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Slavic is a branch of the Indo-European language family. The Slavs, speakers of Slavic dialects, live in two broad bands in eastern Europe and, through Russian expansion and colonization, into Asia. Conventionally, Slavic is divided into three sub-branches: West Slavic, East Slavic, and South Slavic. In reality, Slavic is only divided by isolation; the two bands form two dialect continua, North and South. In a dialect continuum, the local vernacular dialects all blend into each other, with no clear dividing line. The standard dialects differ, but not always to the point where their speakers cannot understand each other.
The correspondence between standard dialects and peoples is not one-to-one, but most of the well-known Slavic peoples have their own standardized dialects, as well as their own states: Poland (Polska), the Czech Republic (Česko), Slovakia (Slovensko), Belarus (Беларусь « Belarusĵ »), Ukraine (Україна « Ukrajína »), Russia (Россия « Rossija »), Slovenia (Slovenija), Croatia (Hrvatska), Bosnia (Bosna), Montenegro (Crna Gora), Serbia (Србија « Srbija »), Macedonia (Македонија « Makedonija »), and Bulgaria (България « Bəlgarija »).
North Slavic (shown at the upper right), by far the larger, consists of six main standard dialects: Polish, Czech, Slovak, Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian. Czech and Slovak, though, are nearly indistinguishable, and Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian (conventional East Slavic) are largely mutually intelligible as well. Two much-smaller dialects are spoken in eastern Germany, Lower Sorbian (Dolnoserbski) and Upper Sorbian (Hornjoserbske). A fourth East Slavic dialect is also recognized: Rusyn (Русинь « Rusinĵ »), spoken across the Carpathians from Ukrainian, in territory that was once within Slovakia but is now controlled by Ukraine.
South Slavic (shown at the lower right) consists of four main standard dialects: Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian. All but the Bulgarians were a part of the defunct state of Yugoslavia (Југославија « Jugoslavija » / Jugoslavija), whose name simply means “South Slavic land”. A historical South Slavic dialect, Old Church Slavonic (Словѣньскъ « Slověnĵskə »), based on the local speech in Macedonia, became an important liturgical language among the Eastern Orthodox Slavs, and the basis of much borrowed vocabulary in their dialects, such that Russian, for example, has many cognate words, one from North Slavic and one from South Slavic, with slightly-different meanings. Typically the North Slavic variant will have a more everyday application, while the South Slavic variant will be used for something formal or technical. (Old Church Slavonic thus serves the same role in Russian that Latin serves in English.)
Both North Slavic and South Slavic are bisected by the division between Eastern and Western Christianity; those in the west are nearly all traditionally Roman Catholic; this includes the Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, Upper Sorbs, Croats, and Slovenes. (Lower Sorbs are traditionally Lutheran; Czechs of the present day are unusually areligious.) Those in the east are traditionally Eastern Orthodox, for the most part, and in fact comprise the great majority of all Orthodox believers; the remainder are Eastern Rite Catholics. The split between Eastern and Western Christianity was not doctrinal, but instead traces back to the split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, which was cultural and to some extent political. The western empire used Latin as a lingua franca; the east used Greek. This civilizational difference accounts for, among other things, the difference in script: the Catholic cultures all use the Latin script, while the Orthodox predominantly use Cyrillic, which is a more-recent descendant of Greek. (The exception is the increasing use of Latin by some Orthodox speakers of Serbo-Croatian, especially in Montenegro.)
The distinction between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks was originally a religious one. Speakers of Serbo-Croatian who practiced Orthodoxy became Serbs, those who practiced Catholicism were Croats, and those who practiced Islam were Bosniaks. This distinction has been maintained even as religion was less a part of the picture (during and after the Communist period), and has now been used to make supposed linguistic distinctions. The dialect situation in Serbo-Croatian had nothing to do with sect or ethnic identity; one subdialect of Serbo-Croatian, Štokavski, was the basis for the standard dialect for all three communities. Only after the dissolution of Yugoslavia did speakers insist on the existence of separate “Serbian”, “Croatian”, and “Bosnian” languages.
All Slavic territories were part of the Eastern Bloc, mostly part of the formal or informal Russian empire. (The exception to Russian control was the state of Yugoslavia, which was Communist but non-aligned.) The collapse of the Soviet Union has led to something of a gradient from west to east, with the lands further west being more developed, liberal, and democratic.
In the images, blue represents presence of Slavic as a native dialect, red state sponsorship of a Slavic dialect, and dark blue-purple both of these. The light blue is the use of Russian as a lingua franca. Hatching shows the presence of other native dialects. Spatial data come from SIL/WLMS.
© O.T. FORD