Slavic Saturday

Today just something lighter, and a reaction to our recent visit from the Grammar and Spelling Police. I would like to touch up on spelling in slavic languages. I have already mentioned the overabundance of cases and genders, so now let’s go on to the spelling.

The one problem that slavic languages have with latin alphabet is that it just does not contain enough letters to cover all the consonants in the language, a problem that multiple people tried to solve in history.

First cases involved inventing a whole new script – the Glagolitic script by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, who invented the alphabet specifically so they can better preach Christianity to Slavs. It did not hold, at least not in whole – a part of this script was later used together with Greek alphabet in the creation of Cyrillic script, still in use by many Slavic nations, mainly the biggest one – Russians.

But some slavic nations have adopted latin alphabet for their writing in middle ages and during their history multiple attempts were made to solve the conundrum of not enough letters. Like using digraphs. This type of orthography is still used a lot for example in Polish, whilst modern Czech has only one digraph, ch. Because in fifteenth century came along Jan Hus and in addition to sparking religious war he also invented diacritics (allegedly, there is some dispute). By adding two simple symbols – ˇ and ´ – he solved the problem once and for all, at least for Czechs.

Since then, spelling in Czech is fairly primitive, as well as in many other Slavic languages, whether with their version of modified Latin script (sometimes made after the Czech model) or Cyrillic. Something like a “Spelling bee” is impossible in any meaningful way, because every word is spelled “as it sounds”. Literally. In Czech, children can learn to read by saying the short names of each letter in a word in succession. When done quickly enough, the word naturally emerges. Learning to write spoken word after that is fairly intuitive.

There are complications, of course. Loan words can be one, although usually Czech language either just takes a word and transliterates it into the closest approximation to its original sound achievable (manager = manažer) or does not bother with that at all and the word is just pronounced in the czech fashion, its original sound be damned (buffet =bufet – in modern Czech the “t” is not silent and the “u” is pronounced differently from the French original). Second complication, and a source of major headache to even Czechs, is that I and Y are the same sound in certain situations. So whilst nobody makes a mistake reading a word, it is fairly common to make mistakes when writing.

And punctuation is probably a mess in every language. Well, I never intended to be proof reader…


  1. Gelaos says

    a source of major headache to even Czechs, is that I and Y are the same sound in certain situations. So whilst nobody makes a mistake reading a word, it is fairly common to make mistakes when writing.

    I’ll add an example. “Můj tip je Daniel.” means “My guess is [that it is/will be] Daniel.” -- e.g. when someone believes that Daniel could win a game. But “Můj typ je Daniel.” means “My type is Daniel.” -- e.g. when someone likes Daniel, likes his appearance or personality etc.

    So when I talk to someone, the other person will easily guess the correct meaning (“tip” vs. “typ”) from the context. But when I communicate with someone via text messages, there might be a misunderstanding if I type the wrong “i”/”y”.

  2. jrkrideau says

    Whereas spelling (and pronunciation) in English is a living nightmare.

    The only Slavic language I have encountered is Russian and I can at least make a reasonable guess at the pronunciation or the spelling. I swear that English is one step away from being written with ideograms as Chinese is.

  3. Ice Swimmer says

    rq @ 3

    The thing with commas is, that they work differently in different languages. In the previous sentence I used comma like it is supposed to be used in Finnish.

  4. rq says

    Ice Swimmer

    The thing with commas is, that they work differently in different languages.

    What you say is true. I have a bad relationship with commas due to learning the grammar rules of Latvian, which would punctuate similarly to this particular sentence but can get quite thorny with other sentences. When it comes to writing correct Latvian, in my opinion, when in doubt, add a comma. The more the merrier. O.o

  5. Jazzlet says

    It’s not just different languages that use commas diffferently it’s different variants, for instance American English uses a lot more comma thas British English and as far as I can see have almost opposite rules/ Americans eem to put commas in if in doubt whereas Brit’s leave them out if in doubt.

  6. says

    So who else hates commas?

    In German, you write and then you just sprinkle commas on top…
    The most consistent language I know spelling wise is Spanish. There’s a couple of rules but once you know them you can pronounce every written word and translate spoken language into written language most of the time.
    German works well from writing to speaking but not so well the other way round. The worst letter is V, as it can be pronounced like an F but also like a W and there’s no rhyme or reason to it. We also usually keep at least partly the pronunciation of foreign words but then occasionally change the spelling.
    Right now in schools we’re using something called FRESCH strategies and these might be helpful to all who learn German:
    60% of words can be written correctly if you say the syllables slowly: Som-mer makes you realise there’s two M
    If you’re unsure whether to put a t or a d, p or b, g or k, make it longer: Burg-Burgen and now you can hear the g sound.
    If unsure whether to write ä or e, eu or äu, look for a related word. Mäuse comes from Maus.
    You can also combine. Sohn turns into Söhne, use syllables and the lengthening H becomes audible Söh-ne
    For the remaining 10%, the strategy is “sit the fuck down and learn them by heart.”

  7. Tethys says

    Schwabian, Suebian, Shvee und shwae. Tscherzen, schwar, und schvardt. Pfaltzgraffenweilers eat pfeffernuesse, and Deutsch rote grote mit fleudt.

  8. Tethys says

    I tried to write out the alphabet poem that goes along with the Nord runes, but ironically, my English speaking keyboard is lacking several characters and all of the diacritics, so I literally can’t spell it.

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