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)
The notoriously difficult phonology of the Polish language has always
caused much trouble and confusion for neighbouring nations. But what
are the absolute hardest words?
Germans look at Polish and see incomprehensible series of consonants.
While to the east, Polish sounds so strange to Russians that they even
have a verb for Poles speaking their language: pshekat. To top it off,
Czechs think Poles sound like Czech children with a speech defect.
The most troublesome feature of Polish orthography is what linguists
call complex consonant clusters ‒ series of consonants without any
vowels. They occur in many languages, including English; for example, in
the word ‘shrug’ the letters shr form a consonant cluster. But while
English usually draws the line at three consonants, Polish sometimes
joins as many as five consonants, a phenomenon called the Polish
syllable structure, which is allegedly surpassed only by Georgian in
terms of complexity.
Here are some outstandingly difficult examples of this damning syllable structure for you to have a crack at. Good luck!
This word is comprised purely of Polish letters ‒ Latin letters that
were modified with Polish diacritic signs. In terms of pronunciation,
English-speakers still stand a chance, but they would need to know the
sound every letter stands for… (Incidentally, this all-Polish word means
‘bile’. Could the choleric Polish temperament result from their
If you think happiness is hard to find, try pronouncing it in Polish!
The Polish word for ‘happiness’ consists of a sequence of two Polish
digraphs (sz, cz), a nasal e sound, the Polish diacritic ś, another
digraph (ci), and a final e (which is probably the only sound you’ll be
able to pronounce on your first go).
With a name like this, this town in Southern Poland certainly stands
out on the map. But despite looking rather daunting, Pszczyna features
only three consonants one after the other (the digraphs sz and cz stand
for one sound each). But we’re just getting started in terms of
The final letter sequence in the Polish word for ‘consequence’
features a headache-inducing cluster of four consonants, but don’t
worry. You’re not likely to encounter ‘następstw’ too often since it is
the genitive plural (and thus not infrequently used) form of the word
‘następstwo’. What’s genitive plural, you ask? In Polish, words like
adjectives and nouns have six or seven versions depending on their
grammatical function in a sentence. But never mind that now.
We’re sorry. We know ‘źdźbło’ looks really awful. But no worries,
it’s actually only four sounds, not five: Ź, DŹ, B, Ł. Surely, that’s
slightly helpful news? Either way, this terribly difficult word means ‘a
tiny leaf of grass’.
Here we have five consonants AND five sounds to be pronounced. Fittingly, it means ‘ruthless’.
Now that you’re an expert, the name of this small village shouldn’t
pose too much difficulty (the longest consonant cluster is a mere three
consonants long). You will be reassured to learn that it is one the
longest place names in Poland and most places you’ll visit are actually
easier to pronounce.
Another town, Szczebrzeszyn is famous for being the beginning of the most famous Polish tongue-twister. Ready?
W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie
It means ‘In Szczebrzeszyn, a beetle buzzes in the reed’. No? Try
9. Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz :)
This name appears in the cult Polish movie How I Unleashed World War
II when a Polish prisoner pretends to be thus named in order to thwart
the Nazi officer who has to keep track of prisoners’ identities. His
reaction is probably illustrative of most foreigners’ frustration with the devilish Polish phonology.
BONUS: Try putting them all together! Apologies in advance..
The ruthless Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz went from Szczebrzeszyn to
Szymankowszczyzna and then Pszczyna. And though he was sometimes
overwhelmed with bile, oblivious of the consequences, he eventually
found happiness in a tiny leaf of grass.
Bezwzględny Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz wyruszył ze Szczebrzeszyna
przez Szymankowszczyznę do Pszczyny. I choć nieraz zalewała go żółć,
niepomny następstw znalazł ostatecznie szczęście w źdźble trawy.
As you langblrs may already know, Czech, Slovak and Polish form a part of the West Slavic language family. Polish, along with Kashubian and Silesian, belongs to the Lechitic subgroup of West Slavic languages, while Czech and Slovak belong to the Czech-Slovak subgroup. (The third subgroup is the Sorbian languages group).
Though they are West Slavic, some sentences with cognates of a high degree of similarity can have two entirely different meanings. Just read on and you’ll see:
“Szukam was na zachodzie!”
(Polish) (“I am looking for you in the West.”)
“Šukám vás na záchodě!”
(Czech) (“I’ll f**k you in the toilet.”)
Joanna Concejo (Polish, b. 1971, Słupsk, Poland, based Paris, France) - Illustrations from Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (Little Red Riding Hood) with text by Jacques-Pierre Amée. Drawings: Pencil, Colored Pencils, Crayons on Paper