An Introduction to Slovenian Language

Slovenian language is the national language of the Republic of Slovenia and adjacent enclaves in Austria (Carynthia), Italy (Friuli, Venezia Giulia) and Hungary (the Raba river basin). It is the native language of nearly 2 million Slovenes and is further spoken by emigrant groups of approximately 400,000 speakers in the United States of America, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Germany and France.
Belonging to the Slavic family of languages, Slovenian is most closely related to Croatian and Serbian and is usually grouped with the South-Slavic languages. It is distinguished from them however, in that it has retained archaic proto-Slavic features and lexical characteristics, which indicate a greater age and a strong lexical connection with the northern Slavic type (Bezlaj). For instance, the linguistically rare dual number still retained in Slovenian language today links Slovenian to be Lusatian Slavic, the use of supine to Czech, the genitive case in the negative to the Balto-Slavic group of languages. Unlike Croatian and Serbian, Slovenian is characterized by a great heterogeneity of dialects, in total fifty dialects and subdialects – said to be the indicator of great age.

Slovenian language presented in grammars and taught in schools and universities – the official literary language is referred to as Contemporary Standard Slovenian. It is based on the speech of the capital Ljubljana, which straddles two major central dialect areas of Slovenia, Gorenjska (Upper Carniola), Dolenjska (Lower Carniola). It is to some extent an artificial language, differing in many respects from the colloquial standard language used by educated people in everyday communication.

Slovenian is grammatically highly inflected, with six cases for nouns, adjectives and pronouns, three genders and four tenses. In addition to singular and plural it has retained the dual number; not only reka (river) in singular and reke (rivers) in plural, but also dve reki (two rivers) in dual.
The script is latin and there are 25 letters of the alphabet, the distinctly Slovenian letters being š, č, ž (pron. sh, ch, zh). There are different values for vowel sounds. o and e may be long or short, open or closed, with further subtle variations in pronunciation. These variations are not indicated with markers in writing, and are learnt by listening closely and repeating words and sounds.
Slovenian has free stress, i.e. it may fall on any syllable of a word. Furthermore, once established, the place of stress may be non-mobile, i.e. remain on one syllable throughout any inflections and changes, or it may be mobile. However, this happens less frequently.


The first written records in Slovenian language can be traced as far back as the 8th century AD. The collection of documents known under the name Brižinski spomeniki (Freising manuscripts), written in 8th, 9th and 10th centuries, are the first examples of lithurgical texts in Old Slovenian. More texts of similar nature were written in the following centuries, evidently intended for Slovenian congregations.
The beginning of Slovenian language literacy occurred in the 16th century, brought about by the Protestant religious reform in Slovenia, in the person of Primož Trubar (1508-1586), undoubtedly the father of Slovenian letters.
Slovenian language burst forth with twenty-two books written by this great and extraordinary man. They were primarily translations of religious literature – He began in 1550 with Cathechism and Abecedarium, by 1555 he had published the Gospel of St.Mathew, Calendar, Letters of  St. Paul to Corinthians and Galatians, Prayer and Hymn books, complete New Testament by 1977, the innovative Slovenian Church Rules, King David Psalms and others. They were intended to bring the word of god to the common uneducated people of Slovenian lands – in his forewords he addressed them as »moji lubi Slouvenzi« (my dear Slovenes) – so that they could read  them in their own language and understand the teaching. It was religion and education at the same time, and he published the ABC reader along with Cathechism, to assist in the reading.

It was an incredible achievement. Primož Trubar had to make a choice among the diversity of Slovenian dialects that would set the standard for the literary language. He chose the Ljubljana speech, the central dialect, spoken by the majority of Slovenian population of the time, fundamentally a combination of  major dialects of Dolenjska (Lower Carniola), where Trubar was born, Gorenjska (Upper Carniola) and Notranjska (Inner Carniola).
He also had to select the script – having the choice between the gothic and the latin script. His first two published books were printed in gothic script, the subsequent ones in latin alphabet. He also had to make a decision about the writing of  the sounds š, č, ž (eng. sh, ch, zh). The feat of translating the New Testament, Song of  David and Pauline Letters into a language spoken by the common people, in a way which they would understand, was astounding. Trubar is by right called the father of Slovenian literature. His influence was enormous. His books marked the beginning of national awareness with language as unifying element.

Trubar lay the foundation for written Slovenian. Before the end of the 16th century  Jurij  Dalmatin completed  the Old and New Testament. It was published and distributed in 1584 – the first complete Slovenian bible, numbered among the first twelve bibles of the reformation in national languages.
During the anti-reformation the publications in Slovenian language slowed down. The language of administration and commerce was German, the language of learning Latin. Slovenian was spoken in the country and in the church, in the towns both Slovenian and German was used in communication.

It took the upheavals of the French revolution and humanism, for another upsurge of national awareness in Slovenian lands at the beginning of 19th century. Napoleon's occupation of Slovenia stands out as a significant event in Slovenian history, in that it became for short space of time part of an Illyrian, i.e. Slavic state with Ljubljana as the capital. Slovenian language for the frst time began to be used by the townspeople.  It also received the recognition by the official introduction of Slovenian as language of instruction in elementary school.  Beside confirming Slovenian identity for the townspeople, this move brought the education within the reach of the country people.

It was a time of a great upsurge for Slovenian language. The priest and poet Valentin Vodnik(1758-1819) published Yearbooks with calendar and practical advice to farmers and wrote fresh and memorable Slovenian patriotic poems. The librarian and linguist Jernej Kopitar (1780-1844) published the first definitive Slovenian grammar in 1808. The lawyer France Prešeren (1800-1848), the first and greatest Slovenian poet, published a string of brilliant poems, that marked the first great peak of Slovenian literature.

By the end of the 19th century Slovenian literature reached another peak with the four poets of the so-called Slovenska moderna, on the par with the highest European literary achievements.

Slovenian language today
The 20th century was an extraordinarily rich field of endeavour for Slovenian literature and language. Modern poets and writers are now known to a far larger public through translations into English and a number of European languages.
Slovenian language has evolved into a complex and sophisticated modern language. Slovenes take intense pride in their language for which they had to struggle throughout their history and guarded as a priceless treasure. Today  Slovenes again feel under stress, this time by the manifold and ubiquitous influences of the global culture and language – many fear its overwhelming presence, which threatens to submerge the well-educated multilingual  nation of  2 million Slovenes occupying 20,000sq km of central Europe. They have always been known for their talent for languages, which might lead  the younger generations to increasingly abandon their own "minority" language.

What is the future for Slovenian ? It is a fact, that Slovenes care as intensely for their language as they did throughout their history.  Their language is their heritage, and it defines them as a nation. One would expect and hope, that the cultural diversity we have come to appreciate in the midst of global uniformity, will provide counterbalance to safeguard the Slovenian people in their uniqueness of language and historical being.

Dr.Aleš Debeljak, poet, essayist and  scholar,  has this to say about Slovenes and their history:
»In the absence of social, political, economic, and cultural institutions, poets and writers took on the role as guardians of the mother tongue and individualism, moral independence and national integrity. The history of Slovenians is thus emphatically not the history of great victories, but the history of tenacious guerilla resistance to foreign rulers: literary and linguistic guerilla resistance. .....It is a real wonder that Slovenians managed to preserve their specific identity despite and against German, Italian, Hungarian and Balkan domination. In the absence of a nation-state of their own, the only real home for Slovenians was carved out in their language and creative imagination« ( Slovenian Writers and Style of History, in: The Imagination of Terra Incognita).

Aleksandra Ceferin

• (0) Comments