Slavic language branch, Wawel Royal Castle

Slavic Language Branch

Slavic languages are spoken by more than 300 million people mostly in Eastern Europe and Asia (Siberia). All Slavic languages are believed to have descended from a common ancestor called Proto-Slavic, which, in turn, is thought to have split off from Proto-Indo-European possibly as early as 2,000 B.C. Proto-Slavic, was probably the common language of all Slavs as late as the 8th or 9th century A.D., but by the 10th century A.D. the various Slavic varieties had begun to emerge as separate languages. Slavic languages are usually divided into three groups which, in turn, encompass smaller dialect groups. The table below shows the number of speakers of the major Slavic languages and where these languages are spoken, based on Ethnologue data.

South Slavic
Bulgarian 9 million Bulgaria
Serbian 11.1 million Serbia and Montenegro
Croatian 6.2 million Croatia
Bosnian 4 million Bosnia and Herzegovina
Slovenian 2 million Slovenia
Macedonian 1.5 million Macedonia
West Slavic
Czech 11.5 million Czech Republic
Slovak 5 million Slovakia
Polish 42.7 million Poland
Lower Sorbian 14,000 Germany
Upper Sorbian 15,000 Germany
Kashubian 3,000 Poland
East Slavic
Belarusian 9 million Belarus
Russian 145 million Russia
Ukrainian 39.5 million Ukraine



With the exception of Sorbian, all Slavic languages are national or official languages of the countries where they are predominantly spoken. In addition, many of them are working languages of countries where they don’t have official status. This is particularly true of Russian which is no longer an official language but remains an important working language of the former Soviet republics. In addition, some countries have regional languages. For instance, Serbia recognizes Hungarian, Albanian, and Slovak as regional languages, and Russia which has 105 languages spoken on its territory, recognizes the regional status of dozens of different languages. Upper Sorbian is recognized in Germany as a minority language.

National or official languages
Belarusian, Russian Belarus
Bulgarian Bulgaria
Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian Bosnia and Hercegovina
Croatian Croatia
Czech Czech Republic
Macedonian Macedonia
Polish Poland
Russian Russia
Serbian Serbia and Montenegro
Slovak Slovakia
Slovenian Slovenia
Ukrainian Ukraine
Upper Sorbian Germany



All Slavic languages comprise several dialects, depending on the analysis

Number of major dialects
Belarusian Central Belarusan, Northeast Belarusan (Polots, Viteb-Mogilev), Southwest Belarusan (Grodnen-Baranovich, Slutska-Mazyrski, Slutsko-Mozyr).
Bosnian Ijekavían, Ikavian
Bulgarian Palityan (Bogomil, Palitiani). Palityan dialect is functionally intelligible with standard Bulgarian. The Pomak dialect spoken in Greece is similar to Serbian and Bulgarian.
Croatian Chakavski, Kaykavski, Shtokavski (Ijekavski). Shtokavski is the official dialect, but others are also recognized as valid. Chakavski in western and northern Croatia, Dalmatian coast, and Adriatic Islands; Kaykavski in northeastern Croatia and Zagreb; dialects in other countries, like Burgenland Croatian in Austria, are less intelligible.
Czech Central Bohemian, Czecho-Moravian, Hanak, Lach (Yalach), Northeast Bohemian, Southwest Bohemian. All Czech and Slovak dialects mutually inherently intelligible. Czech is also intelligible with Polish.
Macedonian Northern Macedonian, Southeastern Macedonian, Western Macedonian
Polish Upper Silesian
Serbian Shtokavski (Stokavian), Torlakian
Slovak Slovaks in western and central parts of the speech community can understand Czech.
Slovene Divers dialect picture. Lower Carniola, Prekmurski, Primorski, Stajerski, Upper Carniola. The literary dialect between the 2 main dialects is based on Dolenjsko.
Russian Northern Russian, Southern Russian
Ukrainian Ukraine

There is some disagreement about the status of some Slavic languages as to whether they are dialects or separate languages.

  • Rusyn, spoken by over 600,000 people, mostly in Ukraine, is considered by some to be a dialect of Ukrainian, but speakers consider it to be a separate language.
  • Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian are essentially dialects of one language, but they are considered to be separate languages for political reasons.




Sound System

The sound systems of Slavic languages are characterized by both similarities and differences. Vowels Most Slavic languages have five vowel phonemes, i.e., sounds that differentiate word meaning. A typical Slavic vowel inventory is given below.

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a



The consonant systems of Slavic languages are characterized by the following:

  • a relatively large number of consonants and consonant clusters.
  • utilization of the opposition between unpalatalized and palatalized consonants. Palatalization refers to production of consonants with the blade of the tongue raised toward the roof of the mouth (hard palate). Slavic languages differ as to the number of consonants that can be palatalized.
  • Some languages devoice final consonants (e.g., Russian), whereas others do not (e.g., Ukrainian).
  • Only Polish has nasal vowels.
  • Some Slavic languages, particularly Western and Southern ones, have syllabic [r] and [l].



Slavic languages have different stress patterns.

Fixed stress Czech, Macedonian, Polish, Slovak
Any syllable Belarusian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian
Pitch accent Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Slovenian



All Slavic languages have highly developed inflectional systems.



Slavic nouns are marked for gender, number, and case. The three are fused into one ending, Slavic nouns have the following grammatical categories:

  • gender: masculine, feminine, neuter
  • noun and adjective declensions are largely based on gender
  • number: singular and plural, with vestiges of dual
  • case: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative, vocative. However, only a few nouns have retained the vocative forms. Bulgarian and Macedonian have lost cast distinctions, except for masculine animate nouns in the accusative case.
  • Animate and inanimate masculine nouns have different endings in the accusative case.
  • There are no indefinite or definite articles, except for Bulgarian and Macedonian that have a post-posited definite article attached to the nouns/adjectives.
  • Adjectives are marked for gender and case only in the singular. In the plural they are marked only for case, except for Bulgarian and Macedonian (see above).
  • Adjectives and possessive and demonstrative pronouns precede the nouns they modify and agree with them in gender, number, and case, except for Bulgarian and Macedonian.



Slavic verbs agree with their subjects in person and number in the non-past, and in gender and number in the past. They are marked for the following categories:

  • three persons: first, second, third
  • All Slavic languages are pro-drop language, i.e., personal pronouns can be dropped because the verb ending makes the person clear.
  • Two to three conjugations based on last vowel of the stem.
  • Two tenses: past, non-past. Present and future tenses have the same endings. Some languages use auxiliary verbs (e.g., Bulgarian), whereas other do not (e.g., Russian).
  • Two aspects: imperfective and perfective. Perfective and imperfective verbs are formed from basic verb roots by adding prefixes and suffixes. Non-past conjugation of perfective verbs indicates future tense, non-past conjugation of imperfective verbs indicates present tense. Imperfective verbs form future tense with the auxiliary verb ‘be’.
  • three moods: indicative, imperative, conditional
  • two voices: active, passive
  • Verbs of motion constitute a special subcategory characterized by a complex system of directional and aspectual prefixes and suffixes.


Word order

The neutral word order in Slavic languages is Subject-Verb-Object. However, other orders are also possible since inflectional endings make clear grammatical relations and roles of words in the sentence. Word order is primarily determined by topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and comment (new information). Constituents with old information (topic) precede constituents with new information (comment). For instance, in Russian, Subject-Verb order Misha chitaet means ‘Misha is reading,’ while Verb-Subject order in Chitaet Misha means ‘It is Misha who is reading.’



Slavic languages inherited most of their vocabulary from Proto-Slavic. They have borrowed a large number of words from Old Church Slavonic, Greek,Latin, French, German, English, and neighboring languages. The sources of borrowing vary somewhat from language to language, depending on history and geographical location, e.g., Balkan languages such as Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Macedonian have a large number of Turkish words because their territories had been occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Below are some common words in Slavic languages, representing the three branches.

Good bye
Thank you
Здpaвcтвyйтe Дo cвидaния Пoжaлyйcтa Cпacибo Дa Heт Чeлoвeк Жeнщинa
Вiтaю Дo пaбaчeння Бyдь лacкa Дякyю Тaк Чoлoвiк Жiнкa
Здpaвeй Дoвиждaнe Мoля Блaгoдapя Дa He Чoвeк Жeнa
Croatian &
Zdravo здpaвo Doviđenja дoвиђeњja Molim мoлим Hvala
Da дa Ne нe Čovek
Cześć Do widzenia Proszę Dziękuję Tak Nie mężczyzna Kobieta
Dobrý den Na šledanou Prosím Dĕkuyi Ano Ne Človĕk Žena

Below are numerals 1-10 in these languages.

oдин двa тpи чeтыpe пять шecть ceмь вoceмь дeвять дecять
oдин двa тpи чoтиpи п’ять шicть ciм вiciм дeв’ять дecять
jeдин двa тpи чeтиpи пeт шecт ceдeм oceм дeвeт дeceт
Serbian &
jedan dva tri cetiri pet šest sedam osam devet deset
jeдaн двa тpи чeтиpи пeт шecт ceдaм ocaм дeвeт дeceт
jeden dwa trzy cztery pięć sześć siedem osiem dziewięć dziesięć
jeden dva tři čtyři pĕt šest sedm osm devĕt deset



Some Slavic languages are written with adapted versions of the Latin alphabet, while others are written with different versions of the Cyrillic alphabet. Some languages are written with both alphabets.

Latin alphabet Czech, Croatian, Polish, Slovenian, Slovak, Sorbian
Cyrillic alphabet Belorusian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbian, Ukrainian


Cyrillic alphabet

In 861 AD, Prince Rostislav of the Slavic-speaking Moravians (located in present-day Czech Republic) sent a message to the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople: “We don’t understand Latin or Greek. Please send us someone to teach us in our language.” The reason Rostislav appealed to the Byzantine Church is because it taught each nation in its own language, while the Church of Rome at the time used only Latin. The Emperor sent two Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius, who knew both Slavic and Greek. The two brothers created the Glagolytic alphabet to translate the Bible and the liturgy. Glagolitic soon fell into disuse and vanished. The other one came to be known as Cyrillic. It is based on the Greek alphabet with some letters borrowed from Coptic and Hebrew in cases when the Greek alphabet did not have letters to represent Slavic sounds. Today, the Cyrillic alphabet is used by over 200 million people, representing more than 100 languages. Old Church Slavonic Old Church Slavonic (also called Old Slavic, Old Church Slavic or Old Bulgarian) is the first literary and liturgical Slavic language developed by the 9th century missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius. It was based on Moravian, a southern variety of Bulgarian as it was spoken at the time. Cyril and Methodius used Old Church Slavonic for translating the Bible and other religious texts from Greek. Today, Old Church Slavonic remains the liturgical language of the Eastern Orthodox Church.



Language Difficulty
questionHow difficult is it to learn Slavic Languages? All Slavic languages belong to Category II in terms of difficulty for speakers of English.