Slovak Language

Key Dialects: Central Slovak, Eastern Slovak, Western Slovak

Number of Speakers: 5.5 million
Alternate Names: Slovakian, Slovensky
Geographical Center: Slovakia

Slovak is the official language of Slovakia (formerly eastern Czechoslovakia). It is spoken by approximately 5.6 million people mainly in Slovakia and the adjacent areas. There is a significant number of Slovak speakers in the United States (approximately 510,366), Hungary (over 100,000), the former Yugoslavia (approximately 100,000), Canada (17,370), and Russia (12,000) (Grimes 1992).

Slovak is a member of the West Slavic sub-group of the Slavic languages of the Indo-European language family. Other members of the West Slavic languages include: Czech, Polish, Upper Sorbian, Lower Sorbian, and the extinct Polabian. The Slavic languages are themselves divided into South Slavic, West Slavic, and East Slavic. The South and West Slavic languages are not languages of the former USSR, although some of them have large number of speakers there. Within the West Slavic sub-group Slovak is very closely related to Czech. They are mutually intelligible, but more changes occur every year.

The dialects of Slovak can be divided into three major groups: Central Slovak, Western Slovak, and Eastern Slovak. Central Slovak forms the basis of the standard language. The Slovak dialects are fragmented geographically, separated by numerous mountain ranges. These dialects are all mutually intelligible. The western dialects merge into Moravian dialects of Czech spoken in eastern areas of the Czech Republic and eastern variants into Polish.

Slovak uses a modified Roman orthography that has been adopted to the peculiarities of the Slovak language. It was developed very early in the current millennium and has undergone standardization, beginning with that of Jan Hus (1373 1415) and continuing until very recently (see Short 1987).

Slovak is a richly inflected language like other Slavic languages. Nouns which are feminine, masculine, and neuter are declined in six declensions, and adjectives in one. Number (singular and plural) is distinguished as is gender by inflectional endings on stems. The six case endings are nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, and locative. Slovak also marks an animate/inanimate distinction for masculine nouns. The language has no definite article. Verbs have three major conjugations distinguishing first, second, and third persons, singular and plural. Subject pronouns are often omitted unless they are emphatic. In syntax, main verbs agree in person and number with their subjects. Adjectives agree in person, gender and case with the noun they modify. One of the prominent features of the system of gender and agreement is a high degree of redundancy: the same gender and number information may be repeated several times in the sentence. Word order is grammatically free with no particular fixed order for constituents marking subject, object, possessor, etc. However, the normal order is Subject-Verb-Object. The inflectional system takes care of keeping clear grammatical relations and roles. Pragmatic information and considerations of topic (what the sentence is about, or old information) and focus (new information conveyed by the sentence), as in other Slavic languages, is important in determining word order. Constituents with old information precede constituents with new information, or those that carry most emphasis. Slovak has six sets of long and short vowel phonemes, and a consonantal system of twenty-eight phonemes. It has distinctive palatalization. Voiced consonants at the end of words are devoiced. Two long syllables cannot occur consecutively. Stress is invariably on the first syllable. Slovak has borrowed extensively from Hungarian, and today from English.

Standard Slovak, based on Central Slovak and some West Slovak elements, was codified relatively recently, in the early nineteenth century. Prior to the partition of Czechoslovakia, Slovak was influenced by Czech, in spite of efforts by purists to expunge such influences. Now with separate governments and societies, it is uncertain whether factors that played a role in the past to foster mutual intelligibility and convergence, such as mobility, open regional borders, a common media, and universal military obligations, will counteract other cultural and political variables that favor linguistic divergence. There is a very strong tradition of translating into Czech and Slovak. In the former Czechoslovakia an average of 650 non dramatic works of literature, 150 plays, and 200 films (dubbed or subtitled) were translated annually, and about 28 percent of television time was spent on translated material (Short 1987). The literary tradition in Slovak, however, has historically been eclipsed by Czech, but this may change with political, social, and cultural viability of the new republic.

The history of Slovak is intricately bound with that of Czech. Both descended from “Middle Czech” which was spoken in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and prior to that, “Old Czech” which dates back to the eleventh century. Although Czech and Slovak are closely related, they are considered distinct languages for political, historical and linguistic reasons. For example, Slovakia has historically been dominated by Hungary and thus the language shows signs of Hungarian influence whereas Czech shows signs of German influence because Bohemia and Moravia were controlled by Austria.

Slovak is taught in very few institutions within the United States and Canada. The University of Pennsylvania currently offers Slovak.


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