How to Identify Any Slavic Language at a Glance
#language & literature
small, How to Identify Any Slavic Language at a Glance, Detail of the fresco of Saints Cyril and Methodius with a Cyrillic inscription, the Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski, Macedonia, background photo: Br, Detail of the fresco of Saints Cyril and Methodius with a Cyrillic inscription, the Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski, Macedonia, background photo: Branka Vuckovic/Wikimedia
Ą, ў, Ї, Ъ, ł, Ђ, đ, ш, ы, sz, Ž, etc... Ever tried to make sense of the mind-boggling diversity of Slavic languages and their quirky letters? Here are some simple guidelines to help you quickly tell these mysterious alphabets apart.
Broadly 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 sure-fire 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 like Быкаў (Bykaŭ) or Някляеў (Nyaklyayeŭ).
Ukrainian – ї and є
If 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.
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 across it, you’re looking at Polish. Ą and ę (which are nasal vowels) 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 consonant clusters. Check our multimedia guide to the Polish alphabet for more in-depth tips! (As it turns out, Polish is not the only Slavic language to use ł, there's also Sorbian, a small Western Slavic language spoken today in Eastern Germany)
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’, ‘päť’ (meat, owlet, five) and is pronounced like the English ‘a’ sound in ‘bad’. The same goes for ŕ, which is not used in any other Slavic language.
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 Arabic origin.
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.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 25 August 2016