Similarities and Differences Between the Slavic Languages

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.

Through our own language world we discover things about the wider world. When I wrote my book on language learning, I referenced Zhuangzi and Taoist philosophy, and it was Laozi who said:

“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 today 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 the languages of the former Yugoslavia in the south: Serbo-Croat, Slovenian, Macedonian, and also Bulgarian.

Similarities and Differences Between the Slavic Languages

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 also 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 of  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.

Similarities and Differences Between the Slavic Languages

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.


Finding Resources

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.

Similarities and Differences Between the Slavic Languages

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.

What’s Next?

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 may attempt Serbo-Croatian in the future, particularly if I decide to go there on holiday. It is fun to explore language groups.

I have my group of romance languages with Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and 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 I don’t think it would be difficult to learn.

I should say, also, on my Asian-language side obviously Chinese, or Mandarin, was a good base for Japanese and Korean, even though those languages – though they borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Chinese – are part of a different language family.

But as it turned out, I have been distracted from pursuing more Slavic languages. Right now my focus is on Greek and Hebrew since I will be travelling to Israel and Crete in October. 


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13 comments on “Similarities & Differences Between the Slavic Languages

The map is slightly misleading. In Byelorussia and Ukraine the Russian is more spoken as shown. In Crimea or Odessa is dominating in practical use, Kashubian in Poland is seldom heard. It is similar as with use of Irish and English in Ireland.

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Alexander Yefremov

I’d like to recommend a series of books on Russian history written by Boris Akunin, contemporary russian author. As for now, the series consists of 3 books:
1. The Part of Europe. History of Russian State. From the beginning until Mongolian Invasion.
2. The Part of Asia. History of Russian State. Mongol Yoke.
3. Between Asia and Europe. History of Russian State. From Ivan III to Boris Godunov.

All books are available in paper, ebook and audio versions. The books are quite easy to read (and listen) – they are intended not for historians but for history enthusiasts.

It is not my intent to advertize; I just think it might be useful in learning both Russian language and Russian history.

I am a Croatian and I’ve never heard about the existence of Serbo-Croatian language. It is like saying that American, Canadian and British English are completely on every level the same.
P.S. I usually have to ask my friends from Serbia to translate Serbian words for me because I do not have a clue their meaning and vice versa.


    Well, Lucie, I am 1/2 Croatian, 1/2 Montenegrin, who grew up in Belgrade. Yes, there are a few words different, but you also have a situation where someone from Zagorje will not understand a person from Dalmatia. And then what?
    Nobody is saying that American English is identical to Australian English, and yet nobody says they speak “Australian” or “Canadian” or “New Zelandese”. All of them speak ENGLISH, with different accent and somewhat different dialect.

    Ideally, Serbo-Croatian should have been called Yugoslavian, as it is the language of Southern Slavs (Jugo-slavs), exactly as shown on the map. People from Serbia, Croatian, Bosnia & Montenegro speak one language with local variety. But, of course, no one will admit that. The reason is POLITICAL. You and I both know that.

      Name Sara

      It’s true that sometimes Serbian and Croatian are more similar than the standard language and it’s dialect BUT there is no such thing as Serbo-Croatian language.

      Whatever the reason, the fact is they are all quite similar but completly individual languages with it’s own grammar and vocabulary. Because of this similiraties they all belong to same group of Southern Slavic languages, therefore there is no need to confuse people with what should have been and make up names – that was non-existing even during Yugoslavia.


        You’re the one who’s confusing people. I grew up in Serbia, and I’ve been to Croatia quite a few times. I’ve never had any trouble communicating with Croats in the language whose existence you deny.

Name *vid

‘…eBooks and audiobooks because wherever you search it’s all basically this is free, that is free. I’m not that interested in free, I’m happy to pay for a decent…’
Bru you fine?
The thing is why russian is good. It’s so easy on the learner. Eaiser than english and much easier than all other languages in terms of finding content you like. And if you cannot afford it or dont feel like paing you don’t have to. Maybe you are happy to pay but young people or more poor cannot afford it and russian provides the most adavantages opportunity. It should lure learners away from other languages that are more “greedy”.
Why you’ve deleted my comment? What’s wrong with it? Lol you don’t like that some language has more content than another. That makes me never write comments again. So lifeless


    Hi there,

    Your comment wasn’t deleted. The blog switched servers and so some comments had to be approved again. We only delete spam and comments with profanities. All opinions are welcome and Steve is always interested in a good discussion on language learning topics.

    Have a great weekend 🙂

Name *Laura

Ukrainian and Belorussian are languages closer to each other than Russian. Check it out. Thanks for thoughtful article.

Name Jan Krajcik

Thanks, Steve,
verynice article. Interesting reading also for me (Slovak).
Just one comment to:
‘[Slavic languagues] have more to do with vocabulary than grammar’
Surely it’s more less true – just to note that Bulgarian has surprising differences in grammar as well: e.g. no verb infinitive (!), much richer verb tenses, limited noun cases. Really fascinating language!

Name *Sergey

Thanks a lot for your article! I was happy to see your recommendations on online resources for Russian learners. I didn’t even know that LitRes has audiobooks.

Name *. George

A few points: I have always felt, and been told, that Polish grammar is the most difficult of all Slav languages. Furthermore the similarities between Slovak and Polish are greater than the differences. I agree that learning a language in your own alphabet is easier hence no knowledge of Russian or Ukrainian but some words are recognisable aurally in those languages.

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