Slav and slave

The Romans called their slaves servus, which gave the modern English servant. The word slavus or sclavus did not exist in Latin when it was a live language in the Roman Empire.

The Ancient Greeks called their slaves doulos (δούλος), the word sklavos did not exist in Ancient Greek.

The first known record of the word that gave the Modern English slave is in a Greek work from the 10th century, but it probably entered the language earlier.

The Byzantine Empire used to have continual wars with the Slavs who migrated into the Balkans from around the 6th century. The Greeks borrowed and adapted the Slavs' own name as sklavos (σκλάβος). It became the Greek name for the Slavs, but with considerable numbers of Slavic warriors falling into captivity, the word also became an alternative word for "slave" while doulos (δούλος) remained the standard word for "slave."

The word sklavos jumped from Greek to the Latin documents of Central and Western Europe in the 10th century, long after Latin ceased to be a living language. Medieval Latin documents modified it to sclavus and used it in the two senses that developed in Byzantium, "Slav" and "slave." Medieval European Latin, in turn, became the source of the Modern English word slave.

Capable of words

The Slavs' own name, based on slovo, "word," originally identified a person "capable of (intelligible) words," i.e., someone they understood, a person who spoke the same language. The others, speakers of incomprehensible languages, were "mumblers."

The Ancient Slavs' word for "mumbler" was nemec (it also described speech-impaired people, because their sounds were not understood). Nemec first referred to any "alien," i.e., anyone who did not speak Slavic, but because the Germanic people were the Slavs' major incomprehensible neighbors, Nemec eventually limited its meaning to "Germanic" and then "German." It was picked up by the Ugric tribes (ancestors of the modern Hungarians) after they reached Central Europe, and gave the Hungarian német.

Fame and glory?

The occasional misled claims about the word for the Slavs coming from the word slava, meaning "glory, fame," confuse the direction of the development. Both the word for the Slavs and the word for "glory, fame" come from slovo, meaning "word," but the words for a Slav and for glory were not derived from each other.

Before the existence of writing and the media, one could become famous, gain glory only through the word of mouth.

On the one hand, slovo, "word," was modified and acquired the meaning of "a person capable of intelligible words, an understandable person," i.e., a Slav.

On the other hand, slovo, "word," was modified in a different way and acquired the meaning of "a person who is talked about a lot," i.e., someone famous, glorious, from which the noun slava, "fame, glory" was derived.

What's in a name?

Nation-branding adviser Simon Anholt tells the BBC about confusing Slovakia and Slovenia (click):


I am grateful to Edward T. Surkosky of FCSU, Windber, PA, for his survey of documents.

Slovak, Slavic, Slavonic...

Q: What's the difference?

The Slavs were a people who spoke the Ancient Slavic language about 2,000 years ago. They probably lived north-east of today's Slovakia, some suggest they may have been in Central Europe too. Slovak archeologists and historians assume that they began to reach present-day Slovakia's territory sometime after 500 CE, and that by about 600 CE at the latest, some were already there.

The ancient language has since separated into a number of languages that include Slovak, Polish, Rusyn, Croatian, Russian – over a dozen altogether. Each of them is a Slavic language. They belong to the family of Slavic languages, because they have Ancient Slavic as their common ancestor.

British English uses the word Slavonic instead, Slavic and Slavonic mean the same. Slovak is a Slavic or a Slavonic language. (See table at bottom.)

Switch to country names

The Slavs had populated a large part of Central Europe and many other areas by around 800 CE. As countries began to emerge around them, many adopted the name of the country as their own: the Slavs who found themselves in the Kingdom of Poland began to call themselves Poles, the Slavs in the Margraviate of Moravia called themselves Moravians, etc.

Slav names Kingdom of Hungary

Some Slavs were incorporated in countries whose names were already linked to speakers of non-Slavic languages. Those Slavs were able to retain their original name, because it distinguished them from the other people in their own country and soon also from the Slavs in the neighboring countries who replaced their original name with a country designation.

That was the case with the Slovaks in the Kingdom of Hungary, with the Slovenes, who were incorporated in the expanding German-Austrian realm, and a few other groups whose languages have since disappeared. As the Slovaks' (and Slovenes') word for themselves and the Slavs underwent historical changes, it ceased to refer to all the Slavs and came to mean only them. That is why the words are similar. These nations (the Slovaks and Slovenes) also developed new words to use in the general meaning of "a Slav" and "Slavic."


Slovak and the West Slavic (Slavonic in British English) languages (yellow); other Slavic languages (dark yellow); English and other Germanic languages (purple). Like Slovak is a Slavic language, English (as well as German, Norwegian, and others) is a Germanic language. Germanic has a wider meaning than German, and Slavic has a wider meaning than Slovak (or Slovene).

Slavish, Slovac, Slavack...

As long ago as in 1845 a letter to a U.S. newspaper clarified the difference between on the one hand speaking specifically about the Slovaks and on the other hand about the Slavs (Slaviane, as the author called them) in a general sense:


But when the immigrants used English in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were often as uncertain of the English versions of their ethnic names as the Americans were confounded by the similarity. In addition to calling their fraternals and parishes Slovak, some Slovak-Americans would name them Slovac and Slavish. The word Slovak had generally replaced other versions in the names of Slovak-American organizations by the mid-1920s. Although not as common in Slovak-American documents, English-language sources also used Slavack, Slovish, and similar words. Context is usually required to clarify whether the reference was to the Slovaks, Slavs, or Slovenes.

Country Language Person Adjective Note
Slovakia Slovak Slovak Slovak

-ian is not used by official Slovak sources.
Slovenia Slovene or Slovenian Slovene or Slovenian Slovene or Slovenian Both used officially.

(or Slavonic)
Slav Slavic

(or Slavonic)
Historical or modern language family.
Church Slavic

(or Slavonic)
Church Slavic

(or Slavonic)
Byzantine and Orthodox religious language.
Old Church Slavic

(or Slavonic)
Old Church Slavic
(or Slavonic)
Slavs' religious language from 863 CE
Old Slavic
Ancient Slavic (Slavonic)
Old Slav
Ancient Slav
Old Slavic
Ancient Slavic (Slavonic)
Sometimes used about Slavs before ca. 900 CE
Slavonia (Slavonian) Slavonian Territory in Croatia.
  (Slovincian)     Extinct.