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.
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.
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.