Other Slavic languages



The division of Slavic languages


Slavic languages are usually divided this way:


1. Western group

  • Lechian subgroup (Polish, Kashubian, Lusitan Serbian, Elbe Slavic)

  • Czech-Slovak subgroup (Czech, Slovak)

2. Eastern group

  • Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian

3. Southern group

  • Bulgarian-Macedonian subgroup

  • Slovenian-Serbocroatian subgroup


Although there exist certain peculiar features that languages in these group share, this division has no clear borderlines, since other features fade between certain languages of different groups. For example, Czech and Slovak have quite a lot in common with the Southern group, while Polish shares some changes with Belorussian and Bulgarian in some aspects resembles Eastern languages.


In the following discourse I will try to characterize the most typical aspects of each Slavic language.



1. Western Group


The most striking change of the Western group is a preservation of tl, dl (Czech vedl "he led" x Russian vl), a change tj, dj > c, dz, kt > c, ch > s' > , the lack of l after palatalized p, b, m, v, preservation of kv-, -dl- (other groups *kv- > cv-, *-dl- > -l-) and some others (see my page about Czech language).


Czech. Czech, which is my native language, is for the first time documented quite late, in the end of the 13th century (in a medieval epic called Alexandreis). In fact, Czech literature existed much earlier, in the 9th century, but all texts were written either in Latin or in Old (Church) Slavonic. It is interesting to note that all big changes that differ modern Czech from its oldest stages occured before the 15th century, especially during the 13th-14th century. In praxis it means that today's Czech people can quite easily read works of Jan Hus (ca. 1370-1415) - with some lexical difficulties -, but the language of Alexandreis (only 100 years older) is much more difficult.


The most peculiar morphologic feature of the Czech language is narrowing vowels like ie > (Slovak piese x Czech pse "song") and diphtongization > ou in the middle or in the end (Slovak lka, p x Czech louka, pou  "meadow, desert", but Slovak as x Czech ast "participation"). In some Bohemian dialects this change existed even in the beginning, but it later disappeared. A very typical feature is also a consonant that comes from the old soft r' before e,i (Slovak more, poriadok x Czech moe, podek "order, sea"). Further, there is a change a > e, u > i after soft consonants, which is unique among Slavic languages (Slovak prca, ud x Czech prce, lid "work, people"). With Slovak (and Ukrainian and Upper Lusitan Serbian) Czech shares a change g > h (Russian gorod, Serbocr. grad x Slovak, Czech hrad, Ukrainian horod  "castle"). As the latter example shows, Czech is a "TRaT" language, i.e. it shows rotacism ar, al > ra, la. As I write on another page, Common Czech has a more advanced development than Standard Czech (, > ej, etc.).


The syntax is quite archaic (e.g. preserved vocative) with a very rich declination and conjugation, which is a nightmare for all students of Czech.


Slovak. There is not much that I could say about Slovak and it would be somewhat peculiar. In fact, besides Russian it is the most archaic Slavic language. Sometimes it is also called "a Slavic lingua Franca", because it shares a lot of features with each Slavic group. These facts result from the "middle" geographical position of Slovak among Slavic languages and from its medieval isolation that probably contributed to preservation of archaic features. In general modern Slovak looks much like Czech of Hus' time (15th century). Like Czech it has changes g, ar/al > h, ra/la, but preserved old vowels after soft consonants (see above). However, the development > uo (=) > (=) ended in the middle (Czech mj [mj] x Slovak mj [muoj]). With the Southern group it especially shares the ending of 1. pers. sg. -(j)em (instead forms coming from *-(j)õ): Czech j mohu/mu, Russian ja mogu x Slovak ja mem "I can". Slovak is generally a very soft language, in which it resembles Russian.


Polish. The most striking features of Polish (from the view of other Slavs) are the preservation of nasals (as the only modern Slavic language!) and palatalization of soft (dj), (tj) (the so-called dzekanie, dzeking). The first feature can be illustrated on ja bd "I will be" < Old Slavic *jazĭ bõdõ (compare Czech, Russian ja budu, Slovak ja budem). Thus there was a change õ > (and > [õ], ), but the nasal vowel was preserved. The second feature includes changes , > dz, and even se/si > [e/i] (e.g. in dzesi "10" x Russian evja, Czech deset). No wonder that Polish sounds like kiddish lisping. Dzeking also penetrated into Belorussian, Lusitan Serbian and some dialects in northern Moravia and northern Slovakia. Besides this there exist undeniable correspondences with Czech like (although in Polish it changed into ) and many endings. Further, Polish is a TRoT language (grd, glowa). Another thing worth mentioning in connection with Polish is the intonation on the penultimate syllable (the second syllable before end). In general, Polish is quite similar to both Czech and Slovak (although the similiraties with Slovak rather result from preserved archaisms). However, nasals and strong dzeking complicate understanding.


Lusitan Serbian is now almost extinct (there are less than 100 000 people, who speak it). It stands very close to Polish and shares the typical dzeking with it. However, nasals disappeared. It has two main forms: the lower and the upper one. The upper Lusitan Sorbian changed g > h and is closer to Czech than the lower form. However, on the whole, Lusitan Serbian isn't too close to Czech (although it may be closer to Czech than Polish), which is surprising, because Lusitan Serbians have been a part of Bohemia for 400 years. I think it also results from the fact that this language was not codified and contains a lot of folk language corruptions. Moreover, there probably wasn't any strong immigration to Serbia from Bohemia.


Elbe Slavic. This language (or rather a complex of dialects) is now extinct and was preserved in German writings from the 17th and 18th century. I really don't know any Slavic language that would look so strangely like Elbe Slavic. It shows a very fast morphological development (probably resulting from German influence) and is very, very unintelligible. In fact, I think that morphologically it went beyond compare much farther than any other Slavic language. For me even Bulgarian looks much closer than an Elbe Slavic text! For example, frequent diphtongization (like > ai) changes some words into forms that don't resemble an Indoeuropean root.



2. Eastern group


Russian. I can't tell much about the eastern group except Russian. Russian is perhaps the most archaic Slavic language. It has preserved a lot of features that don't exist in any other Slavic language like the ending -t in 3rd pers. sg. and pl. (Russian on govorit, oni govorjat x Czech on hovo, oni hovo "he speaks, they speak"), full endings of adjectives (Russian dobryj, dobraja, dobroje x Czech dobr, dobr, dobr) etc. In general it is the softest Slavic language with the strongest palatalization. For example, Russian changed kv- > cv- (Czech kvt x Russian cvet "flower"). It is quite surprising (despite the huge geographical distance) that Russian shares a lot of changes with Czech and Slovak, e.g. the same or very similar development of nasals (*rõka > Czech, Slovak, Russian ruka; *devtĭ "9" > Czech devt [devjet], Slovak dev, Russian evja) or jers (ĭ > e: *dĭnŭ > e, Czech den, Slovak e "day"). However, it posess a clumsy conjugation (the forms of "be" disappeared: Russian ja dobryj x Czech j jsem dobr "I am good"). Besides this, Russian is a ToRoT language, which means that grouping of r,l with consonants were filled with vowels (Russian gorod x Czech hrad, Serbocr. grad).


Russian really isn't too far from Czech (if we exclude lexical differences), but it has a pecularity that complicates understanding, namely a very strong non-stationary intonation. In praxis it means that Russians "eat" unstressed vowels when they are speaking and they pronounce o like dark a (golova [galavà]).


Ukrainian shows a change g > h, in which it resembles Czech and Slovak. Further, it posess a quite strange change o > i in some positions (Ukrainian stih x Czech stoh x Russian stog "stack"). In general it is harder than Russian, but I haven't studied this language in a detailed way.


Belorussian is said to have an intermediate position between Russian and Ukrainian, but I can't judge it. From my laic view, it quite resembles Polish in some things (I especially mean dzeking).



3. Southern group


The Southern group is the most distant from the Old Slavic root. Especially Bulgarian and Macedonian have lost a lot of typical Slavic features. The most typical feature is a TRaT-change that has spread as far as to the north of the Carpathian basin (it is also present in Czech and Slovak: Southern Slavic grad x Czech, Slovak hrad, Polish grd, Russian gorod). Further, there is an interesting change of 1. pers. sg. with the ending -em instead of -(j)õ. It also exists in Slovak and partly in Czech.


Serbocroatian. The most remarkable morphological features of Serbocroatian that distinguish it from other Slavic languages are changes of hard l > u, -o (Serbocr. dugo sam ekao x Czech dlouho jsem ekal "I was waiting for a long time"), ch > h (Hrvat x Czech Chorvat), palatalization of d in some positions (gospoda > gospoa [gospoda]). Soft jer changed into a (dĭnŭ > dan "day"). Besides this Serbocroatian is a TRaT language (like Czech, Slovak, and other Southern languages). Lexically and morphologically Serbocroatian is very close to both Czech and Slovak, partly due to borrowings from Czech. However, grammatical features, pronouns and adverbs can be often very different, which makes understanding more difficult than one would suppose. In general, Serbocroatian is the hardest of all Slavic languages, with very little palatalization.


Slovenian. I don't have much information about Slovenian. I can only say that it resembles Serbocroatian, although it may be more distant from it than Czech from Slovak. Otherwise it is not easily intelligible for a Czech, which is surprising, when one considers the geographical closeness.


Bulgarian and Macedonian. These languages - mutually intelligible - are gramatically the most distant from the Old Slavic root. Together with Albanian, Greek and Romanian they are a part of the so-called Balkan language unity that is characterized by several common features. In Bulgarian and Macedonian it is mainly the existence of article in the end of a word (e.g. majkata "mother") and strong reduction of declination. There also exist very peculiar morphological changes unknown from other Slavic langueges. For example, *kt > t (Bulgarian), k' (Macedonian), like *noktĭ > Czech, Slovak, Polish noc, Russian no', Serbocr. no, Mac. nok', Bulgarian not "night". It is interesting to note that for other Slavs these changes make understanding practically impossible, but it is not so difficult to read a Bulgarian text, because lexicon has remained typically Slavic.


From the systematical view Bulgarian represents a language that is obviously connected with the Eastern group. For example, e- > a-, ĭ > i, which resembles Russian (Bulg. adin, Russian odin, Serbocr. jedan, Czech jeden "one").



(To be continued...)





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