Similarities & Differences Between the Slavic Languages
One of the great things about learning languages is that it’s a way of discovering the world. In learning languages, we create our own language worlds and we do that by finding things of interest, at least I do, whether it be in libraries, on the Internet or elsewhere.
“Without stirring abroad, one can know the whole world; without looking out of the window, one can see the way of heaven.”
Today we have an unprecedented ability to learn about many things without going very far.
Another thing that I firmly believe is that culture and language are not in any way associated with our genes or DNA, so language doesn’t equal some kind of ethnic division necessarily. Often it matches, but it doesn’t have to match.
The Geography of the Slavic Languages
If we look at a map of the world we see this area north of the Black Sea, this vast area of steppe land where the Proto-Slavic people apparently originated from. Today, we have a variety of Slavic languages and they differ from each other because of the different historical influences that affected their development.
The most widely spoken Slavic languages are Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian in the east, Polish, Czech and Slovakian in the west and then the languages of the former Yugoslavia in the south: Serbo-Croat, Slovenian, Macedonian, and also Bulgarian.
I studied Russian first and I would recommend that because, while Slavic language speakers are a large group of people, the Russian speakers are the largest group. Geographically, they are located first and foremost in Russia, and there it’s not just ethnic Russians who are Russian speakers, but the many minority peoples of Russia. Russian is also a lingua franca in Central Asia and some other countries of the former Tsarist Empire or the former Soviet Union, as well as some countries of Eastern Europe.
Starting with Russian
I started learning Russian 10 years ago partly because that was the most widely spoken of the Slavic languages, but also because I had been exposed to Russian literature as a teenager and wanted to read those books in the original language.
Then with the development of the Ukrainian crisis, I started watching Ukrainian television and couldn’t understand what the Ukrainian speaking Ukrainians were saying, only what the Russian speaking Ukrainians were saying. The two sounded so similar I felt as if I should understand Ukrainian. There were words there that were similar, but I just didn’t quite get the gist of what they were saying.
This gets back to this idea that you can’t just have a few words. Some people say if you have a thousand words you understand 70% of any context. But, in fact, that is never true. Very often the most important words are just those words that you don’t understand.
I actually learned Czech before Ukrainian because my parents were born in what became Czechoslovakia. I never understood any Czech when I was growing up. I decided it would be cool to learn it, and I figured that with Russian under my belt, it would be easier. Well, it was easier.
Grammar of the Slavic Languages
The differences between Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and so forth have more to do with vocabulary than grammar. They are quite similar in terms of grammar. Their grammars are at least as similar as the grammars of French, Spanish and Italian. When it comes to vocabulary, however, they are more different from each other than Spanish is from Italian or from French.
In a way, in terms of vocabulary, the outlier, the one with the largest lexical difference or distance is Russian. In other words, Czech, Polish and Ukrainian in terms of their vocabulary are closer together.
Historical Influences on Slavic Languages
Historically as I understand it (although I have not studied this question), the Orthodox Church and Old Church Slavonic had a major influence on the evolution of Slavic languages. The Mongol invasions also had an important influence. The Mongols largely broke up the original eastern Slavic nation built around Kiev, now known as Kievan Rus’. In its place a new regional power, The Grand Duchy of Moscow developed in the north. The successor to the southern part of the Kievan Rus’ was the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, which subsequently came under the influence of Lithuania and Poland.
In fact, at the time that Poland and Lithuania merged to form what was at that time the largest country in Europe, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there were far more Ukrainians and Belarusians in the Commonwealth than Lithuanians. The Lithuanian leadership at first adopted the language of their Orthodox Ukrainian and Belarusian subjects, and later, in many cases, Polish and the Catholic religion, as Poland came to dominate.
The Poles, as is often the case with dominant ethnic groups, became quite intolerant in their approach to the Orthodox Ukrainians. That’s why in the middle of the 17th century, to simplify history, a portion of the Ukrainian Cossacks under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnitsky, broke away from Poland and sought the protection of Russia. Over time, as more of Ukraine came under Russian control, it became the turn of the Russians to impose their language on the Ukrainians.
Similarly, there was a lot of interaction between the Czechs and the Poles. There were a lot of kings that were common to Poland, Czech Lands and Moravia. In fact, going back a thousand years there was even a common country, greater Moravia. The Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia subsequently came under considerable German influence while Slovakia was under the influence of Hungary. I am not sure how this influenced their languages, but I find that Polish, Slovak and Czech share a lot of vocabulary.
In What Order Would I Learn Them?
If I were to start to learn Slavic languages I would begin by learning Russian. The main reason is that Russian is the biggest, biggest in terms of number of speakers, and biggest in terms, rightly or wrongly, of the extent to which their writers and poets are celebrated around the world. You can dream of visiting the enormous, fascinating and sometimes enigmatic Russia and of communicating with the people. You will probably be able to look forward to reading Russian literature, watching Russian movies, and following events there.
However, this decision is truly personal. We learn best when we are most motivated. It doesn’t matter which Slavic language you learn first. It is also perfectly all right to just learn one and stop with one. If you have a friend, live in a particular country, or have an interest in a particular country or language, for whatever reasons, that is the one to learn. It is worth saying that learning a language written in the alphabet that you are most familiar with is always easier. That would argue against Russian.
I have found that once I started a Slavic language, whether Russian, Czech, Ukrainian or Polish, I discovered so much interesting content, often on the history of those countries, that I was just drawn more and more into the language and culture.
Each new Slavic language is a voyage unto to itself. Start with one and just see where that leads you. It really doesn’t matter which one you start with, nor the order in which you learn them.
Fortunately, for each one of the four Slavic languages I have studied I found ample resources via the Internet, whether it be audiobooks and eBooks for Russian. There’s an abundance of books that you can download and import into LingQ. LingQ also has lots of content, audio and text, in its libraries for five Slavic languages.
I’ve found Ekho Moskvy a phenomenal resource because every day there are new interviews on a wide variety of subjects, mostly with transcripts. Russia produces lots of excellent audio books, which can be found online. LitRes is a great resource for things Russian. I am subscribed to it on my iPhone.
With Czech I’ve found this history series Toulky českou minulostí and the political podcast Jak to vidí. Unfortunately, they no longer publish the transcripts for Jak to vidí, but that series was very helpful to me. You can find eBooks and audiobooks for Czech. Similarly, with Polish I was able to find eBooks and audiobooks. Audioteka has great resources for many languages, including a number of Slavic ones. However, the best is to search the web yourself.
With Ukrainian I regularly listen to Hromadske Radio, which is a very interesting source of podcasts daily on events in Ukraine, both in Russian and Ukrainian, and Radio Svoboda where they will often have texts with audio. I have found the Ukrainian language version of Orest Subtelny’s history of Ukraine, in Ukrianian, both in ebook form and audiobook form. Great resources. If you search in Ukrainian you will find them, and more, as I did.
I am glad to have embarked on my journey into the world of Slavic languages, now five counting my brief exposure to Slovak (recently added to LingQ). I recently visited Croatia as well as Bosnia, with my wife, on our 50th anniversary so I made sure that we had Serbian and Croatian on LingQ. I worked hard exploring these similar languages, (only a few words and grammatical constructions are different) before our visit. The Croatians all spoke English so much better than I spoke their language thus I didn’t get much chance to use it. On the other hand, taxi drivers in Bosnia were not as fluent in English, so I took great pleasure in struggling to speak with them in Serbo-Croatian. With my knowledge of other Slavic languages, it seemed easy to learn Serbo-Croation, and it was easy to understand, but speaking it would require a lot more practice
I have my group of romance languages with Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and, of course, Romanian, which is a bit of an outlier. My Germanic languages include Swedish, English, and German. From the little bit of Dutch that I’ve looked at on LingQ, I don’t think it would be difficult to learn.
As for my Asian-language, obviously Chinese, or Mandarin, was a good base for Japanese and Korean. These latter two languages – though they borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Chinese – are part of a different language family.
My current area of concentration is the Middle East. I am trying to learn Arabic, the standard form, as well as getting some sense of the Levantine and Egyptian form. I am learning Persian at the same time. I started on Turkish as well, and have some sense of it, but have decided to leave it for now to improve my ability to read in the Arabic script. However, these languages are connected by history and geography, even though they belong to three different language families. For me, in languages, exploration is the name of the game.