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The Slovak Language

Origins and history of the language

Approximately 5 million people speak the Slovak language also known as “Slovakian” predominantly in the Slovakian Republic. It is an Indo-European language belonging to the West Slavic languages similar to Czech, Polish and Serbian. It is also a member of Proto-Slavic language. Other languages, including Czech, Polish, German and Hungarian have influenced it.

Many other Slavic speakers can understand standard Slovak. Despite this closeness to other Slavic varieties there is significant variation among Slovak dialects. In particular, eastern varieties differ significantly from the standard language, which is based on central and western varieties. The two varieties, dialects of Czech and Slovak, have a long history of interaction and mutual influence, especially in the former state of Czechoslovakia. The written form has been strongly influenced by Czech, but there are phonetic and vocabulary differences.

In addition to vocabulary common to the Slavic languages of the region, significant non-Slavic elements have been incorporated into the Slovak lexicon. Slovak went through long periods of close contact with both Hungarian and German. Both languages have left their mark on Slovak vocabulary as for example the German word for "coins," is “Munzen“ in Slovak it is “mince”.

Early history

The Slavs arrived in the territory of Slovakia around the year 500 A.D. Phonological differentiation within the Proto-Slavic language begins in the 6th century. Latin was probably the administrative and liturgical language before 863 A.D. Thereafter Old Church Slavonic becomes the administrative and literary language and the Glagolitic alphabet the corresponding script. Latin was still used in parallel. Some of the early Old Church Slavonic texts contain elements of the language of the Slavic inhabitants of Great Moravia and Pannonia, which were called Slovenia by Slavic texts at that time.

In 885 A.D. the Pope interdicted the use of the Old Church Slavonic and therefore the Slovak language in Great Moravia. It can be seen as a revival of Latin because it becomes the administrative and liturgical language again.

In the 10th century the Slovak language developed in form from several Slovak dialects within the languages of the Slovenia, which is today the territory of Hungaria, after the Hungarians at that time called Magyars destroyed Great Moravia. While Slovak burghers used Slovak as administrative languages together with Latin and Slovak dialects, the written Czech language starts to encroach upon Slovakian through Czech clergy. The written Czech language is also used together with Latin by certain Slovaks for certain purposes, for example correspondence or certain contracts due to the fact that there were not a uniform Slovak language in the absence of a Slovak State. Therefore it was necessary to write such documents in a more common language. Nevertheless Slovak is still used for administrative purposes. The language contains many Slovak elements. People with no higher education always wrote in Slovak.

More and more voices were raised for establishing Slovak as the standard language. In 1763 “Romuald Hadvabny of Cerveny Klastor” proposes a detailed West Slovak language codification in his Latin-Slovak Dictionary with an outline of the Slovak grammar. In 1783 Jozef Ignac Bajza´s “Rene Mladenca Prihody a Skusenosti” is published as the first novel in western Slovak language.

Anton Bernolak, a Catholic priest who codifies a Slovak language standard based on the West Slovak language of the University of Trnava (but containing also some central Slovak elements) develops the so-called Bernolak language. This first success in establishing the language is a six-volume Slovak-Czech-Latin-German-Hungarian Dictionary.

After the establishment of Austria-Hungary (1867), the Hungarian government prohibits the only three Slovak high schools in Hungary. With the “Apponyi Laws”, the Hungarian government officially turns all Slovak basic schools into Hungarian ones and the Slovak language is allowed to be taught one hour in the week as a foreign language.

With the establishment of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the Slovak language is saved from probable extinction and becomes an official language for the first time in history along with the Czech language. Between 1959 and 1968 the six-volume Dictionary of the Slovak Language is published.

Where is it spoken?

Slovak is spoken in particular in Slovakia as official language but also in Austria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary Poland, Romania and Serbia, Slovak has an auxiliary status or it is a minority language.

Dialects

There are many varieties of Slovak, which may be divided, in four basic groups:

Eastern Slovak dialects in Spis, Saris, Zemplín and Abov

Central Slovak dialects in Liptov, Orava, Turiec, Tekov, Hont, Novohrad, Gemer and the historic Zvolen county

Western Slovak dialects in remaining Slovakia

Lowland Slovak dialects which are outside Slovakia in the Pannonian Plain in Serbian Vojvodina, and in southeastern Hungary, western Romania, and the Croatian part of Syrmia

The dialect groups differ mostly in phonology, vocabulary and inflection. Most of the dialects are not intelligible, as for example an inhabitant of the Slovak capital Bratislava cannot understand a person from eastern Slovakia. Also, it is primarily western dialects mutually intelligible with the Czech language.

The dialects are fragmented geographically. The first three groups already existed in the 10th century and are spoken by the Slovaks outside Slovakia for example in USA, Canada, Croatian Slovenia, Bulgaria and Central and Western dialects form the basis of the Lowland dialects.

The western dialects contain features common with the Moravian dialects in the Czech Republic, the southern central dialects contain a few features common with South Slavic languages, and the eastern dialects a few features common with Polish and the East Slavonic languages. Lowland dialects share some words and areal features with the languages surrounding them (Serbian, Hungarian and Romanian).

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