Linguistic Diversity in the Caucasus Region

With the recent conclusion of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Caucasus region of the world has been in the forefront of the media. International events like the Olympics always spark my curiosity about local cultures, customs and languages so I set out to learn about the languages of the region. For the purposes of this post, I will concentrate on the Northern Caucasus region.

Geopolitically, the Northern Caucasus are part of the Russian Federation. They are an area with a complicated ethnolinguistic history. The region is made up of seven internal republics namely: Adyghea, Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.

I was aware there were multiple languages spoken in the region but didn’t realize the extent of the linguistic diversity in the Caucasus. There are approximately 40 indigenous tongues spoken throughout the region that encompasses the narrow mountainous area of land between the Black and Caspian Seas.  This is some of the highest density of linguistic diversity in the world; only Papua New Guinea or parts of the Amazon Jungle are near to, or beyond this density.

There are three language families indigenous to the Caucasus, two of which are mainly language groups in the Northern region. First, there is the Kartvelian language family which includes Georgian, Svan, Mingrelian and Laz with about 9.2 million speakers. Second, there is the Northwest Caucasian language family, that includes the Kabardian language with about 2.5 million speakers in total. Finally, there is the Northeast Caucasian language family that includes the Chechen, Avar, Ingush and Lezgian languages and has roughly 3.5 million speakers in total.



The Slovakian Language

The Slovak or Slovakian language is the official language of the Slovak Republic, a small country in the heart of central Europe nestled between Poland, the Ukraine, Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic.  It is an Indo-European language that along with Czech, Polish, Silesian, Kashubian and Sorbian belongs to the West Slavic languages.

Although Slovakia is a relatively new country, gaining independence in 1993, it has a long and interesting history as a part of various empires. In 1787 Anton Bernolák, a Slovakian Catholic priest, was the first person to codify spoken Slovak into a written form. The codification of Slovak was crucial to the forging of a national identity but it initially received little support from the Slovak people. In the 1830s a new generation of Slovaks, including  Ľudovít Štúr who became a leading figure in the Slovak nationalist movement, helped codify a new literary language which became the basis for modern Slovak.

One of the most interesting features of the Slovak language is its relationship to Czech. The two are mutually intelligible due to a long history of interaction and share many orthographic features and technical terminology dating back to the former country of Czechoslovakia.  Although they are similar languages, dialects of Slovak spoken in the eastern parts of current Slovakia would not be easily understood by Czech speakers. In addition to the regional differences, Czech and Slovak have phonetic, vocabulary and grammatical differences.

Some of the differences in Slovak and Czech include differing pronouns, rhythmical rules and the use of the passive voice. Czech exists in two forms, literary Czech and colloquial Czech with the standard Slovak language a closer relative of literary Czech. Further differences include the names for the months: in Czech the names are derived from Slavic roots while in Slovak they originate from their Latin counterparts. Some interesting examples of basic vocabulary differences are:

  • The English “yeah” is “hej” in Slovak but “jo” in Czech
  • In Slovak, “good bye” is “dovidenia” but in Czech it is “nashledanou”
  • The Slovak word for “cat” is “mačka” and in Czech it is “kočka”

According to estimates, over one third of Slovaks live outside of the Slovak Republic. Thus Slovak is also spoken in Poland, the Czech Republic, Canada, the United States, Serbia, the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary and many other countries.   So wherever you go, it is good to know a little about Slovak because you may run into a native speaker. Please do not confuse Slovak with Slovenian!


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