I first encountered this word in a context where it named a thing from the dark mists of many centuries past in Eastern Europe, a mode of inscription of incantations to be seen by candlelight in dim ancient churches in forgotten valleys. Well, there it is: sometimes you learn about things first in horror movies.

And of course there are certain stereotypical images of medieval Slavonic churches. Even in the daylight, old Croatia, old Bulgaria, and thereabouts appear to the western mind as a place of tall rustic hats and rough clothes, stooped peasants and mildewy superstitions. Actually we can assume that the people then and there did find ways to enjoy their lives like people in most places and times. And the Glagolitic alphabet was for them not simply some collection of elaborately twisted sigils unlocking mystical verses for the illuminated.

Heck, an important thing about Glagolitic is that in Dalmatia (part of Croatia) it represented a very modern touch: the churches there, as of AD 1248, had permission to use their own language in the church service, and that language was written in the alphabet given it by Saints Cyril and Methodius. It is true that most people in that time and place would not have been able to read, but the scriptures and rites it recorded were hardly dark and foreign, let alone incomprehensible, for the people there and then. (Old Church Slavonic over time did become old and mystical and strange, just because the vernacular had changed; rituals always start as something fresh but, like the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, are valued by many precisely because of accumulated centuries of obscurity – a prophet is without honour in his home town, and a ritual is weaker if you can understand it clearly.)

The Glagolitic alphabet spread over much of Eastern Europe. But it was replaced in the common speech with the Cyrillic alphabet and, in some countries (such as Croatia), the Latin alphabet. So now it really does seem to our eyes like something hiding under the stairs in the dim basement of time. Have a look at it: .

It’s not helped, to Anglophone ears at least, by the sound of the name. To my ears, it certainly sounds dark and gigantic – or should I say gargantuan. We may think of the gulags – actually GULag prisons, if we wish to be etymological about it – or about glug, goggle, gaggle, blag, agglutinate, Golgi apparatus, ugly, stalagmite, Gollum… You can get pretty far into it. Because it’s a proper noun, the two g’s don’t look the same, and it dips down to a low g between the uprights of the l’s, then spatters off at the end with the dots of the i’s and the lower ascender of the t. The back-tongue voiced stops /g/ and the liquids /l/ give way to a crisper, almost glittering pair of voiceless stops /t/ /k/. The whole word goes three times between tongue back and tip.

But it’s foreign to us. It speaks to Slavic ears. Even the most foreign tongue is native to its speakers, and what seems dark is as clear as day. In Old Church Slavonic – once the vernacular of its land – the verb glagoliti means ‘speak’. You will hear and understand if you know how to listen.

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