speaking, Slavic languages can be divided into those using the Cyrillic
alphabet and those using the Latin alphabet, but in truth each language
has developed its own modified alphabet. These language-specific
letters and diacritic signs can serve as surefire clues, but
unfortunately the task is much harder with speech, since accents and
dialects tend to confuse even the most skilled listeners.
So how do you tell Slavic languages apart?
The Cyrillic alphabet:
BELARUSIAN – ў
Belarusian is the only language which uses the letter ў. It sounds
similar to an English ‘w’, and the Latin transcription is ‘ŭ’. It is
most often encountered in word endings equivalent to the Russian -ov or
–ev suffixes, e.g., last names like Быкаў (Bykaŭ) or Някляеў
UKRAINIAN – ї and є
ıf you see an ï amidst Cyrillic letters, you’re most likely reading
Ukrainian. This letter is pronounced /ji/, and should not be confused
with ‘i’ (/i/), or with ‘й’ (/j/) and ‘и’ (/ɪ/), which all look and
sound slightly different.
Ukrainian is also the only language with the letter є ‒ in Russian the corresponding ‘э’ character faces the other way…
BULGARIAN – ъ
Ъ is a solid hint that you’re looking at Bulgarian ‒ it even pops up
in the name of the country: България. Though this letter (called ‘yer
golyam’/‘ер голям’) also appears in Russian and other Slavic languages,
it is not used frequently, whereas it appears regularly in Bulgarian.
This is perhaps because it is silent in other Slavic languages, but in
Bulgarian it symbolises a schwa sound (like the ‘u’ in ‘turn’). Make
sure you don’t confuse it with the soft sign, ‘ь’.
Additional hint: ата is a frequent grammatical ending in Bulgarian.
SERBIAN – ђ and ћ
The similar ђ (dzhe) and ћ (tshe) are evidence you’re dealing with
Serbian. Serbian Cyrillic doesn’t have many of the letters used in
Russian Cyrillic; forget about ‘ё’, ‘й’, ‘щ’, ‘ъ’, ‘ы’, ‘ь’, ‘э’, ‘ю’,
and ‘я’. If you want to tell Serbian apart from Russian, you can also
look for љ (ly’) њ (ny’) and џ (dʒ), but these are also present in
MACEDONIAN – Ѓ and Ќ
Macedonian is the only language with the letters Ѓ and Ќ. The little
accents over these Cyrillic letters are a surefire way to tell
Macedonian apart from Serbian. The letters stand for sounds similar to
the English [dʒ] and [t͡ʃ] – the latter sounding really Chinese.
Additionally, Macedonian features the letter ‘s’ [d͡z], which otherwise does not occur in the Cyrillic alphabet.
Famous for its inverted letters, Russian is probably the most
recognizable Slavic language out there. On the other hand it is quite
easy to confuse it with Ukrainian, Bulgarian or Serbian, so if you have a
full sentence on your hands, it’s best to proceed by elimination using
all the tips mentioned above.
The Latin alphabet:
POLISH – ł
If you see the letter ł with the characteristic slash through it,
you’re looking at Polish. Ą and ę (which are nasal consonants) are also
giveaways but be careful, both letters are also in the Lithuanian
alphabet (which is not a Slavic language). Digraphs like ‘sz’, ‘cz’, and
‘dz’, sometimes combined into consonant clusters like ‘prz’, ‘trz’, and
‘szcz’, are clues, but watch out for Hungarian, which has similar
SLOVAK – ä
Slovak is the only Slavic language to use ä, or ‘a s dvoma bodkami’
as the Slovaks call it. It comes up in words like ‘mäso’, ‘sôvä’, ‘rýbä’
(meat, owl, fish) and is pronounced like the English ‘a’ sound in
‘bad’. The same goes for ŕ, which is not used in any other Slavic
CZECH – ů
The Czech and Slovak alphabets are really similar. To tell them
apart, look for the tiny difference in the diacritic sign over the
letter r – where Slovak uses ‘ŕ’, the Czech letter has a tiny hook: ř.
Also, if you see the letter ů, it’s Czech.
CROATIAN – đ
Written Croatian can appear hardly discernible from Slovenian, Czech
or Slovak, with which it shares the letters as ‘č’, ‘š’, and ‘ž’, it has
an easy distinctive feature ‒ the so-called crossed đ. [dʑ]
The Bosnian alphabet is indistinguishable from Croatian. To identify
the language you would have to dig much deeper and look for differences
in vocabulary since Bosnian has some unique words, mostly of Persian and
Slovenian, which is the westernmost Slavic language, is also the most
discrete in terms of alphabet. In fact, it has only three special
characters, ‘č’, ‘š’, and ‘ž’, which also appear in Czech, Slovak and
Croatian. Again, your best bet is to proceed by elimination. (culture.pl)
You see a sentence
written in cyrillic. Some of the letters are familiar. You see the
meaning shimmering underneath the surface. You almost grasp it, but it slips away. The letters on the page mock you silently.
You know this Czech word. You’ve already learnt it in Polish. It is not the same word. It is a grave insult. Your slavic friends are shocked and embarassed for you when they hear you speak it.
There is a sentence in
Croatian. There is a sentence in Serbian. There is a sentence in
Bosnian. They are all the same sentence.
You have to write about your day in Slovak. You spend the night polishing the draft. You fail your assigment. It’s written in Czech. You don’t know Czech.
P is not what it seems. You have to remember that.
The Croatian sentence
does not mean what the Bosnian sentence means. They both mean the same in Serbian.
That word has a diminutive. The diminutive has its own diminutive. The diminutive of the diminutive also has a diminutive. Nobody knows what the final diminutive of a word is. Some say the knowledge had been lost in centuries past and matrioshkas are the echo, the tangible warning left for us to remember. No living creature should hold the means of diminishing something into nonexistence. Others say you may still find some of them in old soviet textbooks, if you dare to look in abandoned schools of Chernobyl.
Someone is speaking to you. Is that a he or a she? You aren’t sure. It’s an abstract concept. Why does it have gender.
You see a word in a
dictionary. It has seventeen letters and only one vowel. You close the dictionary very carefully not
looking at the phonetic transcription. The shape of it haunts you in
your sleep. You wake
up face damp with tears, a bitter taste on your tongue. The clock blinks 3:03AM. You do not dare look up that word again.
This word means the
same thing in the five slavic languages you’re familiar with. You use
it in the sixth one. That word does not exist in this language. It never
did. There is now a word-shaped void in the fabric of this language.
The natives look at you uneasily. There is a new quality to the silence and your palms start to sweat.
H is not H. H is not H. H is not H. H is not H.
One day you flip through your dictionary. A page is missing. What was the word? You can’t remember. There is pressure building at the back of your head. The clock blinks 3:03AM.
You write my name
is in cyrillic. There are shadows dancing on the walls. They grow
longer with each letter you write down. It is not cyrillic you’re
using. You keep writing my name is. The shadows now bleed from
the tip of your pen. It’s irrelevant. You need to remember the right
N is not N is not N is
not N is not N is not N is not N is not N is not N is not N is not N
is not… If only you could remember the letters. The letters are important. What was it, that wasn’t N?
There are nine different prefixes
you can add to a verb to change its meaning. There are fifty three different suffixes you have to add to a verb to make it
work. In the end the only thing left of the original is a vague shape
of one of its middle consonants.
You can feel the anguish radiating from the verb’s mutialted form. A desperate sob escapes through your clenched teeth.
You’re so, so sorry, you didn’t meant to. You didn’t. It doesn’t matter.
You now read a text in
Russian. You’ve never learnt Russian. Why are you reading that text? The words burn your eyes,
the meaning searing your mind.
There’s a shot of vodka in front of
you. You don’t drink alcohol. You don’t care. All existence is
meaningless, your soul’s in eternal pain. A broken matrioshka lays at your feet. There is no salvation, she says boring into your eyes. You open your mouth to answer, but there is only a burst of harsh rustle. It dies in whispering echoes a moment later. Your glass is empty again.