The Slovak language is spoken by approximately 7 million people, most of them residing in Slovakia. Slovak is also spoken in a number of other Eastern European countries including Croatia and Bulgaria, as well as by immigrant groups in the United States and Canada.
Classification and Early History of the Slovak Language
The Slovak language is classified as a Western Slavic language, part of the Indo-European language of families. In the 6th century AD, the Slavic peoples migrated from Old Poland and resettled throughout Eastern Europe, resulting in the division of the Slavic language into three categories: Eastern, Western, and Southern. The Slovak language, along with Czech, Polish, and Sorbian, developed from the Western group.
The Czech and Slovak languages did not undergo significant further development until the 11th century, when the regional Slavic dialects in the area then known as Moravia (the present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia) began to morph into distinct languages.
Relationship Between the Slovak and Czech Languages
The dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 did not lead to major linguistic developments in either the Czech or Slovak languages, and the two remain mutually intelligible, meaning that Slovak language speakers can understand Czech and vice versa.
Apart from an increased range of vocabulary, neither the Czech nor Slovak language has undergone any significant developmental changes since the 16th century. Like Czech, the Slovak language is distinct from many other Slavic languages in the fact that the accent, or stress, is always placed on the first syllable of a word. There are some exceptions to this in certain Slovak dialects but as a whole, the modern Czech and Slovak languages have only slight differences in pronunciation and syntax.
Development of a Distinct Slovak Literary Language
The first signs of a national Slovak literature are found in the 16th century, and are primarily written in Latin. Topics of Slovak works from this time include religious issues as well as topics of antiquity based on ancient Greek and Roman tales.
Until the mid-19th century, both Czech and Slovak speakers used a written Czech language. In the mid-1800s, however, a distinct Slovak literary language developed based on the dialect spoken in central Slovakia. In 1783, the first Slovak language adventure novel, the “René mládenca príhodi a skúsenosti” was published.
Modern Changes in the Written Slovak Language
The contemporary Slovak language makes use of a modified Latin alphabet. Diacritic marks such as ¨ are added to certain letters to change the pronunciation. Slovak orthography, which is still very similar to Czech, has undergone multiple changes throughout history, one of the most significant occurring after the end of World War II.
This consisted of the letter “s” being changed to a “z” in the prefixes of words, thereby matching the z-sound pronunciation of the spoken language. A word such as “smluva” for example, became “zmluva”. A significant event for Slovak orthography occurred with the publishing of a six-volume Slovak language dictionary from 1959 to 1968.
Creation and Dissolution of Czechoslovakia
From 1918 until 1993, Slovakia was bound to the present-day Czech Republic as part of Czechoslovakia. This union began with Czechoslovakia’s declaration of independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. At this time, Slovak and Czech were established as the official languages, making it the first time Slovak had held the status of an official language. In 1920, the Czechoslovak Constitution proclaimed the Czechoslovak language as the single official language, classifying Czech and Slovak as dialects of one tongue.
In 1993, the Czechoslovakian parliament split the area into two distinct countries. Although the division was done in part due to an increase in nationalist Slovak and Czech tensions, the division was completed peacefully. Slovak became the official language of Slovakia, and Czech the official language of the Czech Republic.
Influences on the Slovak Language
In addition to Czech, a number of other languages have exerted influence on the development of the Slovak language, notably Polish, Hungarian, and German. The German word for coins, “münzen,” for example, became the basis for the Slovak word for coins, “mince.”
In more recent years, Slovak also has borrowed a number of loan-words from other languages such as English and Italian. In most cases, these words are immediately adapted to a Slovak spelling conducive to the Slovak language pronunciation. For example, the English word “weekend” became “vikend,” while the Italian word for quality, “qualita,” became “kvalita”.
Slovak Language Dialects
There are four major dialects found in the Slovak language: Eastern, Central, Western, and Lowland – although the Lowland group is technically considered a subgroup of the Western and Central dialects. Geography plays a large role in the distinction between dialects, as the mountain ranges running through Slovakia tend to serve as a dividing line between different dialects.
Interestingly, the western Slovak language dialects share common features with the Czech Republic’s eastern language dialects, making the significance of geography to dialect all the more apparent. Not all dialects of the Slovak language are mutually intelligible.
Contemporary Slovak Language
Today the Slovak language is spoken by approximately 7 million people, most of them residing in Slovakia. There is some speculation as to the future developments of the Slovak language.
After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the Czech and Slovak languages retained close cultural and educational ties. What’s more, the majority of books written in Czechoslovakia before the division were in the Czech language. Whether the Slovak language will undergo further developments to distinguish itself from the Czech in future remains to be seen.
Slovak Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Slovakian
Language Family: Indo-European, Slavic, West, Czech-Slovak
Official Language of: Slovakia
Spoken by Approximately 6,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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