Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Slavic Languages: From Belarusian to Ukrainian

Back in May, we took a couple of days to explore the fascinating Germanic and Romance language families. Today we thought we'd continue learning about the world's languages with a look at the Slavic languages, which include several of the most spoken languages in Europe.

You've undoubtedly heard of languages like Russian and Polish before, but you might be surprised to learn that there are actually 19 Slavic languages in total. Let's take a brief look at all of them!

Veliki Vrh, Slovenia
East Slavic Languages

The Slavic language family is generally divided into three groups: East, West, and South. The East Slavic languages have the most native speakers, primarily because the group includes Russian, which has around 150 million native speakers. It is the most spoken Slavic language, as well as the eighth most spoken language in the world.

The second most prominent language in this group is Ukrainian, which is the third most spoken Slavic language. It is closely related to Rusyn, also known as Ruthenian, which is one of those tricky language varieties that some linguists consider to be a language and others consider to be a dialect, in this case a dialect of Ukrainian. Either way, there are about 600,000 native speakers of Rusyn, primarily in Slovakia, Serbia, Poland and Ukraine.

The final member of this group is Belarusian, the official language of Belarus. Interestingly, all four of these languages are primarily written in Cyrillic script, which is certainly not the case with many other Slavic languages.

West Slavic Languages

The West Slavic languages are often divided even further into three groups: Czech-Slovak, Lechitic, and Sorbian languages. We bet you can guess the two languages in the Czech-Slovak group. They are of course Czech and Slovak, which are so closely related that they are largely mutually intelligible.

A street sign in both German and Sorbian.
The Lechitic languages include Polish, the second most spoken Slavic language. It is joined by Kashubian and Silesian, which are both recognized as minority languages in Poland. Both languages are so closely related to Polish that they are often considered to be dialects of the language.

Then there are the Sorbian languages, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian. Sadly, both of these languages, which are spoken in Germany, are in decline. There are approximately 13,000 speakers of Upper Sorbian and about 6,000 remaining Lower Sorbian speakers.

South Slavic Languages

Finally, we've reached the South Slavic languages, which are geographically separated from all of the other Slavic languages by areas where German, Hungarian, and Romanian are primarily spoken.

There are two living languages that belong to the East branch of this group: Macedonian and Bulgarian. As usual, they are so closely related that linguists like to dispute as to whether they are even separate languages.

Last but not least, there are the languages that belong to the West branch: Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovene, and Slavomolisano. The first three are standardized forms of the macrolanguage known as Serbo-Croatian, which are official languages in their respective countries. There's also Slovene, the official language of Slovenia, which has over 2 million native speakers, and Slavomolisano. Slavomolisano is a language spoken in Italy by descendants of Croatian refugees. Unfortunately, the language is dying with less than 1,000 speakers, but it is still taught in schools.