Slavic languages

Slavonic Languages – the language of the Slavic peoples

Where did my interest in Slavic languages come from? I am something of an amateur Slavophile when it comes to languages.  I’ve spent the past decade learning Polish (as I live in Poland and no longer participate in a formal language course, it’s more at the passive than active stage at this point) and have made numerous trips to other Slavic countries.  What follows are some observations and a bit of background on Slavic tongues and their speakers.

Background of Slavic Languages

Slavic languages originated from one mother tongue known as Proto-Slavic, spoken previous to the 7th century.  Old Church Slavonic was the first written Slavic language, codified in the 9th century by Cyril and Methodius, two missionaries who adapted the written language from a tongue spoken in modern-day Macedonia.  Cyril and Methodius are revered in some countries in particular and one will see monuments to them and their work throughout the region.

Today Slavic languages are grouped into 3 geographical groups:  Western Slavic, Eastern Slavic, and the Southern Slavic families.  Western Slavic includes Polish, Czech, and Slovak.  Eastern Slavic comprises Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian.  Southern Slavic includes Serbian, Croatian, Slovene, Bosnian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian.  There are also minor Slavic languages, such as Kashubian (spoken by a small minority of Poles in a small region south of Gdansk;  the current prime minister, Donald Tusk, as it happens, is a native Kashub) or Rusyn in Ukraine.

Taken together they form a band spanning from the Adriatic Sea across Central/Eastern Europe through Asian Russia to the Sea of Japan.  Russian, Belarussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Macedonian and Serbian are the Slavic languages which use Cyrillic.  Cyrillic is also used by some non-Slavic tongues, such as Moldovan and Mongolian.

Interestingly 2 languages of significance exist among this “sea of Slavs” that are not Slavic—Romanian (and by extension, Moldovan), a Romance language more closely related to French, etc, and Hungarian, a language only distantly related to any other.  The Baltic countries as well interrupt the Slavic domination of the region, with Lithuanian and Latvian related to one another and sharing some elements with Slavic tongues, but forming their own language group, and Estonian, a language related to Finnish and distantly to Hungarian.

The Cyrillic alphabet, though it may look exotic and difficult to master on first look, is not as tough as it may seem.  During a four-day trip to Bulgaria, I was basically able to get down the basics, to the point where I could read signs and pronounce words (not that I knew what they all meant, but a basic operational capacity in using the alphabet—helpful in train stations and stores).  Previously I had been in Greece for a week, which did help a bit as some of the characters in the Greek alphabet are similar, but for the most part it is not too terribly difficult.  On later trips to Ukraine, this capacity came back to me (and coupled with the fact that Ukraine has some similarities to Polish and that Polish is generally understood, particularly in Western Ukraine where I was traveling, I was able to operate fairly well).

Benefits of Learning a Slavic Language

It’s been my experience that if you get even one Slavic language under your belt, it allows you to operate and communicate in many countries and languages.  This is most true within the geographical grouping (Polish speakers will find it easier to understand Czech or Slovak;  Russian speakers likewise with Ukrainian and Belarussian).  With just a little bit of on-the-fly tourist study, I am able to communicate pretty well in Czech or Slovak, using only a base amount of words in the local language and plugging gaps with Polish if need be.  I don’t understand- “Nie rozumiem” in Polish, would be “Ne rozumím”* in Czech, “I don’t know”—“nie wiem” in Polish, “ne vim” in Czech, “large” or “great”- “wielki” in Polish, “veľký” in Slovak, etc.

Some words come out quite differently:  train-‘pociag’ in Polish, ‘vlak’ in Czech, for example.  But knowing one Slavic language helps you understand others.  This is true even across groups—knowing Polish I am able to understand some Russian, an Eastern Slavic language.  I recall on visiting Croatia, that the South Slavic tongue Croatian was surprisingly also understandable as well, at least to a degree.

Slavonic language
The Slavic language speakers cover the most geographical area in the world.

Another benefit of learning a Slavonic language is the rich culture, overshadowed for ages by that of Western Europe.  Slavic countries are responsible for very fine art, literature, advances in technology, science, etc.  Chopin, Kafka, Mucha, Dostoevsky, Copernicus, Pushkin, and scores of other greats in the worlds of literature, music, art, and science hail from Slavic-speaking countries, and learning one of the languages can help contribute to your appreciation of them and their works.  Adam Mickiewicz is a renowned poet in Poland (and held in high esteem by the Lithuanians as well, for that matter).  Poles swear that English translations do not do him justice, however, and reading him in Polish is a must to appreciate the richness and depth of the language he used.

I also love Slavonic church music but this is another story.

Another reason to learn a Slavic language is the travel.  For example the nature in Russia is almost unparalleled. The colors you see in Siberia have an other worldly quality.  Knowing the Russian language will give you a passport to see such beauty.

Russian Sky
Russian sky and birch trees; learning the Russian language will help your world travel to beautiful places like Siberia.

For those interested in traveling or even living in Europe, Slavic countries generally offer a much less expensive cost of living, especially when compared to their Western neighbors.  While this doesn’t necessarily hold true for the largest cities (Moscow, Warsaw) comparatively one can live and travel much more cheaply in Slavic Countries than in, say, the United Kingdom or Italy.

Fun with Slavic Languages

Though there are similarities among tongues, there are also some often-amusing challenges that arise when comparing Slavic languages.  While many words are similar, some words which seem to be the same, actually have different meanings.  The most well-known among Poles and Czechs is probably the confusion over the verb “to look”.  This verb in Polish is “szukac”, in the first person form it would be “szukam”, as in “Szukam policjanta” (I am looking for a policeman).  But be careful when you are in the Czech Republic and thinking you are asking a person on the street an innocent question—“szukam” in Czech has a much different and more vulgar (sexual) meaning.  The verb you want in Czech is “hledat”.

Another similar instance is found in Slovak—with Polish visitors to the country sometimes encountering the very funny “odchody” sign at stations—meaning “departures” in Slovak, but something like “excrement” or “feces” in Polish.  Not a great image and one that gets at least a chuckle from Poles.  “This way for feces”, Poles are advised and helpfully directed by an arrow on the sign.  No thanks!

The accent and pronunciation differences can be interesting as well.  Czechs, to my ears, have a sing-song pronunciation.  It sounds like they are serenading you in short bursts, with words rising in tone or with drawn-out syllables.  I find it quite charming, and is one reason why I consider Czech to be one of the more beautiful languages to listen to (more so than Polish, and also more so than the supposedly beautiful and much-lauded French).  Russian, on the other hand, and Eastern Slavic languages, for that matter, tend to grate on my ears a bit.  They consist of some drawn out sounds as well, but to my ears they seem to sound more “obnoxious” and exaggerated, for lack of a better description, especially in comparison to the lovely Czech tongue.

Another thing that Poles are well acquainted with is a Czech and Slovak pronunciation which sounds unusual to Polish ears—words may seem similar but pronounced in a funny way.  Poles tend to say that Czechs sounds like Polish children or babies trying to pronounce Polish words.  What is funny is that I have heard the same thing said by a Czech friend about Poles.  I would tend to agree with the Poles on this one though—the much harsher and harder sounds of Polish are more difficult for children to pronounce at first, and are more likely to come out sounding like the soft tones of Czech.  A simple comparison of the words for “thank you” shows this—“Dziekuje” in Polish, with the hard “dz” syllable, vs. the softer “dekuje” in Czech.

If you have questions about any Slavic language or have Slavic ancestry or a general interest in Eastern Europe I would love to hear from you.

20 Replies to “Slavic languages”

  1. hey SL, this is a great bit about the slavic languages and their histories. I already knew a little because I happen to be about 75% Slovak and have been studying russian the past two years so I’ve learned a lot about basic phrases and the functions/histories about “some” of the slavic languages. I’m very impressed you learned polish, that is on my to do list. How would you suggest going about learning not only polish, but also Slovak(all of this after russian of course)
    I also plan to try and work German into there, although I don’t think you would happen to know any tips about an i.e. language would you?
    Dziekuje! Dakujem! Spasibo! Danke!

    1. For me one of the most fastest way to start to get up to speed was learning single vocabulary words. You can make lists or use flashcards. Slavic languages are so hard to get a hang of at first you need to break the word out into their transliteration to be able to get a hold of it. Then practice it then try it in a phase. For example: Dziekuje is something like Djeyeln-ku-yeln the ‘eln’ being a nasal sound. Practice it and make a mnemonic to remember the meaning if you are not good with remembering words. Really work hard to get 100s and 1000s of words in your brain. Then you can worry about the grammar. I have a website polishgrammar.com by the way which is a free online resource for the Polish language.
      I think you need to drill the critical level of words then phrases and grammar takes a secondary place.
      I also think verbs are the soul of a language and you do need to master the basics of verb meaning and changes, as concrete nouns are easy and fun to learn.
      I will have flashcards etc coming out.
      You could always get a Slavic girlfriend, this would not hurt of course (if you are not married).
      If you know one Slavic language the others will come easy as they are one of the closest linguistic groups in the world.
      I hope you travel here from time to time, I am an American who has lived in Eastern Europe for many years. My world is East of the Oder river.
      Thank you for the comment.

  2. this website help me to my term paper. thanks a lot. studying one’s language is somehow exciting and it is the way to communicate to them. 🙂

    igracias!

  3. Generally a Czech can understand what a Pole says in his language and the other way round, but there are many words that sounds the same and have different meanings. Sometimes the meanings can be really unexpected and cause an unintentional comical or even offensive effect. Some differences:
    en.wikibooks.org/wiki/False_Friends_of_the_Slavist/Polish-Czech

    Generally the Czech language is more similar to the Old Polish Language than to contemporary Polish – many words than changed meaning in Polish didn’t do that in Czech. For example the word ‘sklep’ in Old Polish meant ‘a vaulted room, especially under the ground; a basement’ – and then the meaning changed into ‘a shop’, because old shops were often located is such places; in Czech the meaning ‘a basement’ was preserved. A Polish word for the basement (‘piwnica’) meant originally a room when beer (‘piwo’) is stored – these were often basements, so the word changed the meaning into ‘a basement’. Czech meaning preserved the relation to the beer – ‘pivnice’ means ‘a pub’. There are hundreds of such differences in word meanings between Czech and Polish caused by etymological shifts in Polish.

  4. (I originally posted this on another article on this site, but thought people here might find it useful too. If you consider this spamming, please feel free to remove this comment.)

    “hledat” is not as strange as you think! The Polish equivalent is “glądać” which no longer exists in modern Polish, but there are still related words, ex: oglądać, wyglądać.

    This article on etymologia.org describes it:

    etymologia.org/wiki/S%C5%82ownik+etymologiczny/gl%C4%85da%C4%87?xpage=print

    Notice the “czes. hlediti”.

    1. David thanks for your comment on the Polish language, I love old Polish. If you read Polish I recommend Marivsz Wollny’s book Kacper Ryx. It is written in Old Polish but by a modern author. It is brilliant.

  5. Just found this site…..cool!

    Anyway, if you know what ‘od’ and ‘chod’ mean, then odchody makes sense in both the Polish and czech usages.

    I haven’t noticed it with Czech, but Slowak definitely sounds babyish to my ears. I was working at a school being re-roofed by a mostly Slowak crew. I could understand most of what they were saying, but there were too many vowels, too much slurring, and too much general palatalization. I asked a Pole I was working with what area of Poland they were from, and she told me they were actually Slowaks and that yes, they sounded babyish…….

    I understand this is a highly ethnocentric perception. It’s just how they sound to my 3rd generation American ears. I’m just proud I can communicate in Polish!!

  6. I’ve just realized this might be an appropriate forum for a question I’ve had for years. during my first trip to Poland I was often called ‘ukrajinski chlop’ (Ukrainian peasant) because I mixed my Polish with Russian. I asked why and was told that part of the Polish stereotype of a Ukrainian peasant is that he does NOT speak Ukrainian, but rather a hodge-podge of Polish and Russian that he labels Ukrainian, but is not, in fact, actually Ukrainian. Any truth to this?

    Thanks.

    1. I think in this time, modern Poland and Ukraine, people do not care about those definitions any more. In Ukraine they speak Ukrainian, in Poland they speak Polish and in Russia they speak Russian. However, many Poles at the boarder speak Ukrainian and the converse is also true. Ukrainians in the East speak Russian as well as Ukrainian which is the official language.
      Americans speak Spanish and Chinese. The world is not a global economy and there is free movement of labor and capital. In an international world where old sterotypes matter less and less, it does not matter. I live in Krakow, Poland. I would never imagine someone calling you that unless it was in jest to make you feel good. People are not like that. They really do not care where people are from. The largest minority in Poland are Ukrainians.
      Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine and I know scores of Ukrainians including family members and I do not know any of them that mix the languages. It is not true what some person told you.

    2. Congratulations, James (Jim?) on keeping up with Polish, which isn’t an easy language. I speak and write it quite fluently, but I arrived in Canada with my parents from England in 1949 at the age of two (you do the math,)

      I’m currently enjoying a quiet (cloudy)day in Beograd, Serbia,where my wife and I came for six days (to be followed by three weeks in Croatia) because of my “later life” interest in other Slav languages, which I had ample opportunity, but not enough time– to do in Toronto. I’m having a lot of fun confusing everyone here, unfortunately more so than learning Serbian. I’m convinced that I’m much more of a pain in the butt to them than is the average English-only tourist –that, they can handle easily.

      You might discern, from my last name, I have some not-too-distant Ukrainian heritage (a grandfather)but was brought up “thoroughly Polish”. In the history of (especially) the current Western Ukraine, the Ukrainians were often dominated (politically, militarily, etc) by Poles, even when the Poles were, themselves,occupied by Austria-Hungary, Russia, Prussia, etc. Most western belong to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church or were Orthodox, and the Polish almost-exclusively Roman Catholics tended to look down on them. The serfs/peasants (chlopi) of the Polish land-owning “Lords” were mostly Ukrainians (who else, when in Ukraina?)and, of course, they added Polish to their own language. Poles are just about as purist (read “detailed” about their language as are the French (sorry, perhaps not THAT much ;-)so anyone who speaks less than good, urban Polish might be considered a “chlop”. Often, the attitude was that Ukrainians are somehow inferior to Poles. This was, of course, an ignorant attitude of often-uneducated Poles. (I hope I’m not mistaken in assuming that more-educated people would know better.)

      Since some Ukrainians and all Poles now share a common threat, ‘Russia’ there’s some incentive for them to have better relations but, with the new Russian-leaning government’s Act to change the official language of Ukrainian to Russian, it may be too late.

      So, I’m concluding that Ukrainski chlop” is just a put down, probably by a Polish chlop (of which Poland has its fair share, too.) I’d ignore it the way you might ignore a nasty drunk or other bugger, or I’d test his English by suggesting one of those physically impossible acts on oneself. In these situations, I often flaunt my linguistic superiority (Hah!!is ))by using a nasty Hungarian phrase, which involves a horse and much more eloquent than the English equivalent. Needless to say, I can run pretty fast sprint,too.

      Keep enjoying. My wife is snoozing and I’m going for a walk, enjoying the life here, and particularly the beautiful young women. The locals are friendly and engaging, in an almost-innocent sense, much more so than I expected. In four days of many different interactions, we haven’t encountered any awkward or unpleasant moments, which is pretty good, in my opinion and experience of a lifetime of travels.

      Cheers!

      Rick

      Rick

    3. @’James McDermott’

      Ukrainian IS a ‘hodge-podge’ of Polish, Czech and Russian and the dialect is kind of despised both by Russians and Poles, as well as other slavic ppl, because it sounds very artificial and unauthentic, at least to the Slavic ppl community.
      I have met probably hundreds of people from Ukraine inn Europe, but not even one of them who does not speak Russian!
      I think that the author is badly mistaken putting ‘Ukrainian’ in the eastern slavic language groups,cause its a western dialect.

      1. Ukrainian is the root language as Slavic tribes lived in Ukraine first and Russian is more a dialet. Like English or any language there have been a lot of influences.

      2. Ukrainian is the original Slavic language if you look at it from a historical perspective of Kievian Rus and prototype Slavic. It is silly to say it is a mix of other languages. Every language is. You are right that few Ukrainians want to learn Russian, I mean some do for business reasons but Russia has a history of brutal oppression against Ukraine and most Ukrainians would rather be connected to the EU.

  7. Krásné čtení. Já sám toho bohužel moc o ostatních slovanských jazycích nevím, ale je opravdu zajímavé číst si o nich, zvlášť pokud dokážete nabídnout jinou perspektivu – a to člověka, který nemá jako mateřský jazyk žádný ze slovanských jazyků. Ruština mi trhá uši ale úplně stejně! :))

    Zdravím z Prahy

    1. It is hard to get perspective on one’s own language when it is something you have grown up with. I think Slavic languages are mysterious and wonderful.

  8. Your statement “Old Church Slavonic was the first written Slavic language, codified in the 9th century by Cyril and Methodius, two missionaries who adapted the written language from a tongue spoken in modern-day Macedonia.” is not absolutly correct. It was spoken in Bulgaria, which was also named Bulgaria back then.

    lyudmilantonov.blogspot.de/2011/02/history-of-bulgarian-language.html

    1. I imagine you are from Bulgaria. Macedo-Bulgarian was a base, however, real Old Slavic was all thought the Slavic lands. However, Old Church Slavonic which you speak of finds its roots in the Balkans but does resemble modern Bulgarian of course.

      However, this is just one opinion in History. Horace Lunt a Professor at the Ukrainian institute at Harvard tells a different history. So before you say history is wrong you have to examine the many sides and stay objective. If you are Bulgarian you might be influenced by national pride. Read Horace Lunt account of Old Church Slavonic. He taught the language at Harvard and his book is the standard.

      1. National pride is irrelevant here.
        The fundamental mistake that you make is that you confuse the modern-day state of Macedonia (FYROM) and the geographical region of Macedonia which are 2 very, very different things.

        Thesalloniki ( in Slavic ‘Solun’), which is the birthplace of C. & M. is in the geographical REGION of Macedonia (nowadays Greek republic), but is NOT in the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

        Even if nowadays you go to Thessalonniki, lets say the railway station, and say that you want to travel to Macedonia it will be just Nonsense to the local people, because Thessaloniki IS Macedonia. You will only infuriate them, and they may curse you ( of course in Greek).
        Not to mention that a Republic of Macedonia has never existed, before the beginning of the 20-th century.
        Ancient Macedonia of Alexander the Great is a totally different thing and WAS NOT a Slavic state.
        That is the main reason that Greece so vehemently the recognition of “the Republic of Macedonia”.
        Of course one must be acquainted with Balkan history before writing on this matter, and the history is quite complex.
        Greeks and Serbs know very well that the so called “Macedonians” are pure Bulgarians, though the Serbs are more unwilling to concede it.
        Even en.wikipedia admits that Cyril and Methodius spread the alphabet first in the Bulgarian Kingdom, which was the only existing Slavic state in that region at that time!

  9. When I randomly read a text in polish, it strongly resemble me old czech. As late as 18th century, we have “rathaus”, “purkmistr” and “rynek”. Now we have “radnice”, “starosta” and “náměstí”, whilst Poles have still “ratusz”, “burmisztr” and “rynek”. The czech linguistic purism was some kind of allergic reaction to actuall endangerment of our language from german side. The situation that Poles (in spite of lost of their independence) didn´t experienced.

  10. Which language is more mellifluous is completely subjective. To me, Polish is “softer” and more musical than Czech, thanks to stronger palatization and the swinging penultimate stress. The extra sound changes that Polish (and to the east, Belarusian) underwent left it, in comparison to other West, East, and South Slavic tongues, more a “Brazilian Portuguese” to the others’ “Latin Amerian Spanish.”
    “Dz” in Polish where other have “D” (dziekuje vs. dekuji) is a softening, not a hardening, sounding more like English “j” than “dz.” (Also, dzien vs. den for “day”). THe L-with-a-bar/slash renders slowo pronounced “SWOH-voh” in Polish vs. “sloh-voh” in the others.
    In general, POlish softens (via hushing, hissing and shushing sounds) the “hard” consonants of other Slavic languages. Sorry, author, but from my point of view, you got it all backward.

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