The Slavic subfamily has three divisions: East Slavic, West Slavic, and South Slavic. Members of the East Slavic branch are Russian, or Great Russian; Ukrainian, also called Little Russian or Ruthenian; and Belarusian, or White Russian. Together they claim close to 225 million native speakers, almost all in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and neighboring countries. The West Slavic branch includes Polish, Czech, Slovak, Lusatian, Kashubian, and the extinct Polabian. The living West Slavic languages can claim approximately 56 million speakers, chiefly in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. The South Slavic tongues consist of Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Slovenian, and Macedonian, together with the liturgical language known as Church Slavonic. The first four are native to more than 30 million people, largely in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.
All Slavic tongues are believed to have evolved from a single parent language, usually called Proto-Slavic, which, in turn, is thought to have split off much earlier (possibly c.2000 B.C.) from Proto-Indo-European, the original ancestor of the members of the Indo-European language family. Proto-Slavic was probably still common to all Slavs in the 1st cent. B.C., and possibly as late as the 8th or 9th cent. A.D., but by the 10th cent. A.D. the individual Slavic languages had begun to emerge.
The spoken Slavic tongues resemble one another more closely than do those of the Germanic and Romance groups; yet, although Slavic languages have much in common in basic vocabulary, grammar, and phonetic characteristics, they differ with regard to such features in many instances. One feature common to most of them is the relatively large number of consonant sounds. A striking instance showing divided usage is the varied position of the primary accent in the individual Slavic languages. For example, in Czech the stress falls on the initial syllable of a word and in Polish on the next-to-last syllable, whereas in Russian and Bulgarian the accent can fall on any syllable.Grammar
Grammatically the Slavic languages, with the exception of Bulgarian and Macedonian, have a highly developed inflection of the noun, with up to seven cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, locative, instrumental, and vocative). The Slavic verb usually takes one of three simple tenses (past, present, and future), but it is further characterized by a complex feature called aspect, which can be either imperfective (showing continuous or repeated action) or perfective (denoting a completed action). Participles and gerunds are often employed where in English clauses would be used. The article is lacking in all Slavic languages except Bulgarian and Macedonian. Members of the Slavic subfamily are more conservative and thus closer to Proto-Indo-European than languages in the Germanic and Romance groups, as is witnessed by their preservation of seven of the eight cases for the noun that Proto-Indo-European possessed and by their continuation of aspects for the verb.Vocabulary
The vocabulary of the Slavic languages is substantially of Indo-European origin; there is an important Balto-Slavic element as well. Loan words or loan translations can be traced to the Iranian and Germanic groups and also to Greek, Latin, and Turkish. More recently, Italian and French have had some measure of influence. Slavic languages have also borrowed from each other. They tend, however, to translate and imitate foreign words rather than directly absorb them.Writing
It is in writing, perhaps, that the most dramatic differences among the Slavic languages occur. Some Slavic languages (notably, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, and Polish) are written in differing versions of the Roman alphabet because their speakers are predominantly Roman Catholic. Other Slavic languages (such as Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian) use variations of the Cyrillic alphabet as a result of the influence of the Orthodox Eastern Church. Serbo-Croatian has several dialects, the most important of which are Serbian, which is written with the Cyrillic alphabet, and Croatian, which is written with the Roman alphabet.
The invention of the Cyrillic alphabet is ascribed traditionally to Cyril, a Greek missionary sent by Constantinople to the Slavic peoples in the 9th cent. A.D., although it may have been the work of his followers. The Cyrillic alphabet was augmented with signs based on the Greek alphabet, added to denote Slavic sounds not found in Greek. So far as is known, no writing in a Slavic language existed before the 9th cent. A.D.; the oldest Slavic texts to survive are in Old Church Slavonic and belong to the 10th and 11th cent.
See also the articles on many of the languages mentioned and Indo-European.
See R. Jakobson, Slavic Languages (2d ed. 1955); L. J. Herman, A Dictionary of Slavic Word Families (1974); H. Birnbaum, Common Slavic (1979); A. M. Schenker and E. Stankiewicz, ed., The Slavic Literary Languages (1980); S. C. Gardiner, Old Church Slavonic (1984); R. Jakobson, Russian and Slavic Grammar: Studies, 1931-1981 (ed. by L. R. Waugh and M. Halle, 1984).
All these languages are nowadays separate in their own right. Until the 17th century it was usual to call Belarussian ("White Russian"), Ukrainian ("Little Russian"), Russian ("Great Russian") dialects of one common "Russian" language (the common languages of Eastern Slavic countries). Despite the vast territory occupied by the East Slavs, their languages are astonishingly similar to one another, with transitional dialects in border regions. All these languages use the Cyrillic alphabet, but with particular modifications.
The history of the East Slavic languages is a very 'hot' subject, because it is interpreted from various political perspectives by the East Slavs "like all mortals, wishing to have an origin as ancient as possible" ("sicut ceteri mortalium, originem suam quam vetustissimam ostendere cupientes"), as Aeneas Sylvius observed in his Historia Bohemica in 1458.
Therefore, a crucial differentiation has to be made between the history of the East Slavic dialects and that of the literary languages employed by the Eastern Slavs. Although most ancient texts betray the dialect their author(s) and/or scribe(s) spoke, it is also clearly visible that they tried to write in a language different from their dialects and to avoid those mistakes that enable us nowadays to locate them.
In both cases one has to keep in mind that the history of the East Slavic languages is of course a history of written texts. We do not know how the writers of the preserved texts would have spoken in every-day life, let alone how an illiterate East Slavic peasant spoke to his family.
After the conversion of the East Slavic region to Christianity the people used service books borrowed from Bulgaria, which were written in "Old Bulgarian" or Old Church Slavonic. They continued to use this language, or rather a variant thereof, usually called (Middle) Church Slavonic, not only in liturgy, but also generally as the language of learning and written communication. This left a large imprint even on the rare secular texts.
Throughout the Middle Ages (and in some way up to the present day) there existed a duality between the Church Slavonic language used as some kind of 'higher' register (not only) in religious texts and the popular tongue used as a 'lower' register for secular texts. It has been suggested to describe this situation as diglossia, although there do exist mixed texts where it is sometimes very hard to determine why a given author used a popular or a Church Slavonic form in a given context. Church Slavonic was a major factor in the evolution of modern Russian, where there still exists a "high stratum" of words that were imported from this language.