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Glagolitic – God’s song-like language and a linguist’s personal devil

By Joana Atanasova

When you Google “Glagolitic alphabet” and click on “Images” you’ll be stunned by the sheer beauty of the glyphs that will come up before you. Round script, elements of triangles and crosses throughout every letter – truly an alphabet made for the word of God, its originally intended use, especially when skillfully copied by a monk with outstanding calligraphy skills.

Created around 855 to 863CE by brothers Cyril and Metodius, the purpose of the alphabet was a follow up to the Christening of the Bulgarians and creation of an independent church, detaching itself completely from the Greek Orthodox church at the time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it sounds absolutely gorgeous, especially when you’re learning the alphabet itself as the different letters are represented by different words rather than phonemes, but the devil is in the detail, here are some examples so you can experience it for yourself:

Ⰰ – азъ (az) which means ‘I, me’,

Ⰱ – буки (bouki) meaning ‘letter, word’

Ⰲ – веди (vedi) meaning– ‘know, to know’

And it continues for the rest of the 40 letters, in fact, when saying the separate letters in the alphabet, you involuntarily say this beautiful piece of text, creatively interpreted by Stoyan Radulov to make a consistent and understandable text, which translates in English to:

‘I, knowing the words, will know how to speak! It’s good to live firmly on the ground! Because as people think, He is our support! Say the words firmly! Upwards and anyone can fly! Go! Avoid the worm (note: ‘worm’ – as in ‘low life’)! Conquer the heights! You, man, you, youth, you people! Person! With wits and smarts! In the right direction and a clear mind! Forward! Glory!’

The Glagolitic alphabet was made, not only for functional use, but as a statement of freedom and independence, a declaration of a desire to be remembered, to leave something behind and tell the generations to come that here stood Bulgarians, proud of their heritage and who they are. In the 9th century, Bulgarians relied on the Greek alphabet for archiving and religious texts as we were under the govern of the Greek Orthodox Church, however after some tumultuous events, the then khan Boris I, later turned tzar after the enforcement of Christianity, assigned the creation of a Bulgarian alphabet to brothers (later turned saints) Cyril and Metodius.

The alphabet ended up being the base that all Slavic languages used at the time, that was the catalyst for turning into the individual languages we know today, as it spread like wildfire throughout the Slavic tribes and nations, which now allows us to, albeit not knowing our neighbours’ language, to be able to loosely understand each other and communicate! I’ve found that with people from Western Europe and those, whose mother tongue is English, unless someone has studied or knows more than one Latin–based language, they don’t have the odd little superpower of the Slavic nations (aside from the renowned squat, which you’ll be surprised to know is an anthropological trait, called the Dalmatian hip) – you don’t have to know any other language aside from your native one, in order to understand Macedonians, Serbians, etc.

For example, if you’re Bulgarian, with your starting point being Bulgaria, the further west you travel through the Slavic countries, the more complicated it gets to understand your neighbour, but not completely impossible – you’ll have a harder time understanding Bosnians than Serbians, but if they speak slower and you know a lot of dialect words, you’ll be able to understand the general meaning of what they have to say to you, without you personally knowing another language aside from your own. You can apply that rule with any other Slavic country by traveling in the other direction and it works.

Why ‘knowing more dialect words’ is something that matters in this case? Simple, dialect words are formed from the common, non-dictionary language, from one person to another – kind of like tradition. These words are usually formed way before the official recording of the language and their roots are very, very old, surviving through folklore songs and tales. As we already know, all Slavic languages share the same roots, and those roots are very, very old as well, so the more dialect words you know in your native Slavic language, the closer you get to understanding the root language. In fact, when we studied Glagolitic in class, the kids that knew more dialect words, understood more and rarely reached for the dictionary when translating.

Why is it a linguistic hell, you ask? Simple – unfortunately due to many cataclysmic historical events, the sources and most of the grammar was lost. Most, if not all the sources that remain for it are Eastern Orthodox Christian texts, Bible copies, life stories of saints, and some stone monoliths, which unfortunately don’t give us enough information to thoroughly have its grammar finished and organized – some words remain untranslated, some grammatical rules are unknown as to why this is written the way it is, and many others.

This creates chaos with the learning process, as you need to check up on your notes about every single thing, you’re not sure of, because hey, this word might only be written like this in this tense and mean this exact thing and nobody really knows why. Which is an absolute shame, as it’s one of the few alphabets, in my opinion, that is not only representing an extremely useful language, if you’re keen on Slavic culture, but it’s also aesthetically pleasing in all aspects – from writing to speaking the language it represents.

The alphabet itself is beautiful and holds the spirit of one of the oldest nations on the continent of Europe, however the fact that it was eventually replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet, which is basically a transcript of the Greek alphabet with added sounds that are obligatory for the language like ‘Ч’, ‘Ш’, ‘Щ’, ‘Ъ’ etc. doesn’t help the poor linguist that has decided to dedicate time and effort into learning it. Why? Simply because texts stopped being written in Glagolitic and, like we mentioned before, sources are scarce.

That being said, learning to write the letters is… a surreal experience. Now, due to my education, I was forced to learn that as well as Ancient Greek the year before, which naturally entails learning how to write down the letters by hand. I swear to God, I had an easier time learning how to write the Greek letters in cursive, than to learn how to write in Glagolitic and I have a feeling that it’s mainly because it was intended to look beautiful when copied. Which is all good and great if you’re a monk, living in a monastery with a significant amount of free time to write down each and every letter to perfection, but when you’re living in 2021, juggling work, hobbies, family, pandemics and your personal sanity, you can see how it might be troublesome. If, however, you find the time to devote, learning to write this beautiful alphabet down and actually start writing texts in it, and you manage to do it as it was intended, you’ll find true linguistic satisfaction, that I’ve personally found there.

If you decide to learn the language, of course keep in mind it’s a dead one, and worry not! You won’t have to use the Glagolitic alphabet if you don’t want to, because, like I mentioned, it relatively quickly switches to the Cyrillic, which is easier. What you’ll get from it? Aside from the cultural and ethnical insight that each individual language gives you, you’ll get the neat skill of loosely understanding a large part of all modern Slavic languages like Bulgarian, Serbian, Bosnian, Russian etc. as they share this ancestor, but the Dalmatian hip doesn’t come with 🙂

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