Slavic languages

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Slavic languages

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 BC) 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. BC, and possibly as late as the 8th or 9th cent. AD, but by the 10th cent. AD 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.

Grammar

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.

Vocabulary

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.

Writing

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. AD, 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. AD; 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-European.

Bibliography

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).

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