Slavic peoples are traditionally divided along linguistic lines into West Slavic (including Czechs, Poles and Slovaks), East Slavic (including Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians, and Rusyns), and South Slavic (including Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs and Slovenians). For a more comprehensive list, see Ethno-cultural subdivisions. The word appeared to be dated from the 9th century from the word "slověne". Note the first vowel "o", rather than an "a" as in Greek and Latin.


Proto-Slavic language | West Slavic I1 Y-DNA | Origins and Slavic homeland debate | Slavs in the historical period | Slavic populations under foreign rule | Religion and alphabet | Ethno-cultural subdivisions
Proto-Slavic language  
Proto-Slavic language

The ancestor of the Proto-Slavic language branched off at some uncertain time in an unknown location from common Proto-Indo-European (possibly passing through a common Proto-Balto-Slavic stage). According to a popular view, "the Indo-Europeans who remained after the migrations became speakers of Balto-Slavic". Proto-Slavic proper, defined as the last stage of the language preceding the split of the historical Slavic languages, predates the 7th century, and was likely spoken during the 5th and 6th century.

The Slavic language group is categorized with the satem or eastern isogloss of the Indo-European language family, along with the Baltic and Indo-Iranian groups. This is in contrast with the western or centum division that includes Romance, Germanic and Celtic languages.

Genetic origins

In Europe, Haplogroup R1a is found at highest frequency in Poland (over 60% of the population), in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia (40-50%), the Republic of Macedonia (35%), and the Czech Republic (32%). It occurs at around 15-25% levels in other Eastern European countries.

The spread is believed to be related to the mass migrations following the Last Glacial Maximum when the Balkans served as a refuge. The historic distribution of genes may be validated using ancient DNA, but so far we do not have data of Y haplogroup from best preserved bodies as Ötzi or Taklamakan mummies.

In Poland 60% of Poles are of R1a Y-DNA, while 30% is composed of R1b and I1 Y-DNA. Germany is a country of R1b and I1 Y-DNA composition with an R1a Y-DNA frequency of just 8%. This clear correspondence between the Germanic/Slavic language boundary and the R1b/R1a genetic boundary led genetic researchers to conclude that R1a was a valid identifier of the Slav peoples. However this view is not without its own problems.

Germany is historically populated by both Germanic tribes and Western Slavic tribes. By comparison, Poland is a country historically populated almost entirely by historically Lech tribes. There is no historical record of German Slavs or Polish Slavs being exterminated during last 1000 years. On the contrary many Lech tribes still existed until 19th century Poland and Germany. A few Lech tribes still exist in 21st century Germany (e.g. Sorbs) with their tribal customs intact. One would therefore expect there to be a larger minority of R1a in Germany than is actually the case.

By contrast to popular beliefs, non-Slavic Sweden and Norway do have higher than expected frequencies of R1a (18% and 24% respectively). In Britain, the distribution of R1a corresponds closely to the areas of Viking influence. The same Y haplogroup means that Vikings are parentally related to (Lech) Ludzie where the concentration of R1a is highest in Europe.

In both Germany and in Poland R1b and I1 do exist in 55-45 proportion to each other. In Europe only Nordic countries have something similar in proportions between R1b and I1. Curiously according to autochtonic theory West Slavs of Germany and Poland are not generally recognized as Pre-Slavic populations that subsequently became Slavicized (allochtonic theory?). Polish archeologists even point to Pomeranian culture as the source of the culturally distinctive and autochthonic appearance of Slavs in Europe. This is a form of Lusatian culture with heavy Viking influences and is clearly Slavic according to autochthonic theory. If it is not originally Slavic, then it is a Pre-Slavic Non-Slavicized culture of Western Slavs, which was spread over the entire Central-Eastern-South Slavic Europe and attained total cultural domination over it. This subsequently makes Slavs (R1a Y-DNA) culturally Lechicized by the former Pre-Slavic population of Europe, the Western Slavs (I1 Y-DNA), the founders of the Eastern Civilization of Europe. This subsequently means that the easternly appearing cultural distinctiveness of Rusins (East Slavs) is whatever is left of the original Slavic culture and Lechs are not Slavicized with it to this very day as a matter of fact.

It may be that the R1b/R1a divide predates the current boundary between Slavic and Germanic language areas and that R1a is not such a clear-cut marker of Slav settlement as was initially thought on the basis of the German/Polish divide. It may, in northern Europe at least, reflect an earlier east-to-west movement of peoples who entered Scandinavia but were for some reason unable to penetrate far into mainland Europe via Germany.

  West Slavic I1 Y-DNA  
West Slavic I1 Y-DNA

The Haplogroup I (M170 Y-DNA) which in Poland and Germany (the second country with the major historical population of Western Slavs besides Poland) is the only DNA, which can be associated with Lechs, who are the West Slavs and is found at over 20% levels in all Slavic countries with the rare exception of Russia (Russia has just 6% I1 YDNA like Germany has just 8% of R1a YDNA). It exists natively only in Europe and is associated with ancient "northern barbarians." The great majority of the Y-chromosomes amongst these "northern barbarian" countries however, is comprised of the same haplogroups (Germanic R1b in Western Europe with exceptions of Italy, Switzerland and Iberia, Eastern Slavic R1a in Eastern Europe with exception of Russia, and N in Northeastern Europe with exception of Finland).

I1 Y-DNA is a major haplogroup in Poland and in Germany. According to different sources its frequency is ranging from 18% to 25% in Poland and from 38% to 45% in Germany. The territorial divide between its subgroups I1b* in Eastern-Southern Europe (land of East Slavs & Thracians) and I1a in Northern-Central Europe (land of West Slavs & Vikings) is also in Europe a recognized territorial partition between ethnic territories of the East Slavs and the West Slavs.


The Haplogroup I/ M170 (Y-DNA) is more abundant in the Balkans: in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia at 40-50%, in some Adriatic islands even 80%. In such high levels it occurs in non-Slavic areas, chiefly in Sardinia and Scandinavia. It is not found in India, but occurs widely in the western Caucasus (30-60%), and also in northern Iran and Kurdistan (30-40%). Thus it is not originally Slavic, and its regional abundance chiefly indicates the former Pre-Slavic populations that subsequently become Slavicized. The haplogroup I occurs around 15-25% levels in Eastern European countries and is rare in Poland.

  Origins and Slavic homeland debate  
Origins and Slavic homeland debate

The location of the speakers of pre-Proto-Slavic and Proto-Slavic is subject to considerable debate. Serious candidates are cultures on the territories of modern Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. The proposed frameworks are:

  1. Lusatian culture hypothesis: The pre-Proto-Slavs were present in north-eastern Central Europe since at least the late 2nd millennium BC, and were the bearers of the Lusatian culture and later the Przeworsk culture (part of the Chernyakhov culture).

  2. Milograd culture hypothesis: The pre-Proto-Slavs (or Balto-Slavs) were the bearers of the Milograd culture

  3. Chernoles culture hypothesis: The pre-Proto-Slavs were the bearers of the Chernoles culture of northern Ukraine

From the 19th century onwards, the debate became politically charged, particularly in connection with the history of the Partitions of Poland, and German imperialism known as Drang nach Osten. Generally, both German and Slavic want to be 'autochthonic' on land at river Vistula.

Autochthonic theory (the Proto-Slavs are native to the area of modern Poland),

Allochthonic theory (the Slavs immigrated to the area of modern Poland) .

The debate has been used as a tool of political propaganda and is often emotionally charged and interspersed with pseudoarchaeology and national mysticism. Contemporary scholarship in general has moved away from the idea of monolithic nations and the Urheimat debates of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and its focus of interest is that of a process of ethnogenesis, regarding competing Urheimat scenarios as false dichotomies.

Earliest accounts

The lands of the Elbe, Oder, and west of the Vistula river were referred to as Magna Germania by Tacitus in AD 98. Tacitus, Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy mention a tribe of the Venedes east of the Vistula, commonly identified with the early Vandals,

From Romanticism, the allochthonic school theorem is that the 6th century authors re-applied the ethnonym to hitherto unknown Slavic tribes, whence the later designation "Wends" for Slavic tribes, and medieval legends purporting a connection between Poles and Vandals. The allochthonic School wants us to believe that the medieval kings and authors didn’t know what they fought or who the subdued peoples were.

The autochthonic school postulates that the Venedes of Tacitus and the "Slavs proper" between the 1st and the 6th centuries coalesced into the historical Slavic ethnicities.

The Slavs were "known to other people" as those tribes located between the Vistula and Dnepr until the middle of the 1st century BCE. After that they expanded to the Elbe (Labe) River and Adriatic Sea and down the Danube. The Slavs under name of Venets, the Ants and the Sklavens make their first appearance in Byzantine records in the early 6th century. Byzantine historiographers under Justinian I (527-565), such as Procopius of Caesarea, Jordanes and Theophylact Simocatta describe tribes emerging from the area of the Carpathian Mountains, the lower Danube and the Black Sea, invading the Danubian provinces of the Eastern Empire.

Jordanes mentions that the Venets sub-divided into three groups: the Venets, the Ants and the Sklavens (Sclovenes, Sklavinoi), collectively called Spores. The Byzantine term Sklavinoi was loaned as Saqaliba by medieval Arab historiographers.

Scenarios of ethnogenesis

Historical distribution of the Slavic languages. The area shaded in light purple is the Prague-Penkov-Kolochin complex of cultures of the 6th to 7th c. AD, likely corresponding to the spread of Slavic tribes at the time. The area shaded in darker red indicates the core area of Slavic river names (after EIEC p. 524ff.)

The Globular Amphora culture stretches from the middle Dniepr to the Elbe in the late 4th and early 3rd millennia BC. It has been suggested as the locus of a Germano-Balto-Slavic continuum (compare Germanic substrate hypothesis), but the identification of its bearers as Indo-Europeans is uncertain.

The Chernoles culture (8th to 3rd c. BC, sometimes associated with the "Scythian farmers" of Herodotus) is "sometimes portrayed as either a state in the development of the Slavic languages or at least some form of late Indo-European ancestral to the evolution of the Slavic stock". The Milograd culture (700 BC - 100 AD), centered roughly on present day Belarus, north of the contemporaneous Chernoles culture, have also been proposed as ancestral to either Slavs or Balts.

The ethnic composition of the bearers of the Przeworsk culture (2nd c. BC to 4th c. AD, associated with the Lugii) of central and southern Poland, northern Slovakia and of Ukraine, including the Zarubintsy culture (2nd c. BC to 2nd c. AD, also connected with the Bastarnae tribe) and the Oksywie culture are other candidates.

The area of southern Ukraine is known to have been inhabited by Scythian and Sarmatian tribes prior to the foundation of the Gothic kingdom. Early Slavic stone stelae found in the middle Dniestr region are markedly different from the Scythian and Sarmatian stelae found in the Crimea.

The (Gothic) Wielbark Culture displaced the eastern Oksywie part of the Przeworsk culture from the 1st century AD. While the Chernyakhov culture (2nd to 5th c. AD, identified with the multi-ethnic kingdom established by the Goths immigrating from the Wielbark culture) leads to the decline of the late Sarmatian culture in the 2nd to 4th centuries, the western part of the Przeworsk culture remains intact until the 4th century, and the Kiev culture flourishes during the same time, in the 2nd-5th c. AD. This latter culture is recognized as the direct predecessor of the Prague-Korchak and Pen'kovo cultures (6th-7th c. AD), the first archaeological cultures the bearers of which are undisputedly identified as Slavic. Proto-Slavic is thus likely to have reached its final stage in the Kiev area; there is, however, substantial disagreement in the scientific community over the identity of the Kiev culture's predecessors, with some scholars tracing it from the "Belarusian" Milograd culture, others from the "Ukrainian" Chernoles and Zarubintsy cultures and still others from the "Polish" Przeworsk culture. The Kiev culture was overrun by the Huns around 400 AD, which may have triggered the Proto-Slavic expansion to the historical locations of the Slavic languages.

  Slavs in the historical period  

Slavs in the historical period

Slavs emerged from obscurity when the westward movement of Germans and Celts in the 5th and 6th centuries AD (necessitated by the onslaught of people from Siberia and Eastern Europe: Huns, Avars, Bulgars and Magyars) started the great migration of the Slavs, who settled the lands abandoned by Germanic tribes fleeing the Huns and their allies: westward into the country between the Odra and the Elbe-Saale line; southward into Bohemia, Moravia, much of present day Austria, the Pannonian plain and the Balkans; and northward along the upper Dnieper river.

When their migratory movements ended, there appeared among the Slavs the first rudiments of state organizations, each headed by a prince with a treasury and defense force. Moreover, there were the beginnings of class differentiation, with nobles who pledged allegiance to the Frankish and Holy Roman Emperors.

In the 7th century, the Frankish merchant Samo, who supported the Slavs fighting their Avar rulers, became the ruler of the first known Slav state in Central Europe, which, however, most probably did not outlive its founder and ruler. Karantania in today's Austria and Slovenia was one Slavic state; very old also are the Principality of Nitra and the Moravian principality (see under Great Moravia). In this period, there existed central Slavic groups and states such as the Balaton Principality, but the subsequent expansion of the Magyars and Romanians, as well as the Germanisation of Austria, separated the northern and southern Slavs.

In the early history of South Slavs, and continuing into the Dark Ages, non-Slavic groups were sometimes dissimilated by Slavic-speaking populations: the Bulgars became Slavicized and their Turkic tongue disappeared; in a similar manner the ancient Pre-Slavic Croats from the Azov Sea at Tanais by their migration since 8th century also became Slavicized and their early Indo-Iranian tongue then mostly disappeared (except some archaisms in dialects). In both cases of Pre-Slavic Bulgars and Croats, the same is confirmed also by their newest biogenetical analyses, where the main Slavic haplogroup (M173) is very low in Bulgarians (12%) and Croats (23%); other non-Slavic genome types predominate among both of these people.

In other cases, Slavs themselves assimilated other groups such as the Romanians, Magyars, Greeks, Italians, etc. Apart from the Illyrians who inhabited the Balkans, the Croats also partly merged with the Alans, and the Serbs are speculated to have assimiliated a tribe of the Sarmatians called the Serboi, later merged with the Celts.

Because of the vastness and diversity of the territory occupied by Slavic people, there were several centers of Slavic consolidation. In the 19th century, Pan-Slavism developed as a movement among intellectuals, scholars, and poets, but it rarely influenced practical politics and didn't find support in all nations that had Slavic origins. Pan-Slavism became compromised when Russian Empire started to use it as an ideology justifying its territorial conquests in Central Europe as well as subjugation of other ethnic groups of Slavic origins such as Poles or Ukrainians, and the ideology became associated with Russian imperialism. The common Slavic experience of communism combined with the repeated usage of the ideology by Soviet propaganda after World War II within the Eastern bloc (Warsaw Pact) was a forced high-level political and economic hegemony of the USSR dominated by Russians, and as such despised by the rest of the conquered nations. A notable political union of the 20th century that covered many South Slavs was Yugoslavia, but it broke apart as well.

  Slavic populations under foreign rule  
Slavic populations under foreign rule

In the course of their history, many Slavic-speaking communities came under foreign rule for longer or shorter periods. Poland underwent partition, German-speaking empires appeared to absorb the Czechs for many centuries, and the Ottomans in their hey-day dominated the Slavs. Even the East Slavs had to submit to the Tatar yoke after the Mongol invasion of Rus.

The Slavs living in Brandenburg and Pomerania were exterminated or assimilated by Germans in the course of the Drang nach Osten; Turkish incursions suppressed the regional hegemonies of Bulgarian and Serbian speakers; Poland suffered decline, partition and extinction as a separate national state in the 18th century. Until the 20th century, certain speech-groups (such as speakers of Slovenian) lacked the resources to establish their own distinctive independent nation-states. Other communities (speakers of Sorbian or of Kashubian, for example) remain as minorities in the current system of nation-states.

Some speech-communities have long stood under the influence of others -- even other Slavs: speakers of Ukrainian and Belarusian came under Polish and/or Russian rule; German-speaking overlords have long dominated the Sorbian-speakers. In the case of West Slavic speakers, originally kindred languages diverged when the Poles, Czechs and Slovaks became parts of different countries (Poland, Bohemia, Kingdom of Hungary, respectively), Slovak becoming considerably influenced by Czech after 1400/1500. A political division (Austria, Kingdom of Hungary) also marks the now well-established border between the Slovenian and Croatian language areas, even if some bordering dialects of the two languages indicate an almost smooth transition.

Despite their frequent lack of political power, Slavs demonstrated resilience, sometimes culturally taking over foreign political rulers, as in Bulgaria, where originally Turkic Bulgar overlords became Slavicized. Similarly, in the Republic of Dubrovnik, Croatian became an official language in parallel to Ragusan Dalmatian and Latin. Even under the Ottoman Empire, south-eastern Europe, except for Greece proper and Albanian, Romanian and Hungarian areas, remained Slavic speaking. In the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a Ruthenian dialect was an official language.

Nazi Germany, whose proponents claimed a racial superiority for the Germanic people, particularly over Semitic and Slavic people, plotted an enslavement of the Slavic people, and the reduction of their numbers by killing the majority of the population. As a result, a large number of people considered by the Nazis to have Slavic origins were slain during World War II.

  Religion and alphabet
Religion and alphabet

Slavs gradually adopted Christianity between 6th and 10th century, and consequently the old Slavic religion was suppressed. The two main Christian denominations with Slavs are Eastern Orthodox and Greek or Roman Catholic, while a few are Protestant or Muslim. The delineations by nationality can be very sharp. In many Slavic ethnic groups the vast majority of religious people share the same religion, although many are atheist or agnostic; in the latter cases people still may traditionally associate themselves with a particular religion in a cultural and historical sense.

1. Those who are mainly Eastern Orthodox or Greek Catholic with small Roman Catholic minorities:
  • Russians

  • Ukrainians

  • Belarusians

  • Serbs

  • Pannonian Rusyns

  • Rusyns

  • Bulgarians

  • Macedonians

  • Montenegrins

2. Those who are mainly Roman Catholic with small Protestant minorities:
  • Poles

  • Silesians

  • Kashubians

  • Czechs

  • Moravians

  • Slovaks

  • Slovenes

  • Croats

  • Bunjevci

  • Šokci

  • Krashovans

3. Those who are mainly Muslim:
  • Bosniaks

  • Gorani

  • Pomaks (Muslim Bulgarians)

  • Torbesh (Muslim Macedonians)

  • Muslims by nationality


4. Those who are a religious mixture:
  • Sorbs (Catholic/Protestant)

  • Yugoslavs (Catholic/Orthodox/Muslim)

The Orthodox/Catholic religious divisions become further exacerbated by the use of the Cyrillic alphabet (*) by the Orthodox and Greek Catholics and of the Roman alphabet by Roman Catholics. However, the Serbian language (including Montenegrin) can be written using both the Cyrillic and Roman alphabets (privately, Latinic tends to be more popular, particularly among the youth).

There is also a Latinic script to write in Belarusian, called the Lacinka alphabet. The Bosnian language has at times been written using the Arabic alphabet (mostly in Muslim documents), but it now uses the Roman (in Bosniak, Croat, and Serb areas) and Cyrillic alphabet (in Serb areas).

(*) They devised the Cyrillic script on the basis of the Glagolitic. Cyrillic gradually replaced Glagolitic as the alphabet of the Old Church Slavonic language, which became the official language of the Bulgarian Empire and later spread to the Eastern Slav lands of Kievan Rus'. Cyrillic eventually spread throughout most of the Slavic world to become the standard alphabet in the Orthodox Slavic countries. Hence, Cyril and Methodius' efforts also paved the way for the spread of Christianity throughout Eastern Europe.
Cyril and Methodius, two patrons of Europe.

Ethno-cultural subdivisions    
Ethno-cultural subdivisions

Slavs are customarily divided into three major subgroups: East Slavs, West Slavs, and South Slavs, each with a different and a diverse background based on unique history, religion and culture of particular Slavic group within them. The East Slavs may all be traced to Slavic-speaking populations that were loosely organized under the Kievan Rus' empire beginning in the 9th century A.D. Almost all of the South Slavs can be traced to ethnic Slavs who mixed with the local population of the Balkans (Illyrians, Thracians, Macedonians, Dacians and Getae) and with later invaders from the East (Bulgars, Avars, and Alans), then fell under the hegemony of the Ottoman Empire.

The West Slavs do not share either of these backgrounds, as they expanded to the West and integrated into the cultural sphere of Western (Roman Catholic) Christianity around this timeframe.

Please note that some of the subdivisions remain highly debatable, particularly for smaller groups and national minorities.