All about Slavic languages

All about Slavic languages


If you have read the blog article What is the hardest language to learn?, you probably remember what a "language family" is: a group of related languages with common characteristics. In Europe, almost all languages belong to the Indo-European language family, but there are several subfamilies within that family. There are the Germanic languages (which include Dutch, English and German), the Romance languages (which include French, Spanish and Italian) and the Slavic languages. That last subfamily will be discussed in a bit more detail in this blog post.

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What Slavic languages are there and where are they spoken?

Traditionally, Slavic languages have been spoken in Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, Ukraine and Russia. But due to the expansionism of tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, the largest Slavic language, Russian, managed to penetrate deep into Asia. To this day, Russian is the lingua franca in countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Within the Slavic languages, we distinguish three branches: the East Slavic languages (including Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian), the West Slavic languages (including Polish, Czech and Slovak) and the South Slavic languages (including Slovenian, Serbian and Bulgarian).

What script do the Slavic languages use?

Many people associate Slavic languages with "a different script. This is only partly true. Because only the East Slavic languages and some South Slavic languages use the Cyrillic script, as it is officially called. The other Slavic languages, like Dutch, use the Latin script, but with some modifications. This is because Slavic languages tend to have more consonants than Germanic or Romance languages (for example, they often have several sis sounds), so the Latin alphabet lacks letters. Therefore, existing accented letters are used for some sounds, such as č, ś, ź, and ż.

What common characteristics do Slavic languages share?

Above we have already touched on the Slavic love of consonants. Some Slavic languages even have words with four consonants in a row or with only consonants - think of the name of the Croatian island Krk. Also typically Slavic is that many consonants have two variants, with distinctly different pronunciations. In Russian, for example, you have the word лук "onion," pronounced "loek" and the word люк "hatch," pronounced "ljoek". The l in the first word sounds much fuller than the Dutch l (you probably know it from Russian bad guys in movies), the second much more hoarse. But of course there are more common features. For example, almost all Slavic languages have cases, they like complicated stress patterns (within the conjugation or inflection of a word, the stress can jump from one place to another), articles are rare and word order is relatively free.

Some fun facts

That was quite a lot of linguistic theory. Therefore, some more fun facts. Did you know...

...That the use of Cyrillic script and Latin script follows ancient religious boundaries? The Cyrillic script is used in predominantly Eastern Orthodox countries (such as Russia), while the Latin script is used in originally Roman Catholic countries (such as Poland and the Czech Republic).

... that many shipping terms in Russian come directly from Dutch? Above we have already mentioned the word люк 'hatch', but also, for example, боцман 'boatswain', буй 'boei', каюта 'cabin' and киль 'keel' were adopted from Dutch at the time of Peter the Great.

... that some words/word groups in different Slavic languages have diametrically opposite meanings? For example, a Russian in Prague will walk in a big bow around a bakery advertising čerstvý chléb - fresh bread; in fact, in Russian it means "stale bread" (черствый хлеб).

... that Serbian is written using both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets? Many Serbs master both spellings.

... that besides the "big" Slavic languages we keep talking about here, there are also some small Slavic languages with only a few thousand speakers? For example, have you ever heard of Ruthenian, Sorbian or Kashubian?

... that the Slavic Eastern Orthodox Churches have their own language for use in liturgy and religious writings? This language is called Church Slavonic and goes back to Old Church Slavonic, the oldest Slavic written language (from the ninth century).

Need translation from or into a Slavic language?

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