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A Brief History of the Slovak Language

The difficulty with writing about the history of the Slovak language is mainly the lack of information from various stages of its developement. Since it's standardisation process began relatively lately, and the later was completed, studying the medieval history thereof is, at best, challenging.

Slovak language belongs to the Balto-Slavic, more specifically Slavic branch of Indo-European languages, and is thus related to Germanic, Italic, Anatolian, Tocharian, Indo-Iranian and other branches of the same family.

Unlike Germanic languages, the issue of the urheimat of Slavonic languages is still a subject of debate, as well as its classification in the proposed Balto-Slavic connection. Nonetheless, the historical and linguistic mainstream generally agrees that the urheimat was somewhere in the eastern Europe, surrounded by rivers Vistula, Bug, Dneper and Don and the Proto-Slavic language itself was spoken since the early 1st millennium B.C. Just like Germanic and every other branch, Slavic language underwent several consonantal and vowel shifts that gradually distinguished them from their Indo-European cousins. Since we all are native speakers of a Slavic language - Slovak - I am going to mention one consonantal shift, the result whereof you might find interesting.

PIE g became Slavic ž, dz, or z. Examples:
PIE qwén became žena (the Germanic word for woman/wife is kwoeniz, whence English queen, Swedish kvinna or Gothic qino and other)
PGmc kunningaz became kunedzi, later kniez, modern Slovak knieža (whence also English king, Swedish kung, Norwegian kuning, Frankish cuning, Anglo-Saxon cyning and other)
PIE ghol became zoloto...OCS/Slovak/Czech zlato (PGmc got gulth, whence English gold)

From their urheimat Slavs dispersed into all directions and gradually their languages differed form one another. This is when we start to speak of four different branches of Slavonic languages: southern, western, eastern and the hypothetical northern (Old Novgorod dialect pertained a lot of archaic elements and is thus believed to have formed a separate northern branch, but is extinct today). This happened around 500-700A.D. Since it is an essay about Slovak language, I shall concentrate on the western and southern branches only.

The greatest importance of this branch definitely belongs to the Old Bulgarian language (also known as Old Church Slavonic). The language was codified by Byzantine Greek brothers Constantine and Methodius, who also indited the script called Glagolics (a modification of the Greek script), which came into use mostly in formal and church matters.

The western dialect of Proto-Slavic later developed into further dialects and much later into independent languages: Czech, Slovak, Sorbian and Lechitic (whence Polish, Pomeranian, Silesian and Polabian).
In 863 the aforementioned Greek brothers were invited (by knyaz Rastislav) to the Great Moravia to spread the new liturgical script, so that Moravians would become independent of the German influence.
The successor of Rastislav, knyaz Svatopluk, however, expelled the educatees of the two Greeks and one of them (Clementis) left for Bulgaria, where he futher modified the Glagolic script into Cyrilics.

Firstly, I feel the need to clarify a certain issue: Slovak is not descentant of Old Church Slavonic - if your Slovak language teacher claims so, do not believe her - she probably is confused/uneducated about the developement of the early Slavic languages. Slovak only took some influence from Old Church Slavonic.
By 907 the Great Moravia had already been disintegrated, either due to the inner conflicts or the invasion of Magyar tribes, or both. By 11th century, the Slavs living in the area of the present-day Slovakia were gradually being integrated into the Hungarian kingdom. This was the main factor that contributed to the dispersal of the Czech-Slovak sprachbund, but for it, the two would have probably never dispersed.

Due to the fact that the people within the Hungarian kingdom were not linguistically suppressed, the Slovak dialects managed to survive to this day. And this is where we get to another pure myth - the so-called thousand-year lingual suppression. The lingual suppression took place in late-19th/20th centuries, no one suppressed us in middle ages. The myth was probably created by Slovak nationalists. Had we been suppressed for thousand years, we would all speak Magyar today, not Slovak.

The standardisation process began in 17th century, but the most important events date from 18th and 19th centuries. In 1787 Anton Bernolák made a first semi-successful attempt to standardise the language, but it was only accepted by the Catholic party of Slovak scholarship. The basis for his language was a dialect used on the academic field of the University of Trnava, which was some kind of modified western dialect. A few charachteristics set his language apart from the modern form, for instance the absence of J grapheme, since his language used for the phoneme J the G grapheme. Another characteristic is the lack of palatalisation present in the central dialects or eastern dialects, most notably ť, ď, ň, ľ, which made the language sound harder than the current form.

In 1843 another form was codified by evangelist Ludevít Štúr and other scholars. Due to the fact that they were 'patronised' by Bernolák's contemporary and catholic Ján Hollý, this form managed to unite the evangelic and catholic parties. The basis of the language was a dialect spoken around Martin, which according to Štúr was free of any foreign influence. The dialect itself was highly palatalised, which made it sound quite soft.

In 1852 the final form of Slovak was formed due to the publication of a Concise Grammar of Slovak by Martin Hattala. This included the y-i distiction and the palatal L sound (soft L - Ľ) and many other features.
The Slovak language has since changed a little, but Štúrian Slovak language is still considered to be almost an equivalent to the modern standardised form with minimum differences.


sprachbund - a language union
urheimat - the original homeland of a proto-language
proto-language - the original, oldest form of a certain language group/family
PGmc - Proto-Germanic language
OCS - Old Church Slavonic language

'Slavic' and 'Slavonic' are synonyms

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