Slavic languages

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The Slavic languages (also called Slavonic languages), a group of closely related languages of the Slavic peoples and a subgroup of Indo-European languages, have speakers in most of Eastern Europe, in much of the Balkans, in parts of Central Europe, and in the northern part of Asia.



Scholars divide the Slavic languages into three main branches, some of which feature sub-branches:

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Distribution of Slavic languages

Map of Slavic languages in Europe

The tripartite division of the Slavic languages does not take into account the spoken dialects of each language. Of these, certain so-called transitional dialects and hybrid dialects often bridge the gaps between different languages, showing similarities that do not stand out when comparing Slavic literary (i.e., standard) languages.

Enough differences exist between the various Slavic dialects and languages to make communication between speakers of different Slavic languages difficult, if not impossible. Within the individual Slavic languages, dialects may vary to a lesser degree, as those of Russian, or to a much greater degree, as those of Slovenian. Modern mass media, however, has helped to minimize variation in all the Slavic languages. Note too that historical inter-Slav cultural currents, such as the influence of South Slavic Old Chuch Slavonic and of South Slavic scholars on Russian, have exercised some re-unifying influence.


Common roots and ancestry

One can view all Slavic languages as descendants from Proto-Slavic, their parent language.

According to some historical linguistics theories, Proto-Slavic in turn developed from the Proto-Balto-Slavic language, a common ancestor of Proto-Baltic, the parent of the Baltic languages. According to this theory, the "Urheimat" of Proto-Balto-Slavic lay in the territories surrounding today's Lithuania at some time after the Indo-European language community had separated into different dialect regions (c. 3000 BC). Slavic and Baltic speakers share at least 289 words which could have come from that hypothetical language. According to some linguists the process of separation of Proto-Slavic speakers from Proto-Baltic speakers presumably occurred around 1000 BC. (Proto-Baltic-Slavic earlier developed from Proto-Baltic-Germanic-Slavic, which has a reconstructed vocabulary of around 164 words.)

Some linguists maintain however, that the Slavic group of languages differs more radically from the neighboring Baltic group (Lithuanian, Latvian, and the now-extinct Old Prussian). The Baltic language speakers once lived in a much larger area along the Baltic Sea and south. Starting by AD 600 Slavic language speakers gradually spread and took over large areas of Baltic settlements. (At the same time records note them taking over portions of Greece.) (The first documented attempt at conquest of Baltic speakers by Slavic speakers comes from Adalbert of Prague in the year AD 997.) This group of linguists explain Baltic/Slavic similarities in grammar and vocabulary as a result of this Slav migration into the Baltic-speaking areas and the subsequent proximity of the two groups.

A minority of linguists, spurred by the idea of "geolinguistics", view the southern branch of the Slavic languages as possibly autochthonous to the Balkans.

Differentiation of Slavic languages

In the opinion of linguists, probably even in the 10th12th centuries all Slavs spoke generally Common Slavonic: the same language, with very slight differences.

Linguistic differentiation received impetus from the dispersion of the Slavic peoples over large territory - which in Central Europe exceeded the current extent of Slavic-speaking majorities. Written documents of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries already have some local linguistic features. For example the Freising monuments show a language which contains some phonetic and lexical elements peculiar to Slovenian dialects (e.g. rhotacism, the word krilatec).

Separation of South and West Slavs

The movement of Slavic-speakers into the Balkans in the declining centuries of the Byzantine empire expanded the area of Slavic speech, but pre-existing languages (notably Greek and Romanian) survived in this area. The arrival of the Hungarians in Pannonia in the 9th century interposed non-Slavic speakers between South and West Slavs. Frankish conquests completed the geographical separation between these two groups, severing the connection between Slavs in Lower Austria (Moravians) from those in Styria, Carinthia and East Tyrol, ancestors of present-day Slovenians.

Slavic-speaking populations under foreign rule

Political situations have also affected the use and scope of the Slavic languages. In the course of their history, many Slavic-speaking communities came under foreign rule for longer or shorter periods. Poland underwent partition, German-speaking empires appeared to absorb the Czechs for many centuries, and the Ottomans in their hey-day dominated the Balkan Slavs. Even the Russians had to submit to the Tatar yoke.

The largest geographical extent of Slavic population, which in the Middle Ages included the majority of the present-day German lands of Brandenburg and Pomerania, diminished in the course of the German Drang nach Osten.

Turkish incursions suppressed the regional hegemonies of Bulgarian and Serbian speakers; Poland suffered decline, partition and extinction as a separate national state in the 18th century. Until the 20th century, certain speech-groups (such as speakers of Slovenian) lacked the resources to establish their own distinctive independent nation-states. Other communities (speakers of Sorbian or of Kashubian, for example) remain as minorities in the current system of nation-states.

Some speech-communities have long stood under the influence of others -- even other Slavs: speakers of Ukrainian and Belarusian came under Polish and/or Russian rule; German-speaking overlords have long dominated the Sorbian-speakers. In the case of Czech- and Slovak-speakers, originally kindred languages diverged when the former came under German rule, the latter under Hungarian. The same division marks the now well-established border between the Slovenian and Croatian language areas, even if some bordering dialects of the two languages indicate an almost smooth transition.

Despite their frequent lack of political power, speakers of Slavic languages demonstrated resilience, sometimes culturally taking over foreign political rulers, as in Bulgaria, where Bulgar overlords became Slavicized. Similarly, in the Republic of Dubrovnik Croatian became an official language in parallel to Ragusan Dalmatian and Latin. Even under the Ottoman Empire, south-eastern Europe, except for Greece proper and Albanian, Romanian and Hungarian areas, remained Slavic speaking.

Modern developments

In the 19th century Pan-Slavism combined with nationalism to foster linguistic and literary expansion and revival: often under the aegis of the Russian tsars. The arrival of Communist regimes in the 20th century fostered the separate lingustic development of Ukrainian, Belarusian and Macedonian, for example, but the years from 1945 to 1990 saw the vast majority of Slavic speakers grouped in the institutions of the Comintern and of the Warsaw Pact under Soviet Russian domination. The following trend to political independence and the break-up of the old unified polities (Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia) has encouraged a greater diversity of Slavic linguistic paths.

Slavic influence on neighboring languages

The Romanian and Hungarian languages witness the influence of the neighboring Slavic nations, especially in the vocabulary pertaining to crafts and trade; the major cultural innovations at times when few long-range cultural contacts took place.

Detailed list with ISO 639 and SIL codes

The following tree for the Slavic languages derives from the Ethnologue report for Slavic languages[1] ( It includes the SIL, ISO 639-1 and ISO 639-2 codes where available. ISO 639-2 uses the code sla in a general way for Slavic languages not included in one of the other codes.

East Slavic languages:

  • Belarusian (alternatively Belarusan, Belarussian, Belorussian) - (SIL code: bel; ISO 639-1 code: be; ISO 639-2 code: bel)
  • Ukrainian - (SIL code: ukr; ISO 639-1 code: uk; ISO 639-2 code: ukr)
  • Russian - (SIL code: rus; ISO 639-1 code: ru; ISO 639-2 code, rus)
  • Rusyn - (SIL code: rue; ISO 639-2 code: sla)

West Slavic languages:

  • Sorbian section (also known as Wendish) - ISO 639-2 code: wen
    • Lower Sorbian (also known as Lusatian) - (SIL code: dsb; ISO 639-2 code: dsb)
    • Upper Sorbian - (SIL code: hsb; ISO 639-2 code: hsb)
  • Lekhitic section
    • Polish - (SIL code: pol; ISO 639-1 code, pl; ISO 639-2 code, pol)
    • Kashubian - (SIL code: csb; ISO 639-2 code: csb)
    • Polabian - extinct - (SIL code: pox; ISO 639-2 code: sla)
  • Czech-Slovak section
    • Czech - (SIL code: ces; ISO 639-1 code: cs; ISO 639-2(B) code, cze; ISO 639-2(T) code: ces)
    • Knaanic or Judeo Slavic - extinct - (SIL code: czk; ISO 639-2 code: sla)
    • Slovak - (SIL code: slk; ISO 639-1 code: sk; ISO 639-2(B) code: slo; ISO 639-2(T) code: slk)

Note also Slovincian, an extinct dialect of Kashubian.

South Slavic languages:

  • Western Section
    • Slovenian - (SIL code: slv; ISO 639-1 code: sl; ISO 639-2 code: slv)
    • Croatian (SIL code: hrv; ISO 639-1 code: hr; ISO 639-2/3 code: hrv)
    • Bosnian (SIL code: bos; ISO 639-1 code: bs; ISO 639-2/3 code: bos)
    • Serbian (SIL code: srp; ISO 639-1 code: sr; ISO 639-2/3 code: srp)
  • Eastern Section
    • Macedonian - (SIL code: mkd; ISO 639-1 code: mk; ISO 639-2(B) code: mac; ISO 639-2(T) code: mkd)
    • Bulgarian - (SIL code: bul; ISO 639-1 code: bg; ISO 639-2 code: bul)
    • Old Church Slavonic - extinct (SIL code: chu; ISO 639-1 code: cu; ISO 639-2 code: chu)

Note that Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian previously formed a unitary Serbo-Croatian (SIL 14th ed. code: SRC; ISO 639-1 code: sh; ISO 639-2(B) codes: scr and scc). See also: Differences in official languages in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.


A planned language called Slovio also exists: constructed on the basis of Slavic languages, and intended to facilitate intercommunication between people each of whom already speak at least one Slavic language.

See also

External links

be:Славянскія мовы bg:Славянски езици ca:Llengua eslava cs:Slovansk jazyky de:Slawische Sprachen eo:Slava lingvaro es:Lenguas eslavas fr:Langues slaves he:שפות סלאביות hr:Slavenski jezici id:Bahasa Slavia ja:スラヴ諸語 li:Slavische tale nl:Slavische talen pl:Języki słowiańskie pt:Lnguas_eslavas ro:Limbile slavice ru:Славянские языки sr:Словенски језици sl:Slovanski jeziki fi:Slaavilaiset kielet sv:Slaviska sprk tl:Mga wikang Eslabo zh:斯拉夫语族 vi:Nhm ngn ngữ gốc Slav uk:Слов'янські мови


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