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Encyclopedia > West Slavic

The Slavic languages (also called Slavonic languages) comprise the languages of the Slavic peoples. They form a distinct group of Indo-European languages, with 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:

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 Slavs of different linguistic backgrounds difficult, but not impossible. Within the individual Slavic languages, dialects may vary to a lesser degree, as in Russian, or to a much greater degree, as in Slovenian. Modern mass communication, however, has helped to minimize variation in all the Slavic languages.


Slavic languages descend 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.

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

Numerous migrations and invasions, especially on the open plains of east/central Europe, have promoted offshoots and separated linguistic communities. 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 established a permanent gap between Southern and Western Slavs, and the German Drang nach Osten from the Middle Ages onwards gradually eliminated or reduced the Slavic languages once spoken in today's northern German lands.

Political situations have also affected the use and scope of the Slavic languages. With the exception of the Russophones, few Slavic-speaking communities have established long-term, self-sufficient, permanent states. Thus Turkish incursions suppressed the regional hegemonies of Bulgarian and Serbian speakers; Poland suffered decline and partition. Some speech-groups (such as speakers of Slovenian) for centuries lacked the resources to establish independent 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: 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.

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.

Detailed list with SIL and ISO 639-2 codes

The following tree for the Slavic languages derives from http://www.ethnologue.com/show_family.asp?subid=656. 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, RUW; ISO 639-1 code, be; ISO 639-2 code, bel)
    • The United States State Department, ethnologue.com and the Rosetta Project recognize the form Belarusan.
  • 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
  • Lekhitic Section
    • Polish - (SIL Code, PQL; ISO 639-1 code, pl; ISO 639-2 code, pol) (Note the counterintuitive SIL code "PQL"; "POL" refers to the Polci language of Nigeria)
    • Kashubian - (SIL Code, CSB; ISO 639-2 code, csb)
    • Slovincian - an extinct dialect of Kashubian
    • Polabian - extinct - (SIL Code, POX; ISO 639-2 code, sla)
  • Czech-Slovak Section
    • Czech - (SIL Code, CZC; 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, SLO; ISO 639-1 code, sk; ISO 639-2(B) code, slo; ISO 639-2(T) code, slk)

South Slavic languages:

  • Western Section
    • Slovenian - (SIL Code, SLV; ISO 639-1 code, sl; ISO 639-2 code, slv)
    • Serbo-Croatian - (SIL Code, SRC; ISO 639-1 codes, bs, hr and sr; ISO 639-2 codes, bos; ISO 639-2(B) codes, scr and scc; ISO 639-2(T) codes, hrv and srp)
      • After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian became officially considered as three languages -- Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian -- though the differences (apart from the choice of script) remain more political than dialectal. For more information see Differences in official languages in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.
    • Romano-Serbian - (SIL Code, RSB; ISO 639-2 code, sla)
  • Eastern Section
    • Macedonian - (SIL Code, MKJ; ISO 639-1 code, mk; ISO 639-2(B) code, mac; ISO 639-2(T) code, mkd)
    • Bulgarian - (SIL Code, BLG; ISO 639-1 code, bg; ISO 639-2 code, bul)
    • Old Church Slavonic - extinct (SIL Code, SLN; ISO 639-1 code, cu; ISO 639-2 code, chu)


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

See also

  Results from FactBites:
Slavic languages - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (1621 words)
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.
The arrival of the Hungarians in Pannonia in the 9th century interposed non-Slavic speakers between South and West Slavs.
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.
  More results at FactBites »



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