Slavic languages

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Slavic languages,

also called Slavonic languages, a subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages. Because the Slavic group of languages seems to be closer to the Baltic group than to any other, some scholars combine the two in a Balto-Slavic subfamily of the Indo-European classification. Today, for the most part, Slavic languages are spoken in E Europe and N Asia. The total number of people for whom a Slavic language is the mother tongue is estimated at more than 300 million; the great majority of them live in Russia and Ukraine.

The Slavic subfamily has three divisions: East Slavic, West Slavic, and South Slavic. Members of the East Slavic branch are Russian, or Great Russian; Ukrainian, also called Little Russian or Ruthenian; and Belarusian, or White Russian. Together they claim close to 225 million native speakers, almost all in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and neighboring countries. The West Slavic branch includes Polish, Czech, Slovak, Lusatian, Kashubian, and the extinct Polabian. The living West Slavic languages can claim approximately 56 million speakers, chiefly in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. The South Slavic tongues consist of Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, and Macedonian, together with the liturgical language known as Church Slavonic. The first four are native to more than 30 million people, largely in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.

All Slavic tongues are believed to have evolved from a single parent language, usually called Proto-Slavic, which, in turn, is thought to have split off much earlier (possibly c.2000 B.C.) from Proto-Indo-European, the original ancestor of the members of the Indo-European language family. Proto-Slavic was probably still common to all Slavs in the 1st cent. B.C., and possibly as late as the 8th or 9th cent. A.D., but by the 10th cent. A.D. the individual Slavic languages had begun to emerge.

General Characteristics

The spoken Slavic tongues resemble one another more closely than do those of the Germanic and Romance groups; yet, although Slavic languages have much in common in basic vocabulary, grammar, and phonetic characteristics, they differ with regard to such features in many instances. One feature common to most of them is the relatively large number of consonant sounds. A striking instance showing divided usage is the varied position of the primary accent in the individual Slavic languages. For example, in Czech the stress falls on the initial syllable of a word and in Polish on the next-to-last syllable, whereas in Russian and Bulgarian the accent can fall on any syllable.


Grammatically the Slavic languages, with the exception of Bulgarian and Macedonian, have a highly developed inflection of the noun, with up to seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, instrumental, and vocative). The Slavic verb usually takes one of three simple tenses (past, present, and future), but it is further characterized by a complex feature called aspect, which can be either imperfective (showing continuous or repeated action) or perfective (denoting a completed action). Participles and gerunds are often employed where in English clauses would be used. The article is lacking in all Slavic languages except Bulgarian and Macedonian. Members of the Slavic subfamily are more conservative and thus closer to Proto-Indo-European than languages in the Germanic and Romance groups, as is witnessed by their preservation of seven of the eight cases for the noun that Proto-Indo-European possessed and by their continuation of aspects for the verb.


The vocabulary of the Slavic languages is substantially of Indo-European origin; there is an important Balto-Slavic element as well. Loan words or loan translations can be traced to the Iranian and Germanic groups and also to Greek, Latin, and Turkish. More recently, Italian and French have had some measure of influence. Slavic languages have also borrowed from each other. They tend, however, to translate and imitate foreign words rather than directly absorb them.


It is in writing, perhaps, that the most dramatic differences among the Slavic languages occur. Some Slavic languages (notably, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, and Polish) are written in differing versions of the Roman alphabet because their speakers are predominantly Roman Catholic. Other Slavic languages (such as Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian) use variations of the Cyrillic alphabet as a result of the influence of the Orthodox Eastern Church. Serbo-Croatian has several dialects, the most important of which are Serbian, which is written with the Cyrillic alphabet, and Croatian, which is written with the Roman alphabet.

The invention of the Cyrillic alphabet is ascribed traditionally to Cyril, a Greek missionary sent by Constantinople to the Slavic peoples in the 9th cent. A.D., although it may have been the work of his followers. The Cyrillic alphabet was augmented with signs based on the Greek alphabet, added to denote Slavic sounds not found in Greek. So far as is known, no writing in a Slavic language existed before the 9th cent. A.D.; the oldest Slavic texts to survive are in Old Church Slavonic and belong to the 10th and 11th cent.

See also the articles on many of the languages mentioned and Indo-EuropeanIndo-European,
family of languages having more speakers than any other language family. It is estimated that approximately half the world's population speaks an Indo-European tongue as a first language.
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See R. Jakobson, Slavic Languages (2d ed. 1955); L. J. Herman, A Dictionary of Slavic Word Families (1974); H. Birnbaum, Common Slavic (1979); A. M. Schenker and E. Stankiewicz, ed., The Slavic Literary Languages (1980); S. C. Gardiner, Old Church Slavonic (1984); R. Jakobson, Russian and Slavic Grammar: Studies, 1931–1981 (ed. by L. R. Waugh and M. Halle, 1984).

Slavic Languages


the languages of the Slavs, who live principally in Europe and Asia. According to a 1970 estimate, there are about 260 million speakers of Slavic languages. The modern Slavic languages are conventionally divided into three groups: the East Slavic languages, comprising Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian, the South Slavic languages, comprising Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, and Slovene, and the West Slavic languages, comprising Czech, Slovak, Polish and the Kashubian dialect, and Upper and Lower Wendish (Lusa-tian). The Slavic languages form a closely related group belonging to the Indo-European family of languages; the Baltic languages are the group most closely related to them. The close relationship of the Slavic languages is demonstrated in the vocabularies, the common origin of many words, roots, and morphemes, the syntax and semantics, and the system of regular sound correspondences in the various languages. The differences, both specific and typological, have been caused by the development of the languages under different conditions over a thousand-year period.

After the disintegration of Indo-European linguistic unity, the Slavs remained an ethnic unit for a long time, speaking a single tribal language called Proto-Slavic—the ancestor of all the Slavic languages. Proto-Slavic had a longer history than the individual Slavic languages have; it was the sole language of the Slavs for several thousand years. Dialectal differences appeared only in the last millennium of its existence—at the end of the first millennium B.C. and in the first millennium A.D. The Slavs entered into relations with various Indo-European tribes: the ancient Baits, principally the Prussians and the Jatvingians, with whom they had a lengthy contact, and the Iranians, with whom the contact was not as close. The most significant contacts with non-Indo-European languages were with the Finno-Ugric and Turkic languages. All these contacts are reflected to varying degrees in the vocabulary of Proto-Slavic.

On the basis of the changes that the Indo-European palatal stops k’and g’ underwent, Proto-Slavic belongs to the satem division of Indo-European languages, which includes the Indic, Iranian, and Baltic languages.

Proto-Slavic underwent two fundamental processes: the palatalization of consonants before jod [j] and the loss of closed syllables. These processes transformed the phonetic structure of the language, strongly affected the phonological system, conditioned the rise of new alternations, and fundamentally changed the inflections. The processes occurred during the disintegration of the language into dialects and are therefore reflected differently in the different languages. The loss of closed syllables in the last centuries B.C. and the first millennium A.D. lent late Proto-Slavic an important peculiarity and fundamentally transformed the language’s ancient Indo-European structure. Many processes in the language were connected with this development to a greater or lesser degree.

Proto-Slavic systematically distinguished between long and short vowels; reduced vowels (jers) arose in the later period of the language’s history. The vowel ū changed to y: dymъ, synъ, and bylъ. The vowel ĕ (Ѣ), which derived from ē or the diphthong o̯i̯, was pronounced in different ways in the Proto-Slavic dialects: as a broad, open e [ä] in some and a closed, tense e [ê] in others. The language had a musical-dynamic stress.

The process of the first palatalization of velars (k > č, g > ž, and x > š) developed in connection with the softening of consonants. The alternations k/č, g/ž, and x/š were already formed in Proto-Slavic on the basis of this palatalization, and they became a feature of nominal and verbal word-formation: for example, Russian ruka-ruchka (“hand”—“little hand”), noga-nóżhka (“leg”—“little leg”), and mukha-mushka (“fly”—“little fly”); Polish re̦ka-ra̦czka (“hand”-“little hand”), noga-nóżka (“leg”—“little leg”), and mucha-muszka (“fly”—“little fly”). Significantly later, after the monophthongization of the diphthong oi, velars underwent the so-called second palatalization, in whic̆h k > c, g > Ʒ, and x > s (in some dialects, x > š). The third palatalization of velars, which was the result of progressive assimilation, yielded the same changes. Early in the history of the separate Slavic languages, the new alternations k/c, g/Ʒ(z), and x/s(š) arose on the basis of the second and third palatalizations of velars. In Russian, Slovak, and Slovene, these alternations were lost as a result of leveling: for example, Russian ruka-ruke (“hand,” nom. sg.-dat. and prep. sg.), noga-noge (“leg,” nom. sg.-dat. and prep. sg.), and mukha-mukhe (“fly,” nom. sg.-dat. and pre. sg.); Slovak ruka-ruke (“hand,” nom. sg.-dat. and loc. sg.), noha-nohe (“leg,” nom. sg.-dat. and loc. sg.), and mucha-muche (“fly,” nom. sg.-dat. and loc. sg.); and Slovene roka-roki (“hand,” nom. sg.-dat. and loc. sg.), noga-nogi (“leg,” nom. sg.-dat. and loc. sg.), and muha-muhi (“fly,” nom. sg.-dat. and loc. sg.).

Labials and dentals before jod also underwent fundamental changes, and various alternations were formed: s/š, z/ž, p/pl’, b/bl’, and others.

Morphology in the Proto-Slavic period already presented some fundamental deviations from the Indo-European type, principally in the verb and, to a lesser extent, the noun. Most suffixes were formed during this period. Many nominal suffixes arose as a result of the merging of the final sounds of stems with the Indo-European suffixes -k-, -t-, and others. Slavic suffixes that arose in this way include -okъ, -ykъ, -ikъ, -ьkь, -ukъ, -ъkъ, and -akъ.

The noun in Proto-Slavic was inflected for case and number (singular, plural, and dual). Almost all the Slavic languages subsequently lost the dual (it is retained in Slovene and Wend-ish). Declension types were determined not by grammatical gender but by the phonetic character of the stem. Stems ended in -a, -o, -i, -u, - ū, -s, -n, -t, or -r, or they could have a zero ending. After the developments caused by the loss of closed syllables, grammatical gender became the deciding factor in determining declension type (masculine, feminine, and neuter). There were also nominal stems that functioned as attributes and were inflected for gender, for example, dobrъ, dobra, dobro (“good”). These nominal stems were inflected according to the pattern of the -o stems in the masculine and neuter and the pattern of the -a stems in the feminine. In the late Proto-Slavic period new adjectives arose that were inflected according to the pattern of the pronominal declension, for example, dobrъjь, dobraja, dobroje (“good”). Numerals in Proto-Slavic were not a separate part of speech; nouns that signified numbers had various nominal stems. In all the Slavic languages, the numeral as a separate part of speech arose later.

The verb had two stems: that of the infinitive and that of the present tense, for example, bъrati-bero̹ (“to take”-”I take”). The infinitive, supine, aorist-imperfect, l-participle, past active participle, and past passive participle were formed on the infinitive stem. The present tense, imperative mood, and present active and present passive participles were formed on the present tense stem. An imperfect based on the present tense stem arose later in the separate Slavic languages, for example, berĕaxъ (“I took”). The verb had primary endings in the present tense and secondary endings in the aorist, imperfect, and imperative.

The Proto-Slavic lexicon is highly distinctive. Proto-Slavic retained the Indo-European lexical stock, but it also lost many Indo-European words, for example, many names of domestic and wild animals and many social terms. Words were also lost in connection with various prohibitions, or taboos; for instance, the Indo-European word for bear was replaced by the euphemism medvĕdъ (“honey eater”).

Several dialect features arose in Proto-Slavic, forming the basis for the different Slavic languages. The most closely knit group of Proto-Slavic dialects was the one from which the East Slavic languages subsequently developed. Within the West Slavic group, three independent subgroups are distinguished: Lekhitic, Wendish (Sorbian), and Czech-Slovak. Of the Lekhi-tic group, only Polish remains; Polabian and Pomeranian have died out. The Czech-Slovak group was close to the South Slavic languages, and modern Slovak preserves many peculiarities that link it with Slovene. The South Slavic group had the greatest dialect differentiation.

The Proto-Slavic language was spoken during a period when tribal social relations predominated. It gradually broke up into the separate Slavic languages during the period of disintegration of the tribal structure and the formation of feudal relations. In the early Slavic feudal states, such as Samo’s state and the Bulgarian state of the seventh and eighth centuries, significant features of the older order remained; for example, paganism was retained, and there was no writing in the native language. Meanwhile, the development of new feudal social relations, the appearance of inequality of wealth, the development of production and trade, the specialization of crafts, the appearance of cities, and the broadening of economic ties with neighboring peoples gave rise to a profound transformation of the entire social structure. This determined a qualitatively new stage in the history of the Proto-Slavic dialects. During this transition period, conversational koines encompassing more than one dialect underwent intensive development. They took on the features of different territorial dialects and easily assimilated foreign elements.

The further development of feudalism, the growing complexity of the state, and, finally, the acceptance of Christianity created an acute need for a written form of the spoken language. Only in 863 did Cyril and Methodius create a Slavic alphabet (Glagolitic) for the Slavic liturgy in Moravia. After the brothers’ deaths, the center of Slavic literacy was transferred to Bulgaria. There, under Tsar Simeon (893-927), the Slavic liturgy became firmly established, original literature developed (Ioann the Exarch), and many new translations from Greek were made. A second, more developed alphabet (Cyrillic) was created in Bulgaria; it is the basis of modern Slavic writing. With the acceptance of Christianity, the Old Slavonic language and its literature were disseminated from Bulgaria to Serbia, Rus’, and other neighboring Orthodox states. Old Slavonic was not ony a church language in these countries but also the language of administration and culture, fulfilling all the functions of a written language. Old Slavonic (later, Church Slavonic) itself was influenced by the local languages in different countries. Thus, in the Middle Ages there were different variants of Church Slavonic. Beginning in the 16th century, the Russian variant of Church Slavonic acquired great authority in the Slavic world, and it influenced the written language of the South Slavs. No Slavic texts from the ninth century have been preserved. The oldest texts are the Dobruja Inscription (943), the Codex Zographensis (980), and Tsar Samuil’s Inscription (993).

The most important process in the early history of the separate Slavic languages (11th and 12th centuries) was the loss of reduced vowels in weak position. It marked the end of the long epoch of open syllables. The loss of weak ъ and ъ led to the rise of new closed syllables and the reduction of the number of syllables in a word, for example, vbsĕxъ > vsĕx. It also had a number of very important consequences in phonetics, phonology, word-formation, and morphology. Most of the Slavic languages lost their musical stress; traces of the old intonations are found in stress placement and in the presence of long and short monophthongs. All the West Slavic languages acquired a fixed stress—on the initial syllable in Czech and on the penultimate syllable in Polish. Among all the Slavic languages, Russian and the Čakavian dialects of Serbo-Croatian have best preserved the old stress location.

During the feudal period, the Slavic languages underwent fundamental changes in various aspects of their structure. Some of the changes encompassed many of the languages; others were reflected only in one or two. A single masculine declension took shape out of the various masculine stem types; however, it had different variants conditioned by the categories of animate-inanimate and personal-nonpersonal, as well as by phonetic position. The feminine declension is more archaic, since two types of declension are consistently preserved: nouns ending in -a and those ending in a consonant. Most Slavic languages lost the simple past tenses (the aorist and imperfect); consequently, the perfect tense widened its functions significantly. In the East Slavic languages, the perfect tense lost its auxiliary verb, and the l-participle functions as a past tense. The Slavic languages also developed the new category of adverbial participle (deeprichastie).

The modern Slavic literary languages with unified orthographic and pronunciation norms were formed during the national period of the history of the Slavic peoples—in most cases, under difficult conditions of national oppression and the lack of an autonomous state. Therefore, these languages functioned in a very narrow sphere. The Russian literary language developed under the most favorable conditions. It, in turn, had a great influence on the formation and development of many other Slavic literary languages. The Russian literary language went through many centuries of complex evolution. Developing over a long period, it absorbed both folk elements and elements of Old and, later, Church Slavonic, and it was also influenced by many European languages.

The formation process of the other Slavic literary languages occurred differently. In Bohemia, the old literary language, which had reached a high degree of development in the 14th to 16th centuries, had nearly disappeared by the 18th century, and German predominated in the cities. During the period of national renaissance, the Czech Buditeli (Awakeners) artificially resurrected the 16th-century language, which by that time was already far removed from the language of the people. The entire history of the Czech literary language of the 19th and 20th centuries reflects the complex interaction of the old literary language and spoken Czech.

The history of the formation of the Slovak literary language was different. Unencumbered by old literary traditions, Slovak is close to the central folk dialect. In Serbia, the Russian variant of Church Slavonic predominated until the 19th century. However, as early as the 18th century the slow process of bringing the literary language closer to the language of the people had begun. As a result of the reforms of Vuk Stefanović Karadzic, a new literary language was created in the mid-19th century based on the language of the people. Because of the differing historical developments, the typological divergence of the Slavic literary languages is significantly greater than that of the dialect languages.


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S. B. BERNSHTEIN [23–1642–]

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