The Origins of Slavic Languages

Tree chart showing the branching of Baltic and Slavic languages from their common Indo-European origin.
Tree chart showing the branching of Baltic and Slavic languages from their common Indo-European origin. Photo credit:

The languages which fall under the classification of Slavic originated from the Proto-Indo-European language, the first branching off was the Balto-Slavic language, this language has been termed thus retrospectively and has no modern speakers or surviving texts (because it was a spoken language with no written form), it is the proto-language to both the Baltic and Slavic varieties and has been reconstructed using comparative methods (by considering the similarities between the aforementioned two languages). The fundamental split which occurred was between the Baltic and the Slavic varieties, both of which developed multiple sub-languages. Due to their close geographical relationship and their common source, Baltic and Slavic are very similar languages with many common structural features.

The focus of this project will be Slavic language varieties, which are more numerous and complex than the varieties which resulted from Baltic. Researchers who study Slavic language varieties classify each Slavic language as either East, West, or South varieties, as shown in the above diagram, these determinations are geological as well as linguistic. The main languages which are classified as East Slavic are: Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian; the main Western varieties are: Czech, Slovak, Polish, Kashubian, Sorbian (also called Wendish or Lusatian); and the South Slavic languages are Bulgarian, Macedonian, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian, and Slovenian (Grenoble 581). The Western Slavic language group is distinct from the other two groups because it is the only one to use Latin Script, and is thus closer to the majority of languages spoken in Western Europe. Nations which predominantly use Western Slavic languages have had much more Western European influence, in the form of Roman Catholicism, than Eastern or Southern Slavic speakers. Eastern Slavic written languages use Cryillic Script, which is closer to the Greek writing system; and Southern Slavic written language uses a greater variety of scripts, some variations use Cryllic while others use Latin, languages in this group borrow from a multiplicity of other languages and are more heterogeneous than the other two varieties (Wikipedia). Many of the languages which are shown in the above tree chart are considered to be dialects of existing languages. For Example, Rusyn is considered by some to be its own language, and by others to be a dialect of Ukrainian. Old Ruthenian, shown branching off from Old East Slavonic, is another example of an extinct language which is considered a dialect by some and a separate language by others. Some scholars consider Old Ruthenian, which is a form adapted from Old East Slavonic and was spoken in territories further to the west such as Lithuania, to be a separate form from it’s language of origin due to the fact that its speakers lived in a different regions and had little contact with Eastern speakers, despite the linguistic similarities between the two varieties (Wikipedia).

It is difficult for researchers to trace many of the borrowings which may have happened during the developments of all forms of Slavic language due to a lack of reliable historical records and the high number of contact events which could potentially have had an influence of a given Language. Often it is impossible to determine if a given feature of a language is the result of language contact or independent innovation. Most of the contact incidents which occurred were between 300-900CE, slavic languages were only written down after 900CE, making the exact degree of influence from particular cultures on Slavic spoken languages impossible to determine. The languages which had contact in the Slavic region during this time period were: Iranian, Germanic, and Finno-Ugric (Grenoble 582).

While learning about this very large topic, through various sources which together helped me gain a general understanding of the process by which Slavic languages developed, I was constantly reminded of chapters in the textbook and the corresponding class material which related to all aspects of language contact, which was the subject of my research. The material from the second half of the course was especially helpful in laying the groundwork which allowed me to comprehend the very complex occurrences which are so dependent on the terminology I learned for their explication.

The events of language contact which occurred during 300-900CE are not possible to fully reconstruct. It is known, however, that the various languages which did come into contact with the developing Proto-Slavic did have an influence on certain grammatical features in the language, which can be deduced from a comparison between the old languages. Contact with Iranian tribes most likely occurred from 700BCE to 300CE. It is impossible to determine which exact words were borrowed, or if they were even borrowed at all, but the majority of the words which were likely borrowed deal with matters of religion, law and morality. The borrowings from Germanic tribes, likely taking place during the first 4 centuries of the common era, are more difficult to trace due to the large number of Germanic tribes with differing languages which could have come into contact at different times. The tribe which was most surely an influence was the Goths, words thought to have been borrowed include words with approximate meanings such as “thought”, “judgement”, and “to prepare” (Grenoble).

This type of language contact is fundamentally different from the types of contact which result in pidgins or creoles. There was no reason for speakers of the separate languages to remain together for an extensive period of time, or a need for them to communicate regularly, which are the conditions under which a pidgin (and later a creole) are formed. The type of language change in the early development could be described as language shift because it was due to a long term contact relationship with speakers of other languages.


Grenoble, Lenore A. “Contact and the Development of the Slavic Languages”. Handbook of Language Contact. Ed. Raymond Hickey. 1st ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 2010. 581-597. Print.

Accessed from :

Slavic Languages.” Wikipedia. 28 Nov. 2014. Web. 7 Dec. 2014. <>.

The Origins of Slavic Languages

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