All In The Language Family: The Slavic Languages

Which are the Slavic languages, and how did they evolve into what they are today?
Slavic Languages

The Slavic language family is spoken throughout a huge swath of land, covering the Balkans, parts of central and eastern Europe, and the entirety of Russia. While relatively confined to these spaces — they’re not spoken in the Western Hemisphere as widely as the Romance and Germanic languages are — the Slavic languages are a major family, with half of them acting as national languages. Here’s a brief guide to what the Slavic languages are, where they come from and how similar they all are to each other.

What Are The Slavic Languages?

Sources mostly agree that there are 20 living Slavic languages. In alphabetical order, they are Belarusian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Church Slavonic, Croatian, Czech, Kashubian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Polish, Russian, Rusyn, Serbian, Silesian, Slavomolisano, Slovak, Slovene, Lower Sorbian, Upper Sorbian and Ukrainian.

Depending on who’s counting, the number could go up or down, like if you choose to count Burgenland Croatian as a separate language rather than only a dialect. The counting of languages can be controversial, and there are no strict definitions as to when a dialect becomes a “language” proper.

Where Do The Slavic Languages Come From?

The Slavic languages are Indo-European, meaning that if you go back far enough, they can all be traced to Proto-Indo-European. Because of this, Slavic languages are related to a range of other language families, including Germanic and Romance. When Proto-Indo-European started to break apart, Proto-Balto-Slavic emerged, and then it later broke down further into Proto-Slavic (and its counterpart, Proto-Baltic).

As Slavic people continued to spread through Central Europe and the Balkans, more dialects of the Slavic languages emerged. Yet, there’s not a huge amount of hard evidence of these early Slavic languages. Proto-Slavic exists as a recreation of what linguists think the language would be. Yet we can hazard a guess that eventually, Proto-Slavic broke down into East, West and South dialects in about 1000 CE. This marked the end of the Common Slavic period, when Slavic was a single functioning language.

The first literary Slavic language is Old Church Slavonic, which was a dialect of the Slavic languages that was imposed by the church, and it was standardized in the 9th century CE by two Byzantine monks, Cyril and Methodius. The language was used in Eastern churches in the same way Latin was used in Western churches, and thus Old Church Slavonic exists in a number of religious texts. To be clear, Old Church Slavonic is not the predecessor of the other Slavic languages; it’s just the first Slavic language to be documented.

For the last millennia, the Slavic languages have continued to evolve and diverge. Some languages — Bulgarian and Russian, notably — continued to base their literary languages on Church Slavonic, and it wasn’t until the 17th centuries on that more vernacular versions of the languages began to be used. Various Slavic languages were also influenced by other European languages. Polish, for example, took in a number of Latin loanwords, which affected the evolution of the language. More recently, national schisms have contributed to the breaking apart of languages, such as the separation of Serbo-Croatian into Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

How Many People Speak A Slavic Language?

Using data from Ethnologue, if you add up the total number of people who speak each Slavic language individually, then there are about 385 million people who speak Slavic languages. There may be some overlap over who speaks each language individually, however, so the number could be a bit lower. If you count only those who speak a Slavic language as a first language, the number goes down to about 266 million.

The biggest Slavic language by far is Russian, which has 154 million native speakers and over 258 million speakers in total. Because so many Slavic languages are national languages, they tend to have pretty big populations. Russian is followed by Polish with over 40 million speakers, Ukrainian with 33 million and Czech with 13 million.

How Similar Are The Slavic Languages?

For the most part, the Slavic languages are as similar to each other as the languages within any other language family. Because they evolved from the same place, they tend to have similar grammatical structures and cognates. Learning one Slavic language can give you an advantage over others.

Some of the languages, however, are very similar. Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Bosnian are all descended from Serbo-Croatian, which split up during the Croatian War of Independence. When the countries split up, so, too, did the classification of the language.  All four of the languages are mutually intelligible, and there are only slight dialectical differences between them. In 2017, there was even a Declaration of the Common Language signed by thousands of people urging the countries to stop classifying these four as separate languages. It all comes down to national identity, really.

If you wanted to learn several Slavic languages, there isn’t necessarily a mandatory place you should start from. Some claim that knowing Russian should give you a big advantage when you’re learning Ukrainian, but that turns out to be not entirely true (it helps a bit, but not a huge amount). If you’re going for the language with the most utility, Russian might be a good choice because it’s spoken so widely, but that’s far from being a mandatory starting point. But if you’re choosing a language you want to spend time lots of time learning, you might want to pick a language based on how useful it is to you.

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