InLanguage Families

The Slavic Language Family – A Quick Overview

Main image of blog "The Slavic Language Family", showing a map where the languages are spoken.

What do you feel when reading the title of this blog entry “The Slavic Language Family“? I will tell you: probably, nothing. The chances are good that you feel exactly as if you had read “The Mongolistic language family” or “The Turkic language family.”

Indifferent is an accurate word to describe your (non-)feelings. Anyway, you are unlikely on your way to learning a Slavic language. Why would you? English, French, Spanish – these are important languages. At least, this is what we are taught from the moment we have to learn them at school.

Putting aside the fact that a Slavic language is my mother tongue, it is a pity that the dominance of Romance and Germanic languages has entirely stolen the spotlight. Did you know that way more than 250,000,000 people (250 Mio.!) speak a Slavic language as their mother tongue?

Did you know that, in written form, speakers of one Slavic language have an excellent chance to understand (to some extent) another Slavic tongue? Can you, as an English speaker, say the same about understanding, e.g., German or Swedish, when you read it? Did you know that at least 14 Slavic languages exist? Therefore, let’s have a closer look at the unique family of Slavic languages!

Proto-Slavic – The Mother of the Slavic Language Family

Well, this is not 100% accurate as Proto-Slavic is only one of the ancient languages that stem from the Proto-Indo-European language (like 3,500 BC). Oh no, history! Boring, many might think and automatically start to turn off their brains. Don’t! Did you know, e.g., that éḱwos already meant “horse” in those times. In Latin, you have the word “equus.” Even nowadays, you call a horse race in Spanish a “carrera hípica”, showing a slight resemblance to this ancient term. We still use a lot of the descendants from centuries-old words.

Long story short, Proto-Indo-European supposedly split up into Proto-Balto-Slavic (the mother of Baltic languages and mainly spoken in the area of today’s Ukraine, Poland, and Russia) and its dialect south from the Pripyat river. The entire area was home to the Balto-Slavic dialectic continuum. The southern dialect later became Proto-Slavic (ca. 1,000 BC). It is generally assumed that the word “Slav” dates back to this period. However, there are numerous theories, which I will discuss in another post.

At this moment in time and for many centuries to come, thus, there was only one real Slavic language and a couple of dialects. Until…

The Breakup Into the Big Three

Three eggs lie on a table.

Around 500-600 AD, not that long ago, the old Proto-Slavic mom gave birth to her three daughters:

  1. The Eastern Slavic dialect
  2. The Western Slavic dialect
  3. The Southern Slavic dialect

Why is this so important? Because this threefold classification of the Slavic languages still remains today. It is simply mesmerizing that people within this language group can up to now understand each other to a reasonably high degree. Which important modern languages belong to which Slavic language group?

  • Eastern Slavic languages: Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian.
  • Western Slavic languages: Polish, Czech, and Slovak.
  • Southern Slavic languages: Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Slovene.

I can personally confirm that I can understand some Bulgarian or Slovene when I hear it (however, I often don’t get the topic of the conversation). On the other hand, I hardly understand Russian (some words maybe) and have not the slightest idea what Czechs are talking about. But when I read it, I can comprehend 30 % – 40 %. Can you say the same when you read Danish?

What do Slavic Languages Have in Common?

There is a high number of similarities, both phonological and grammatical, but I will concentrate on only three.

Grammatical cases

The most striking characteristic is the use of grammatical cases like the nominative or accusative, which is reflected in the inflection of the endings of nouns. The right use of these cases is also the most difficult aspect for beginners in these languages. Let’s take the word “voda”, meaning water, and decline it through the seven cases in Serbo-Croatian:

  • Vod-a (nominative)
  • Vod-e (genitive)
  • Vod-i (dative)
  • Vod-u (accusative)
  • Vod-o (vocative)
  • Vod-om (instrumental)
  • Vod-i (locative)

Are you already getting a headache? You might, then, opt to learn Macedonian as only one grammar case survived through the centuries (this is one of the aspects Serbs love to make fun of).

No articles

Another difference to English is the absence of definite or indefinite articles. Saying “I see house” would be an example sentence. This is the reason that Slavic people like Russians would give statements like “I need car” when speaking in English. Macedonian (seems like it is always the odd one out) and Bulgarian are exemptions to this similarity amongst Slavic languages. However, in these languages, articles are placed after the noun, e.g., “masa-ta” (=table-the).

The magical number “five”

Five hanging lamps shown with a blue background, symbolizing the magical number 5 in the Slavic language family.

Something that native speakers of the Slavic language family do by default is to change the grammar case of nouns from the genitive singular (which is used for nouns following the numbers one, two, three, four) to the genitive plural for numbers equal or higher than five. Slovenian might be the special case here as Slovenians also employ another case for the amount of two! One example from Serbo-Croatian might be:

  • Jedna majk-a (one mother)
  • Dve, tri, četiri majk-e (two, three, four mothers)
  • Pet majk-i (five mothers)

Crazy, isn’t it? I tried to find out the reason for this particularity but I couldn’t. Sorry, folks! I will keep you updated if I find some studies about it.

That being said, this rounds up my quick overview over the Slavic Language Family. I hope that next time you read something about it, you will not feel indifferent anymore!

The Slavic Language Family – A Quick Overview – The Development of a Different Blog

In this blog, you will discover a bunch of proven tips on how to crack the language-learning game! Just give me a bit of time. This rounds up my first blog post in the new category of “language families“! I tried to keep this one short and make it an easy read for you guys. If you are interested in finding out more about the amazing language family of Slavic families, write in the comments! See you in my next blog entry!

There will be a loooooot more articles coming!

Are you asking yourself: “Who is this guy whose words I am reading right now?” You will find some information about me here.

A person reads a red book.
#6 QuickTip: Read books exclusively in foreign languages. Read aloud and consistently give your best in imitating the native speakers’ pronunciation.

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1 Comment

  • 3adjustable


    February 17, 2022 at 15:58
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