Similarities And Differences Between Slavic Languages
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann.
I decided to move outside for this video. I can't see very well here squinting with the sun in my eyes. Hopefully, this works out; I'll have a look later on. Slavic Languages -- My experience in learning to various degrees of fluency four different Slavic languages.
I'm going to talk a little bit longer than my recent three-four minutes videos, so those who aren't interested or don't like the longer videos can turn off the video right now. One thing I should say, too, to me these videos are a form of sitting around a coffee table and talking, so I often don't know what I'm going to say when I start out. I really wish that some of the people who are part of my YouTube community lived nearby so that we could get together regularly and chat about different things, but of course we can't. One of the great things about learning languages is that it's a way of discovering the world.
Of course, 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 wherever it might be. Through that we create our own language world and we discover things about the world. When I wrote my book on language learning, I had this reference to Zhuangzi and Taoist philosophy and I think it was Laozi that said we can discover the whole world by looking outside our window or something. I mean we have this tremendous ability to learn about so many things today without going very far. 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 apparently the Proto-Slavic people originated from.
Today, we have a variety of of Slavic languages and they differ from each other because of the different sort of historical influences that effected the development of these languages. Another thing that I firmly believe is that culture or language is not in any way associated with our genes or DNA so that language doesn't equal some kind of ethnic division necessarily.
Often it matches, but it doesn't have to match. So we have what they normally talk about as the eastern Slavic languages, which is Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian, the western Slavic languages, which is Polish, Czech, Slovakian, and then the southern Slavic languages, which is the languages of the former Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croat, Slovenian, Bulgarian and so forth. My experience has been that I studied Russian first and I would recommend that because Slavic language speakers, that's a large group of people.
Geographically, it covers obviously most of Russia and it's not just the sort of ethnic Russians who are Russian speakers. Russian is sort of a lingua franca in Central Asia and other countries of the former tsarist empire the Soviet Union. So it covers all of that right into Eastern Europe. So I started learning Russian because that was the biggest one and where I had exposure to Russian literature as a teenager and wanted to read those books in the original language.
Then with the development of the whole Ukrainian crisis, I started watching Ukrainian television and couldn't understand what the Ukrainians were saying only what the Russians were saying. Yet, it sounded so similar I felt as if I should understand it and there were words there that were similar, but I just didn't quite get the gist of what they were saying. This gets back, too, to this idea that you can't just have a few words.
Some people say if you have a thousand words, 70% of any context, but in fact that is never true because very often the key words are just those words that you don't understand, so I started learning Ukrainian. I should step back. I did Czech before Ukrainian and the reason for that was my parents were born in what became Czechoslovakia. They were born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so I always wanted to learn that language. I never understood any of it and I figured now with Russian it would be easier. Well, it's easier, but the grammar of those Slavic languages that I have studied is remarkably similar. There are minor differences between Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and so forth, but remarkably similar, at least as similar as the differences between French, Spanish and Italian.
So it's grammatically very similar; however, quite different when it comes to vocabulary, more different than Spanish is from Italian or from French. In a way, in terms of vocabulary the sort of outlier, the one with the largest lexical difference or distance, as they say, seems to be Russian. In other words, I found that Czech, Polish and Ukrainian in terms of their vocabulary were closer together than was Russian. Although, grammatically, Ukrainian was closer to Russian, perhaps, and certainly in the writing system they use. It is, in fact, a form of Cyrillic. The reasons for this, of course, are all historical.
There was nothing that said a thousand years ago when the Proto-Slavs were breaking up wherever they were -- whenever it was, I don't remember what I read -- that there would be these divisions that we have today, but there were influences like the Orthodox Church and Church Slavonic. There was the impact of the Mongol invasions, which meant that the original eastern Slavic nation built around Kiev split up and so you have Muscovy up north. Then the southern part of the Kievan Rus' increasingly was under the influence of Poland or the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and so they developed more as part of that political entity.
In fact, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had a lot more Ukrainians and Belarusians in it than Lithuanians. The Lithuanians were insignificant and the Lithuanian leadership gradually spoke more and more Polish as Polish became the dominant language. The Poles, as is often the case with societies where you have more than one language group, became quite intolerant in their approach to the Orthodox Ukrainians.
That's why at some point a portion of the Ukrainian Cossacks under the leadership of Melnitzky, I think, broke away and went off to seek help from the Russians. With that and over time as part of the Ukraine came under Russian control, of course, now the Russians were less tolerant of the Ukrainians so they tried to suppress the Ukrainian language.
So you had all of that kind of evolution. Similarly, between the Czechs and the Poles there were a lot of kings that were common to Poland and Czech Lands, Moravia.
In fact, going back a thousand years there was even a greater Moravia and then in those lands you had the Germans coming in. So lots of different influences, including the influence of the Catholic Church as the Poles and the Czechs became part of the Catholic world. All of these things influence the language.
However, as a learner, if I were to learn those languages I would go in the following order. I would learn Russian first because it's the biggest, biggest in terms of numbers of speakers, biggest in terms of, rightly or wrongly, the extent to which their writers are celebrated around the world. They're more famous than Polish, Czech or Ukrainian writers. This might be a prejudice on my part, but I would start with Russian. With that, you'll get the basics of how the grammar works. Although, certain minor things are different and, of course, the endings are completely different, but the principles under which these languages operate are more or less the same. Then with each language you have to learn the vocabulary of that language. Fortunately, for each one of those four languages I have found ample resources via the internet, whether it be audio books and eBooks for Russian.
There's an abundance of books that you can download and import into LingQ. As I've said many times, I've found Ekho Moskvy a phenomenal resource because every day there's tens of interviews with transcripts put up. With Czech I've found this history series . Unfortunately, they no longer publish the transcripts for that, but that was very helpful to me. You can find eBooks and audio books for Czech. Similarly, with Polish I was able to find eBooks and audio books. I haven't had the same success with finding Ukrainian eBooks and audio books 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 eBook or audio book. So with Ukrainian I rely largely on , which is a very interesting source of podcasts daily on events in Ukraine both in Russian and Ukrainian and _ where often they will have texts with audio. So there are resources on the internet for those languages and as you discover them you discover this Slavic world and there are certain characteristics in common.
I was asked whether I found that there were these similarities between Slavic peoples and I must say that I find that there are some, but more than that it depends on individual people. There are the sort of intellectuals who are more call it worldly. There are those that are more stridently they're the best. There's a whole range and I think that's probably true for most cultures. So I am very happy that I went after four languages within the Slavic collection of languages and I may go after maybe Serbo-Croatian, particularly if I decide to go there on holidays.
Similarly, I have my group of romance languages and it's fun to explore the differences between Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and so forth and, of course, Romanian as a bit of an outlier. The Germanic languages, between my Swedish, my English, my German and the little bit that I've looked at Dutch I don't think it would be difficult to learn. All I can say is it's fun to explore these different language families.
Over the course of history, different people who spoke one language maybe were converted into speakers of another language. So there's really no connection between genetics, genetic code or anything in language, it's more a matter of circumstance in history and exploring these languages is a great way to explore what we are as human beings. 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, although they borrowed a lot of vocabulary from Chinese, are part of a different language family.
So there you have it in the sunshine squinting.
I hope this was of interest. For those who like the longer ramble, you got it. We'll talk again, bye for now.