by Drew Martin
I am fascinated by the scope, sounds, and structure of the dozen-plus Slavic languages that span from Eastern Europe and wrap around all of Asia to the north. They are all quite similar but it is not common for one country to take interest in another's language. They would rather learn English or French or German. Plus there is the history of Russian being forced on all the other Slavs. And so, along with strong nationalism, there is a disdain for each other's variation, which they say sound weird or childish. The fact is that there are more similarities than differences but how do you capture all of this in a map or a chart. Here are two examples of graphic attempts I found that show the variety but their focus is more on territories and splits than what they share.
And once you think you have captured them all you find another region or tribe that has a unique dialect or language in their own right. This is true of the Wends, also known as the Sorbs, who are the only independent Slavic tribe without their own country. For hundreds of years they have been in German territory, nestled in a region where northern Czech meets western Poland. There are very few resources online about the language so I just ordered a Sorbian-English dictionary to figure out a few things. My interest in the Sorbs is because their language fills the gap between Czech and Polish, which the org chart above does not properly show. One might assume that Slovak was something more of a bridge language but it is rather more like a variation of Czech, whereas Sorbian looks and feels like a real hybrid. I would move their branch between the drop-downs for Czech and Polish, but this still does not tell us that much. I know both languages pretty well but I mix words, which causes problems in conversation. I figured Sorbian (not to be confused with Serbian) would be a good meeting ground for me.
[Sometimes the names of the languages are confusing. For example Slovak and Slovenian are slovenský and slovenski. Sorbian and Serbian are serbšćina and српски (srpski)]
One thing I that interested me about Sorbian, since both Czech and Polish are pretty similar, was which one did it lean towards where there are obvious divisions. As far as Slavic languages go, there are two main options for an alphabet. They either use an alphabet based on the Roman alphabet or the Cyrillic alphabet, which itself was hand-crafted for Slavic tribes by the Macedonian monks Cyril and Methodius from the alphabet systems they understood: Roman alphabet of Latin, Hebrew and Greek. The more western tribes which revamped their alphabets to adopt Roman alphabet characters picked up a few unique characters along the way. What is interesting about Sorbian is that it samples from both the Czech and Polish variations of the Roman alphabet. It favors Czech for the soft consonants but it also includes at least one letter unique to Polish.
So while I wanted to do a quick study about the Czech and Polish ties to Sorbian, I also wanted to take a look at which languages aside from the ones I knew kept the Cyrillic alphabet. I created a chart in Excel of thirteen common Slavic languages: Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Czech, Sorbian, Polish, Slovak, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Macedonian. There are a handful of other tongues I would have liked to include such as the Kashubian language of northern Poland and the dialect of the Górals in southern Poland but this was supposed to be a quick survey and I did not have the resources as readily available as the list of the 13 languages I have mentioned. I then chose thirteen words and one phrase: mountain, leg, head, hunger, I am hungry, hospital, room, basement, store, pub, soup, train, library, and language, and made a matrix.
I chose mountain, leg, head, hunger because these are usually identical words between the languages but there is an exchange of g and h. For example mountain in Czech is hora, but góra in Polish. Similarly there are exchanges of the o and ó (u). I wanted to see what the Sorbs chose. For all of these words Sorbian favors the softer h sound, like Czech. By doing this I learned something new. I had always assumed the Cyrillic г from Greek for g was always g when written as г but while this is true of Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Macedonian, the other languages that use Cyrillic, Ukrainian and Belarusian, actually pronounce the г as an h. This was a little mind-blowing for me.
I threw in "I am hungry" because I wanted to see how each language treated this sentence. The structure between the Slavic languages varies. Sometimes it is like I-am-hungry, or I-have-hunger, or I-hungry, or reflective hungry-I-am. The jury is out on Sorbian but I am looking into it.
I chose hospital, pub, soup, and library because these are key words for me. I wanted to know if they adopted Latinized words such as biblioteka for library or kept an older Slavic word relating to their word for book. Pub was a similar word. Short for public house in English; did they simply copy that or use a Slavic word.
I included basement because the words for basement, store and pub get mixed around. I once got into and argument with a Czech man because I told him earlier that day I had been in his basement. He got very angry at me until, half an hour later we both realized I was using the Polish word for store, which meant basement. I would be angry too if a stranger insisted that he was hanging out in my basement especially if I did not have one. This is one of the problems between countries because instead of diving deeper into the usage, the differences and similarities become jokes. Like how the word for west in Polish means toilet in Czech and how the word for love in Czech is similar to the word for whip in Polish.
I chose room, train, and language because I have noticed a variation in these words between Slavic countries and because language is usually the same word for tongue.
During this course of this nitpicking exercise I thought I might turn myself off to continuing the study of Slavic languages but quite the opposite has happened. I have a newfound energy to learn more about them and to make it back to a region I lived for five years. My dream is to Start up in Belarus, dip down to Czech, Poland, then the Balkans, and then to walk east across Ukraine and Russia to the Sea of Japan.