peoples includes discussion of their language and alphabet.