The Slavic languages (also called Slavonic languages), a group of closely related languages of the Slavic peoples and a subgroup of Indo-European languages, have speakers in most of Eastern Europe, in much of the Balkans, in parts of Central Europe, and in the northern part of Asia.
Scholars divide the Slavic languages into three main branches, some of which feature sub-branches:
Some scientists postulate that a North Slavic branch has existed as well; the Old Novgorod dialect would be a remnant of it. On the other hand, the term "North Slavic" is also used sometimes to combine the West and East Slavic languages into one group, in opposition to the South Slavic languages.
The oldest Slavic literary language was Old Church Slavonic, which later evolved into Church Slavonic.
The tripartite division of the Slavic languages does not take into account the spoken dialects of each language. Of these, certain so-called transitional dialects and hybrid dialects often bridge the gaps between different languages, showing similarities that do not stand out when comparing Slavic literary (i.e., standard) languages.
Enough differences exist between the various Slavic dialects and languages to make communication between speakers of different Slavic languages difficult. Within the individual Slavic languages, dialects may vary to a lesser degree, as those of Russian, or to a much greater degree, as those of Slovenian.
All Slavic languages are descendants of Proto-Slavic, their parent language.
According to some historical linguistics theories, Proto-Slavic in turn developed from the Proto-Balto-Slavic language, a common ancestor of Proto-Baltic, the parent of the Baltic languages. According to this theory, the "Urheimat" of Proto-Balto-Slavic lay in the territories surrounding today's Lithuania at some time after the Indo-European language community had separated into different dialect regions (c. 3000 BC). Slavic and Baltic speakers share at least 289 words which could have come from that hypothetical language. According to some linguists the process of separation of Proto-Slavic speakers from Proto-Baltic speakers presumably occurred around 1000 BC.
Some linguists maintain however, that the Slavic group of languages differs more radically from the neighboring Baltic group (Lithuanian, Latvian, and the now-extinct Old Prussian). The Baltic language speakers once lived in a much larger area along the Baltic Sea and south. Starting by AD 600 Slavic language speakers gradually spread and took over large areas of Baltic settlements. (At the same time records note them taking over portions of Greece.) (The first documented attempt at conquest of Baltic speakers by Slavic speakers comes from Adalbert of Prague in the year AD 997.) This group of linguists explain Baltic/Slavic similarities in grammar and vocabulary as a result of this Slav migration into the Baltic-speaking areas and the subsequent proximity of the two groups.
A minority of linguists, spurred by the idea of "geolinguistics", view the southern branch of the Slavic languages as possibly autochthonous to the Balkans.
The Proto-Slavic language existed approximately to the middle of the first millenium AD. By the 7th century, it had broken apart into large dialectal zones.
There are no reliable hypotheses about the nature of the subsequent breakup of West and South Slavic. East Slavic is generally thought to converge to one Old Russian language, which existed until at least the twelfth century. It is now believed that South Slavs came to the Balkans in two streams, and that between them was a large non-Slavic population of Vlachs.
Linguistic differentiation received impetus from the dispersion of the Slavic peoples over large territory - which in Central Europe exceeded the current extent of Slavic-speaking majorities. Written documents of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries already have some local linguistic features. For example the Freising monuments show a language which contains some phonetic and lexical elements peculiar to Slovenian dialects (e.g. rhotacism, the word krilatec).
First Slavic literatures originated in the South and East Slavic countries, where Saints Cyril and Methodius invented Cyrillic and Glagolithic scripts for Slavic languages in the 9th century. The only substantial body of medieval Slavic literature is preserved in Old East Slavic, with such masterpieces as Ilarion's Lay of the Grace and Beauty (mid-11th century) and the incomparable Lay of Igor's Campaign, the only medieval Slavic epic in existence. The Primary Chronicle was the only major historic document written in a medieval Slavic language. Afanasiy Nikitin and Avvakum Petrovich were outstanding Russian writers of a later period (see also byliny).
The West Slavs were in a different situation. The evolution of literary languages in Poland, Bohemia, and Slovakia was stymied by the domination of Latin as the language of worship. In effect, the development of literature in local languages was suppressed by the popularization of Latin. The first substantial literary records of the Polish and Czech appear three centuries after the literary flowering of Kievan Rus. In the West, there was a clear separation between the people's language and the language of high culture. Only during the Renaissance vernaculars became more popular in literature then Latin -- in Dubrovnik (Ivan Gundulić), in Dalmatia, in Poland (Jan Kochanowski), in Bohemia (Jan Hus). (Two hundred years earlier, Geofrey Chaucer with similar intentions wrote the first books in English under the overwhelming imposition of English French, or, as it is now called, Anglo-Norman). On the other hand, the Church, with its control on education system, was an important factor facilitating the spread of literacy and other knowledge.
At about the same time, the Serbs and the Bulgarians, suppressed under the Ottomans and in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, began to awaken with a national consciousness to the monumental task of reforming their languages. Both in Bulgaria and in Serbia, the Church resisted these attempts, fearing revolution and seeing language reform as an attempt of assimilation by the West. While Vuk Karadži ć was fighting with the patriarch in Vojvodina for his attempts at ensuring a uniform literary and spoken language, inside Bulgaria the Church tried to establish firmly the Church Slavonic language as the literary language of the country.
The current state of many Slavic languages reveals foreign influence -- some of it executed by the literati (as the French words of Polish or the Russian words of Bulgarian), while some came from extensive bilingualism, such as the Turkish words in the Bulgarian and Serbian, the German words in Slovenian, and the Polish words in Belarussian and Ukrainian.
The movement of Slavic-speakers into the Balkans in the declining centuries of the Byzantine empire expanded the area of Slavic speech, but pre-existing languages (notably Greek) survived in this area. The arrival of the Hungarians in Pannonia in the 9th century interposed non-Slavic speakers between South and West Slavs. Frankish conquests completed the geographical separation between these two groups, severing the connection between Slavs in Lower Austria (Moravians) from those in present-day Styria, Carinthia and East Tyrol, ancestors of present-day Slovenians.
Political situations have also affected the use and scope of the Slavic languages. In the course of their history, many Slavic-speaking communities came under foreign rule for longer or shorter periods. Poland underwent partition, German-speaking empires appeared to absorb the Czechs for many centuries, and the Ottomans in their hey-day dominated the Balkan Slavs. Even the Eastern Slavs had to submit to the Tatar yoke after the Mongol invasion of Rus.
The largest geographical extent of Slavic population, which in the Middle Ages included the majority of the present-day German lands of Brandenburg and Pomerania, diminished in the course of the German Drang nach Osten.
Turkish incursions suppressed the regional hegemonies of Bulgarian and Serbian speakers; Poland suffered decline, partition and extinction as a separate national state in the 18th century. Until the 20th century, certain speech-groups (such as speakers of Slovenian) lacked the resources to establish their own distinctive independent nation-states. Other communities (speakers of Sorbian or of Kashubian, for example) remain as minorities in the current system of nation-states.
Some speech-communities have long stood under the influence of others -- even other Slavs: speakers of Ukrainian and Belarusian came under Polish and/or Russian rule; German-speaking overlords have long dominated the Sorbian-speakers. In the case of West Slavic speakers, originally kindred languages diverged when the Poles, Czechs and Slovaks became parts of different countries (Poland, Bohemia, Kingdom of Hungary, respectively), Slovak becoming considerably influenced by Czech after 1400/1500. A political division (Austria, Kingdom of Hungary) also marks the now well-established border between the Slovenian and Croatian language areas, even if some bordering dialects of the two languages indicate an almost smooth transition.
Despite their frequent lack of political power, speakers of Slavic languages demonstrated resilience, sometimes culturally taking over foreign political rulers, as in Bulgaria, where Bulgar overlords became Slavicized. Similarly, in the Republic of Dubrovnik, Croatian became an official language in parallel to Ragusan Dalmatian and Latin. Even under the Ottoman Empire, south-eastern Europe, except for Greece proper and Albanian, Romanian and Hungarian areas, remained Slavic speaking.
The Romanian and Hungarian languages witness the influence of the neighboring Slavic nations, especially in the vocabulary pertaining to crafts and trade; the major cultural innovations at times when few long-range cultural contacts took place.
Despite a comparable extent of historical proximity, the Germanic languages show no significant Slavic influence, one notable exception being the word for "border", modern German Grenze, Dutch "grens" from the Common Slavic *granĭca. The only Germanic language that shows significant Slavic influence is Yiddish. Most languages of the former Soviet Union, Russia and neighbouring countries (for example, Mongolian) are significantly influenced by Russian, especially in vocabulary.
The following tree for the Slavic languages derives from the Ethnologue report for Slavic languages. It includes the SIL, ISO 639-1 and ISO 639-2 codes where available. ISO 639-2 uses the code sla in a general way for Slavic languages not included in one of the other codes.
East Slavic languages:
West Slavic languages:
South Slavic languages:
Note that Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian previously formed a unitary Serbo-Croatian (SIL 14th ed. code: SRC; ISO 639-1 code: sh; ISO 639-2(B) codes: scr and scc). See also: Differences in official languages in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.
Para- and supranational languages
A planned language called Slovio also exists: constructed on the basis of Slavic languages, and intended to facilitate intercommunication between people each of whom already speak at least one Slavic language. Another conlang, Slovianski, is being developed with the aid of speakers of multiple slavic languages.
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