Typically the word Slavic brings to mind an ethnicity, culture, or specific region of Europe. Embedded in the culture and countries surrounding the term are the languages which the people themselves speak. Here is a quick guide to the Slavic family of languages.
Why are the Slavic languages important?
The Slavic languages are a family of languages which cover over half the mainland of continental Europe and are spoken by more than 315 million people in 14 different European countries. If you’re traveling to Eastern Europe, chances are you’ll encounter a slavic language.
Where Slavic languages come from
All Slavic languages are descendants of an earlier language called Proto-Slavic (500-1000 AD). Because they all descended from this common language, the Slavic languages share a lot of commonalities. While the languages aren’t usually mutually intelligible there are many similarities in vocabulary and grammar.
In fact these languages are more closely related to each other than the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian) are to one another.
Key features from Slavic languages
With a couple exceptions almost all Slavic languages use what are called grammatical cases. When a language uses these cases it means the word for a noun changes based on how it is used in a sentence.
So if we were to take a few sentences like: I like cheese. This cheese is good. I want pizza with cheese….in a Slavic language each of these sentences would use a different case (or version) for the noun cheese. Slavic languages can have up to 7 cases, which can make basic conversation a little difficult at times.
By and large Slavic languages don’t use article words like “a” and “the”. This is because their grammatical cases means there is no need for them. This makes for a plus side to the complex grammar.
Slavic languages are notorious for stringing together large numbers of consonants (sometimes 3 or 4), often at the beginning of words. For native English speakers this means than pronouncing and understanding Slavic languages can prove difficult.
Slavic Language Families
There are 3 families of Slavic languages: Eastern, Western, and Southern. Each has its own unique features and attributes.
There are three languages in the Eastern Slavic branch. All three share a limited level of mutual intelligibility.
Russian is by far the most widely spoken Slavic language with over 260 million native and non-native speakers. For this reason it is also the most popular Slavic language to be studied as a foreign language. Outside of Russia it is spoken in most post-soviet union countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and more. Russian is also one of the 6 official languages of the United Nations.
Ukrainian is the third most widely spoken Slavic language with about 30 million native speakers. It is spoken mostly in Western Ukraine. It is known to be one of the most beautiful and melodic languages in the Slavic family (and some say the world). Typically the language has an overall softer sound that its sister languages.
Belarusian is spoken in the country of Belarus where it is the official language (along with Russian). There are a little over 3 million native speakers of Belarusian most of which are in Belarus, though others live in Russia, Ukraine, and even some parts of Poland. Belarusian is considered to be more closely related to Russian than Ukrainian.
There are numerous languages in the West Slavic family the most notable are Polish and Czech
Polish is the second most widely spoken Slavic language after Russian with about 55 million native speakers most of who live in Poland proper. With a huge Polish diaspora after WWII, Polish speakers can also be found in countries as far removed as the USA, Israel, and Brazil. Many language learners cite Polish as one of the hardest languages in learn in the Slavic family.
Czech is spoken by over 10 million people within the Czech Republic. It shares a high level of mutual intelligibility with another Western Slavic language called Slovak which has over 5 million speakers, most of which are located in Slovakia.
Languages in the Southern family include, but are not limited to, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Slovenian.
Serbo-Croatian is a language with multiple standard forms which are mutually intelligible. Serbo-Croatian is spoken by around 21 million native speakers in such countries as Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.
Bulgarian is spoken by 9 million speakers in and around the country of Bulgaria. Curiously enough Bulgarian is one of the few Slavic languages which doesn’t use grammatical cases and uses articles. This makes it easier to learn for native English speakers than most Slavic languages.
Slovenian is spoken by 2.5 million speakers, most of whom live in Slovenia.
Which Slavic language should you learn?
This answer will vary widely based on where you plan to travel and which cultures you are interested in. By sheer popularity Russian is unquestionably the first Slavic language of choice. If you plan on traveling extensively in Eastern Europe you will get more mileage out of Russian than any other Slavic language.
The popularity of a language will also determine how many resources and how much information you’ll be able to find to help you learn that language. It’s a lot easier to find courses and information for learning Russian than it is a less popular language like Slovenian.
In addition to a language’s popularity it’s also important to consider the English level of the country you’re planning to visit. It way not be as appealing for the casual traveler to learn the language of a country whose people generally have a good level of English. Poland for instances ranks 10 on the list of countries with the most proficient level of English. Countries like Russia and Ukraine rank considerably lower at 34 and 41. You’re more likely to need Russian in Russian or Ukraine than you are to need Polish in Poland.
The Slavic language family isn’t as well known as the Romance or Germanic language families. Just as most people would sooner travel to Italy or Germany rathern than Russia, they would also learn Italian or German before they ever picked up a Russian phrasebook. But the same allure that draws people across the less traveled road to Eastern Europe is the same one that entices people to learn the Slavic languages.
There is a great deal of wonder and mystique surrounding the countries and cultures in this part of the world. Learning a Slavic language, even if just a little, will help unlock the door and pave the way to journey of discovery.