Note: I found that I couldn’t deal with the subject of Language without delving into History, and I’m aware that you may well consider the result excessive. If you’re interested only in how to pronounce the words and place-names that come up in the narrative, you’ll find a handy pronunciation guide at the end of this page, and you may skip to it with my full approval and blessing.

Slovene and Croatian are Slavic languages, both members of the South Slavic group, which also includes Serbian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian. All but the last are spoken primarily within the borders of the former Yugoslavia, whose name means ‘country of the South Slavs.’

This name was was imposed by the royal fiat of King Alexander Karadjordjević in 1929 , replacing “The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.” The king didn’t do this because the old name was weird and awkward (though that would have been a valid reason). Political tensions among the country’s various peoples were making democratic rule difficult and ineffective, and the king had decided to try dictatorship (the latest thing in politics at that time) instead. He redrew the internal borders in an attempt to blur the relationship between territory and ethnicity, and gave the country a new name designed to emphasize the unity rather than the separateness of South Slavs. (Bulgaria, being another country, was of course not included, but Bulgarian is also a South Slavic language all the same.)

The Slavic languages are a branch of the large Indo-European family, to which English also belongs as a member of the Germanic branch. Other branches found in Europe, with some of the modern languages descended from them, are Italic (Latin, all the Romance languages), Celtic (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton), Greek, and Albanian. Non-European branches include Armenian, Iranian (Farsi, Kurdish, several Afghan languages), Indian (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, other northern languages in India), and the extinct languages of the Hittites of Asia Minor and the Tocharians, who once lived in Xinjiang, in the western part of China.

As Europeans go, the Slavs were relative latecomers to many of the lands they now occupy outside their original homeland, which was probably somewhere in what is now Ukraine. They began spreading north, west, and south from there in the 6th century of the Common Era, and this movement continued for about three centuries. During that time, Slavs completely overran the Balkan peninsula — including Romania, Greece and Albania, where their language didn’t survive, but their genetic contributions undoubtedly did.

In modern times, the Slavic languages are divided into three sub-branches: East, West, and South Slavic. East Slavic includes the languages of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine; West Slavic includes Polish, Czech, and Slovak. The rest, as listed in the first paragraph above, are South Slavic. (Slovene has some similarities with West Slavic languages, perhaps the result of a different migration path than that followed by the Serbs, Croats, and the rest. It might be considered more of a cousin than a sister of their languages, but geographical proximity, cultural influences, and the politics of recent centuries tie it more closely to the South Slavic branch than to any other.)

Modern distribution of Slavic languages
This map (which you can enlarge slightly by clicking it) shows the modern distribution of the Slavic languages, including some spoken by very small language communities. The legend at the lower right lists the three branches separately — West, then South, then East — and attempts to emphasize the distinction with related colors, although this scheme apparently couldn’t be implemented consistently. Some smaller countries on the map are identified by the two-letter code that also identifies them on the Internet: SI (Slovenia), BA (Bosnia and Herzegovina), ME (Montenegro), MK (Macedonia), and MD (Moldova). “Czechia,” though it hasn’t caught on in our part of the world, is (according to Wikipedia) the official one-word name of the Czech Republic. I never came across it except on this map (another borrowing from Wikipedia).

One historical feature that stands out clearly on the map is the separation of the southern branch from the other two by the interposition of peoples who speak non-Slavic languages. The Hungarians invaded from Central Asia in the 9th century C.E. and ran up against the Frankish empire, which had recently established itself in German-speaking Austria. The Romanians, speakers of a Romance language, trace their descent to the Roman legions who conquered the territory they occupy back in the time of the Emperor Trajan in the second century C.E. Constantly invaded and ruled by others until the 19th century, Romania grew in size when it acquired all the adjoining territory that had a largely Romanian population after World War I. Hungary, which fought on the losing side, had to give the large province of Transylvania to Romania, which had allied itself with the winners.

In spite of this geographic separation, the relationship between the South Slavic and other Slavic languages seems comparatively close when one compares it to that between Irish and Welsh (Celtic languages separated perhaps 25 centuries ago) or Portuguese and Romanian (Romance languages separated by 20 centuries as well as about 1800 miles).

The map shows six South Slavic languages, but a good argument can be made that there are really only four: Slovene, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and what used to be called Serbo-Croatian, spoken not only in those two countries but also in Bosnia and Montenegro. There are a few regional differences, but they are no greater than the differences between local dialects in Italy, France, or Germany. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, all parties have been trying to emphasize and even to increase these differences, because every nation feels that it deserves a full-fledged language, not a mere dialect. Unfortunately, however, there is no solid linguistic criterion that makes the difference between a language and a dialect; it is really a question of politics. A remark that has become a cliché in the field of linguistics is “a language is a dialect with an army.”

Americans who have seen samples of more than one Slavic language (on the signs outside churches, for example, or in news photos of demonstrators waving placards) may have noticed more than one alphabet. The languages of Slavic countries whose people are historically Roman Catholic use the Roman alphabet. In countries where the people are historically Eastern Orthodox, they use the alphabet called Cyrillic, after St Cyril, a 9th-century Christian missionary who (with his brother, St Methodius) worked among the Slav settlers and devised for them an alphabet suited to the large inventory of Slavic consonants that had no counterparts in Latin or Greek.

Since Cyril and Methodius were Byzantines, the alphabet they adapted was Greek, and sounds that occurred in both Byzantine Greek and early Slavonic are usually spelled with the same letters. The missionaries added several more to represent sounds (usually consonants) that didn’t exist in their language. Use of this alphabet, called Glagolitic, spread through several Slavic communities in the southern and western branches, but by the 12th century it had mostly been replaced either by the Roman alphabet or by Cyrillic.

Cyrillic was a reworking of the Glagolitic script probably created by converted students of Methodius at the end of the 9th century, and named for Cyril, who was given most of the credit for the older alphabet. Cyrillic is thought to have been created in Bulgaria, because, after a Frankish bishop banned the Glagolitic script in regions farther west and persecuted Methodius’s followers, some of them escaped and took refuge in the Bulgarian kingdom. Cyrillic subsequently became the only alphabet used where Slavic languages were spoken in the Orthodox East.

Comparing the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets, it’s often easy to see the kinship between letters, even though their forms have varied somewhat over time: for instance, the sound of Roman D is represented by Greek Δ (delta) and Russian Д (de), L by Greek Λ (lambda) and Russian Л (el). A looks the same in all three alphabets, and so does P — except that in Greek and Russian that letter (Greek rho) is equivalent to Roman R instead of P. The big difference comes in the invention of new letters for sounds that didn’t exist in classical or Byzantine Greek: [ts] became Ц, [ch] as in church became Ч, [zh] as in azure became Ж, [sh] as in shut became Ш, and [j] as in juice became Ђ. By slightly altering the form of the letter Ш (sha) to Щ (shcha), the scholars created a single letter to represent a characteristic Slavic consonant sequence that often boggles English-speakers, especially when it begins a word.

In the west, however, the Christian Slavs were converted to Roman Catholicism. Their rites and doctrines (except for a few Glagolitic holdouts that managed to survive through the centuries) were written in Latin, and for their vernacular languages they made do with the same Roman alphabet, though it was no more generous than the Greek alphabet in providing letters for a large variety of consonants.

This was a problem that English, too, had encountered. Scribes in the Old English period supplemented the Roman letters with a few runic characters borrowed from an older Germanic writing system, but these fell out of use after the Norman Conquest, and for several sounds the scribes began to suffix the letter h to another consonant as a qualifier, as in these pairs: so - show, car - char, tin - thin. Each of these six words begins with a different (but still single) consonant sound, but in the second member of each pair that sound is spelled with two letters — a digraph, if you want the technical term — turning it into a sound thoroughly distinct from, though related to, the sound indicated by the same letter without a following h.

Writers of Slavic languages who had to adapt the Roman alphabet faced a similar problem. In Poland, they used the letter z in much the same way that English writers used h: [sh] was spelled sz and [ch] was spelled cz. But a simple and thoroughly logical system was never quite achieved (although Polish spelling probably has fewer inconsistencies than English spelling, which is notorious in that respect).

In the Czech, Slovak, Slovene, and Croatian lands, a more logically satisfying system was developed through the use of diacritical marks instead of digraphs. The mark you see most often is called the haček (HAH-check): it’s the little “inverted circumflex” over the c in its name. Actually, haček, the Czech name, is what linguists call it, but since the rise of computer typography it is generally called (by non-linguists) a caron, a name that first appeared in the 1980s and is thought to be a combination of caret and macron.

In Czech, haček means ‘little hook,’ and the Slovene and Croatian names for this mark (kljukica and kvačica respectively) have the same meaning. Slovenes also call it the strešica, which means ‘little roof.’

The following pronunciation guide includes all the consonants spelled with the “little hook.”


Pronouncing Slovene and Croatian

Vowels

Long vowels sound very much the way they do in other European languages:
a = ah, e = ay as in English hay, i = ee, o = oh, u = oo. Short vowels differ less from long ones than they do in English; they really are just the same sounds pronounced more quickly. You can’t distinguish one monosyllabic word from another by whether its vowel is long or short, as you can in English pairs like cot and coat or peat and pit. In Slovene or Croatian, vowel length is pretty much a matter of whether the vowel occurs in a stressed or unstressed syllable.

Diphthongs

Slovene and Croatian have two of the three diphthongs we have in English. Both are spelled with the help of the letter j, which you’ll encounter in the Consonant section below.

aj is pronounced like the English word eye — ‘ah-ee’ if you slow it down.

oj is pronounced like oy in boy — oh-ee’ if you slow it down.

But neither language has the diphthong in “How now, brown cow.” They have av (ahv) instead, where v is simply a consonant.

Consonants

These are the consonants that English speakers find unfamiliar (at least in spelling):

c never has the sound of k; when there’s no haček over it, it’s always pronounced [ts].

č is the [ch] sound heard twice in English church

Note: In Croatian (not Slovene), you usually see an acute accent over a c when it comes after an i, like this: ć. This sound, which occurs at the end of many surnames, is like our [ch] made with the tip of the tongue rather than the middle. Fortunately, however, travelers can get by using the “church” consonant č. No one’s going to take us for natives anyway.

đ is used in Croatian to represent the sound of English j and ge in words like judge. Slovenes use the digraphinstead for the same sound. (The surname of Croatia’s first President is written Tuđman in his native language, but I’ve spelled it Tudjman, on the grounds that this is more familiar to those of us who were reading English-language newspapers in the 90s.)

j is always pronounced like English y. It’s usually a consonant, but sometimes acts as a vowel (with the same sound as i, just as it does in English).

r is “rrrolled,” with a flutter of the tongue-tip, as it is in Scotland (or at least in comic imitations of Scottish speech).

š represents our [sh] sound, as in shush.

ž is the [zh] sound we have so many ways to spell in English: pleasure, azure, garage, jardinière — as you can see, it often occurs in imported words.

The rest of the consonants in Slovene and Croatian are close enough to English pronunciation that you don’t have to think about them (except for a few items mentioned in the next section).

Peculiarities

Although the Slavic languages have few individual sounds that aren’t found somewhere in English, they often put them together in ways that seem strange to our provincial ears and tongues. We generally don’t put a [y] immediately after an [l], as the Slovenes do (twice) in the name of their capital, Ljubljana. We no longer pronounce the sequence [kn] (although our spelling of knife shows that English-speakers once did that). Slovenes have no problem with their word for ‘book,’ knjiga, which begins not just with [kn], but with [kny]. And the Croats pronounce their own name for themselves by starting with the sequence [hrv]: Hrvat. There’s no point in trying to list all the possibilities; their spelling systems, unlike ours, are consistent and logical, and you can always figure out how to pronounce these unfamiliar combinations — though you may have to do it with comical slowness. (Fortunately, the native speakers are too polite to laugh out loud.)

One characteristic of the spelling system in both Slovene and Croatian that will look extremely strange to English speakers is the tendency not to write a vowel that comes before r. That’s not because there is no vowel, but because the vowel tends to be ‘understood’ without being written. Take the word for square (in the sense of ‘plaza’) in both languages. Although they might have written “terg” or “turg,” the Slovenes and Croats spell this word simply “trg.” You can’t say it without a vowel, and neither can they, so they just consider the r to stand for the syllable that we pronounce “er...” when, for example, we stumble upon two fellow workers behaving affectionately in the copy room.

Trg isn’t an isolated example; “syllabic r,” as linguists like to call this shorthand device, is used wherever appropriate. For example, a Serb is Srb and a Greek is Grk. All you need to do is supply the [er] that you wouldn’t be able to help saying anyway. (That, and roll the r like a stage Scotsman, of course.)

We encountered a few other pecularities, including words that end in -nj; these are dealt with in the narrative as they happen to come up.